Reviewed by Deborah Jung
Review Source: Teaching for Change
Book Author: John Cho
Troublemaker is a nuanced and emotionally rich middle grade chapter book recalling the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, or Sa-I-Gu, from the perspective of a young Korean American boy trying to find his father. The book’s protagonist, Jordan, is a Korean American seventh grader whose immigrant parents own a liquor store in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles. Jordan struggles in school and has been acting out recently, leading to tension with his parents. After the police officers who violently beat Black motorist Rodney King are acquitted, protests and riots erupt across Los Angeles, and Jordan becomes determined to prove himself by going to South Central to find his appa (father). Jordan and his best friend Mike, another “troublemaking” Korean American boy, undertake a dangerous journey across Los Angeles. Together, they face challenges to their friendship, confront serious issues such as racism and gun violence, and rely upon friendly strangers to make it to South Central safely.
This book takes on the unenviable task of portraying a topic as thorny as Black and Asian relations in a sufficiently complex and age-appropriate fashion. While Troublemaker frankly portrays the struggles of Korean Americans and the racism that they encounter as Asian immigrants, it also interrogates their participation in anti-Black violence, such as the murder of Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager, by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du.
Further, it points to larger structural issues of white supremacy and racialized poverty as the underlying source of the violence, not intrinsic differences between Koreans and African Americans. Although the story does not shy away from depicting the damage of the uprising, historical and social context for the riots is integrated into the story. For example, Mr. Gary, an older Black resident who helps Jordan and Mike, condemns the violence but explains the riots are an angry response to racial discrimination and the lack of economic opportunity within his community.
Some readers may be put off by the centrality of a gun to the book’s story — Jordan wants to find Appa to bring him his handgun, thinking that it will help him protect the family store. To be clear, the real-life violence retold in the book and discussions of guns may make this book inappropriate for younger readers. However, Jordan ultimately learns to be wary of the use of violence to solve problems. As Appa says, “I got the gun because I felt like the rules were different here. The police couldn’t protect us if anything bad happened . . . but then when I heard what happened to Latasha Harlins, I realized things aren’t so different here after all. People will make a lot of terrible choices in the name of protection.”
While a lesser book would point to armed self-defense or increased policing as the solution, Troublemaker reflects the ambivalent attitude that Korean immigrants held of law enforcement at the time and rejects violent isolation in favor of communal care. The story notes the lack of police intervention in South Central or protection of minority-owned businesses, drawing an implicit contrast with Radio Korea, which assisted Korean Americans during and after the uprising. Further, Jordan recalls the different people, from many different ethnic backgrounds, who assisted him and Mike: “Maybe we need to protect what’s ours. But we also need to protect each other. Maybe that’s the real kind of protection.” This message is particularly relevant in context of recent violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic, which led to a surge in gun buying among East and Southeast Asian Americans. Anti-Black rhetoric also increased among parts of the Asian American community because some high-profile attacks were committed by Black perpetrators. In contrast, Jordan witnesses the downsides to relying on violence or blaming other minority groups when trying to protect one’s own community.
Troublemaker tells a compelling story, while articulating heavy social themes. While Jordan initially starts off as impulsive and a little immature, the situations he encounters profoundly shape his character, and the decisions he makes seem realistic for a preteen boy in his situation.
The plot centers largely around Jordan’s familial relationships, especially with his father and sister, which are depicted with complexity. Middle grade readers of all backgrounds will likely relate to Jordan’s desire to find out who he is, his need to prove himself, and his struggle to handle his family’s expectations. While stories about Asian immigrant families often feature overbearing “tiger” parents, Troublemaker manages to humanize what can often be a flat trope through its depiction of Jordan’s appa. Appa’s sometimes harsh parenting is not excused, but his behavior is shown as the result of his anxieties as a working-class immigrant trying to give his family greater opportunities.
Another highlight is Jordan’s friendship with Mike. While Mike serves as comic relief throughout the book, the conflicts that arise in Jordan and Mike’s friendship will likely be relatable to readers who are themselves wrestling with how to handle disagreements with friends.
Since it is a middle grade book, the prose can occasionally seem a bit simplistic or flat. Additionally, I would have been interested in exploring existing relations between Jordan and other characters of color — the non-Koreans whom he meets on his journey are strangers whose presence does not extend beyond their interactions the night of the riots. However, since this book does take place in a single night, I recognize that such interactions may have been outside of the scope of the story.
Overall, Troublemaker tells an engaging coming-of-age story with complex characters and relationships. It also introduces middle-grade readers to complex social topics such as systemic racism, immigrant family dynamics, and police violence with nuance and sensitivity.
Deborah Jung is an intern with Teaching for Change for Summer 2023. She is a rising senior at Dartmouth College, where she is majoring in sociology and minoring in history.
See another review of Troublemaker here.
Troublemaker by John Cho
on March 7, 2023
Genres: Asian American
Reading Level: Grades 6-8
Review Source: Teaching for Change
Also by this author: Troublemaker
Publisher's Synopsis: An instant New York Times bestselller! An Indiebound bestseller! An Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book!
Troublemaker follows the events of the LA Riots through the eyes of 12-year-old Jordan as he navigates school and family. This book will highlight the unique Korean American perspective.
Twelve-year-old Jordan feels like he can't live up to the example his older sister set, or his parent's expectations. When he returns home from school one day hoping to hide his suspension, Los Angeles has reached a turning point. In the wake of the acquittal of the police officers filmed beating Rodney King, as well as the shooting of a young black teen, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean store owner, the country is at the precipice of confronting its racist past and present.
As tensions escalate, Jordan's father leaves to check on the family store, spurring Jordan and his friends to embark on a dangerous journey to come to his aide, and come to terms with the racism within and affecting their community.