Troublemaker, by John Cho (Little, Brown, 2022)
Review by Valerie Ooka Pang
This review was originally published in the International Examiner and is republished with permission.
Korean American actor John Cho has written Troublemaker, an excellent novel for middle-school students about racism, a Korean American family, and the bonds of a son with his father. Cho lived in Everett for part of his young adult years and remembers going to the local Fred Meyer supermarket, and while his parents shopped, he would visit the book section and read a chapter in the novel, First Blood. Every week while his parents were purchasing their weekly groceries, John would read another chapter.
Jordan Park, a 12-year-old, is always in trouble unlike Sarah, his perfect sister, a junior in high school. As a Korean American kid, he cannot live up to the expectations of his parents, especially his father. Jordan picks poor friends and gets suspended from school for cheating on tests. He does not want to tell his parents about his suspension. He thinks he can prove to his family that he is not a bad kid.
The Park family lives in Los Angeles, and his father has a store in Koreatown. It is 1992 when race riots rock the city. Rodney King is beaten by four White police officers. Latasha Harlins is shot and killed by a Korean shop owner who says she thought the teen was shoplifting. The police found that Latasha had the money for the juice in her hand and was not stealing. Racial tensions are high.
Jordan and Sarah find themselves in this confusing and dangerous time. Jordan wants to help his father protect their store because the police do not do much for shop owners in Koreatown, but he can’t find a ride to the shop. His friend takes him part of the way, but then he leaves him at a neighborhood hangout. His sister worries and tries to find him.
In the end, Jordan learns a valuable lesson about guns from his father. He grows up a lot during that summer. This is a coming-of-age story of a young Korean American male and a portrait of his Korean American family. The dialogue pushes the story line forward and is a major element in creating an engaging novel.
Troublemaker provides an excellent opportunity for teachers and parents to talk about family relationships and how sometimes communications in the family get misinterpreted. The story emphasizes the dad’s love for his son though the son does not realize how much his father cares for him. Teachers can also have students talk about the racial conflicts between Blacks and Koreans, and police and communities of color. Though the story does not take on racial discord head on, it provides openings for educators to talk about the problems among communities of color. This book is extremely timely especially since there is so much anti-Asian hate in the nation today.