A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book is a sure hit with both male and female middle school readers. The dialogue keeps the tone light while the book touches on heavy themes, including lying by the main character (for starters, he's adopted from China and tells peers his whole family is Chinese), a con-artist abusive father in jail, a mother and son struggling financially, another mother deserting her daughter and husband, and a bully punching the main character. There's some mild wishful romance, and at the end there is a lesson about facing the truth.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Eighth grader San Lee moves to Pennsylvania with his mother and starts yet another new school. His father is serving time for some cons performed across the country, dragging the family along each time. Being the new kid, San is trying to figure out who to pretend to be to fit in with his peers. He impresses his teacher and classmates with his answers on Zen so he becomes San, the Zen kid at school. He sits on a rock meditating before school, wears socks with sandals in winter, and professes not to need any \"earthly attachments.\"
Except he has a big crush on a female classmate. They work on a project together, share details about their lives (his are all lies), but he thinks the attraction is largely based on him being an expert on Zen. They volunteer together at a soup kitchen and teach the B level school basketball team how to use Zen in the game. San's new life is going well, but of course eventually his lies will have to catch up with him.
Is it any good?
Teen readers will relate to San's attitudes toward his classmates -- bullies, girls, jocks -- and his awkwardness around other kids. But the author missed an opportunity to talk more about racial attitudes and stereotypes; it's all handled too subtly. Ultimately San teaches readers what happens when lies are revealed, that is, about the importance of character and humility.
Who wants to stand out in the middle school years? Certainly not San Lee, the main character in ZEN AND THE ART OF FAKING IT. There's so much going on in San's head that his insight into his world -- though it seems unrealistically developed for his age -- is a real treat for the reader. His crush on a female classmate is full of authentic details, he relates his anger toward his father to his constant lying to classmates, and his self-deprecating humor and sarcasm are spot-on funny.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about where San went wrong. He lies to everyone, yet why do readers feel empathy for him? Do you think his actions are forgivable? Are the challenges of San and his peers realistic? In the end did Buddhism actually give San the strength to face those he hurt?