Twelve-year-old Pavi Sharma, who has bounced from foster home to foster home, has become a small-business owner of sorts: For a fee (Hot Cheetos), she teaches other foster children what she has learned.
When she learns that 5-year-old Meridee is to be placed in Pavi’s traumatic first foster home, she pulls together a ragtag gang—her foster mother’s biological son, Hamilton; his best friend, Piper; and Santos, a formidable eighth grader who is also a foster child—in order to save Meridee from Pavi’s fate. Pavi reads like a standard-issue plucky and quirky (she likes Cheetos and stationery) middle-grade heroine. She is Indian American, but she has no real connection to her cultural background even though she lived with her troubled, Hindi-speaking mother till she was 9. Indeed, Marjorie, Pavi’s current foster mother, makes an effort to learn to make “Indian food,” including a “few types of curries” and “treats like samosas and biryani,” but Pavi is actively incurious. Whether this is due to trauma or not, the failure of the narrative to flesh out her background leaves readers with a flattened, generic sense of India and its cultures. The book includes a fun subplot involving Piper’s YouTube beauty channel and Hamilton’s participation in a goth makeup tutorial. But readers will want to know more about Pavi’s past and her place in the world, beyond just being a foster child. Meridee and Santos are children of color, reflecting foster-child demographics, while Marjorie, Hamilton, and Piper are white.
In divorcing this protagonist of color from her background, this novel misses the mark. (Fiction. 8-12)