Red, White, and Whole
By Mary Eisenhart,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Emotional novel in verse follows 1983 Indian American teen.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Red, White, & Whole unfolds in short poems, each focused on a particular moment or subject, which may inspire budding poets to explore storytelling in their own work. Reha, and her parents even more, are very serious about education. The story takes place in 1983, and the narrator lives in two cultures, Indian and American, which offers a lot of opportunity to see both cultures up close. Much detail about Indian food including that some Indians are vegetarian and some aren't, as well as discussions with Reha's Jewish pal about what they can and can't eat), celebrations, family life and social customs like arranged marriages. There's also a lot of detail about medicine, health, and specifically blood cells (red and white) and leukemia. The Sword in the Stone, part of a class project, inspires discussion of what makes a hero.
Strong messages of love, family, friendship, support, cultural appreciation, and being there for each other even if you can't fix everything. Also studying hard and focusing on your goals.
Positive Role Models
There really aren't any negative characters here, as family and friends are all doing their best in difficult situations, grappling with the illness and death of loved ones (past and present), doing what they can to show support and help out even when they can't make the bad thing better. Thirteen-year-old Reha starts out conflicted between the world of her loving, strict parents, who immigrated from India, and the world of school, friends, MTV, and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." And as her mother becomes seriously ill, Reha struggles to be perfect enough to make her get better. Her parents are strong and devoted to her and to each other; their extended family in the U.S. and in India stays connected and supportive. Her school friends and their families also provide empathy and practical help in difficult times. Reha says of them 'it turns out I have yet another family, one I never thought to call my own."
Violence & Scariness
No violence per se, but a lot of coping with death, as Reha's mom becomes desperately ill with leukemia. Reha turns for comfort and inspiration to an Indian legend about a virtuous wife who outwits Death to save her beloved husband, and she strives to be perfect enough to save her mom against the odds. In the past, beloved relatives in India have died and their family members still grieve for them. Blood is also a strong theme, from Reha's birth in a pool of it and later tendency to faint at the sight of it to medical labs where Reha's mom works on blood samples.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Some romantic attraction between 13-year-olds, who are happy to have time together at a school dance. A bit of hand-holding and a brief kiss.
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Products & Purchases
Many references to brand names, music artists, and pop culture in 1983: MTV, the Go-Gos, Cyndi Lauper, Family Ties. A teen whose father has left the family takes comfort in Luke Skywalker's coping with the discovery that Darth Vader is his father. Another is thrilled to get a Walkman for Christmas.
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Red, White, and Whole, by Rajani Larocca, a 2022 Newbery Honor Book, is the story of an Indian American 13-year-old in 1983. Torn between her immigrant parents' traditions and expectations and her own friends and MTV, turmoil gives way to far greater pressures when her mom is diagnosed with leukemia. (The title resonates both with the colors of the American flag and the colors of blood cells, which are important to the story.) The author, also Indian American, came to the United States as a small child, went on to become a doctor as well as an author, and draws on her own experiences for protagonist Reha, who tells the story in a series of short poems. There's a lot about the food, music, clothing, religious beliefs, and social practices (including arranged marriage) of different cultures -- as well as a lot of eye-rolling ignorance ("'Do you speak Indian?'") that characters deal with regularly. Family and friends rise to challenges in many sweet, heart-soaring moments. Death is a theme, a character, and a force with which various characters battle.
Where to Read
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What's the Story?
RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE, set in the Boston area in 1983, finds 13-year-old Reha torn between the traditions and expectations of her Indian-immigrant parents, and just being a regular, MTV-loving American teen. She's also conflicted because she dreams of being a doctor -- but faints at the sight of blood. She's hoping her parents, who are big on studying and not thinking about boys, will let her join her friends at the school dance, where she may get to dance with her cute study partner Pete. But when her beloved mom is diagnosed with leukemia, it pushes such concerns to the side, as Reha's determined to do whatever it takes to make her mom better.
Is It Any Good?
Rajani Larocca translates her own experience as an '80s kid in two worlds into a relatable, emotional story. Reha is torn between her immigrant parents' expectations and the unfolding world of school, friends, and MTV. Red, White, and Whole is packed with engaging characters and the realization that nobody's got all the answers to fix life troubles, but bad times are less bad when your loved ones are there for you. Narrated by 13-year-old Reha in a series of lively, thought-provoking verses, it's a heart-filled exploration of family, friendship, and finding your own path.
"No Date Nights for these Indian parents.
They never go out without their children,
not like the parents in my neighborhood
who are so happy to pay me
to watch their little kids
while they go out to dinner,
hold hands at the movies.
"Our parents must love each other,
but they never say so.
They never hold hands,
let alone kiss, like people on TV
or the parents of my friends at school.
Our parents tell us they love us,
but to each other, it’s like they are roommates
who decided to raise children together.
Their marriages were arranged.
I wonder how different things would be if they chose their partners.
"And I wonder what’s in store for me.”
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the experiences of families like Reha's in Red, White, and Whole, where the parents immigrate to the United States and their kids grow up in a very different world. What's that like for the kids? What's it like for the parents?
Red, White,and Whole is set in 1983. If the story took place today, what do you think would be different, for the characters and the worlds they live in?
How do stories like Star Wars or King Arthur tales offer real-life lessons about the challenges we all face? Or do they?
- Author: Rajani LaRocca
- Genre: Poetry
- Topics: Friendship, Great Boy Role Models, Great Girl Role Models, History, Middle School
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Quill Tree Books
- Publication date: February 2, 2021
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 8 - 12
- Number of pages: 224
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: Newbery Medal and Honors
- Last updated: January 24, 2022
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