Friday, June 09, 2023

The Many Masks of Andy Zhou

Cheng, Jack. The Many Masks of Andy Zhou
June 6, 2023 by Dial Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Andy's parents moved to the US with him from Shanghai to Detroit when he was very young. They live in a duplex next to his best friend Cindy's family, and the two spend a lot of time together. As they enter middle school, Cindy wants to shake things up. She bleaches her hair blonde and coaxes Andy to do the same, but his hair becomes a mottled orange. She also wants Andy to join a Movement group at school that is adapting Lord of the Flies as a dance. He's not super comfortable with this, especially since Jameel, his lab partner, makes fun of him. Andy also has to deal with his grandparents visiting and taking his room. He is glad to see them, and doesn't mind, but it adds some extra wrinkles to his life. When he and his grandmother go to the store where his mother works to get groceries, they run into Jameel, who is nice to him and doesn't call him names. The two make an uneasy peace; Jameel (who is Chaldean- his family is Christian and from Iraq) is nice to him when they are alone but tends to be meaner or ignore him when they are at school. It's good to have a new friend, especially since Cindy is starting to hang out with other girls who dress just like her. Andy's grandfather isn't doing well, and Andy realizes that he has probably come for a last visit. Andy ends up working on the sets for the production instead of acting in it, and both advisors think he has quite the talent for it, but he is feeling stressed about the many things going on in his life. He manifests this by pulling out his hair so much that he creates a small bald spot on his head. Will Andy be able to figure out how to get along with his friends, understand his family, and deal with the pressures of everyday life. 
Strengths: Middle school students seem to lose at least one friend, and it's always traumatic. It's especially hard for girls and boys to remain friends, but it is becoming more common. The relationship with Jameel made sense, and had realistic complications. I loved how well the dialogue was portrayed; when it was in Shanghaiese, it is in italics, and the English spoken is not always standard. This usually bothers me, but it was effective in this case. While I had a hard time believing that there was a dance version of Lord of the Flies, the details about the set design and performance worked well with the rest of the plot. The family dynamics were what really sold this one, and I wanted to know more about exactly where in Detroit this was set. (I lived for six months in Clawson, Michigan years ago, so might have driven by Andy's neighborhood.)
Weaknesses: I could have used more elucidation for Jameel's identification as Chaldean. It is not a term I was familiar with, and even our ESL teacher was not aware of it. This was a bit on the long side, and was more contemplative than some middle grade titles. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed this author's See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan but are more interested in a school story told in a more traditional way. The grandparent plot reminded me a tiny bit of Shang's The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and the family dynamics in the neighborhood a bit of Kelkar's As American as Paneer Pie. This is the second book I've read featuring body-focused repetitive behavior; the first is Sales' new The Museum of Lost and Found.

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