In Newbery Honor author Veera Hiranandani’s latest novel for young readers, How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, 12-year-old protagonist Ariel Goldberg is dealing with a lot. Her family’s Jewish bakery is faltering. At school, she struggles with dysgraphia and is faced with antisemitism. And her beloved older sister has just eloped with a man from India following the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision. Her sister’s flight fractures the family, and Ariel pushes against her parents’ ingrained beliefs. She eventually finds courage, conviction, and her voice in the process, through poetry and public speaking. PW spoke with Hiranandani about reimagining her family stories—Hiranandani’s white, Jewish mother and Indian, Hindu father were married in 1968— intersectionality, and recipe testing.
This is your second historical novel. What is your research process like?
I think about a book for a long time before I write it because it’s coming from a personal place, connected to me via my family history or my own experiences. I knew how my parents got married in 1968 and what that was like for them. I knew how my mother’s side of the family handled it and how my father’s side of the family handled it. I knew all these personal family details. [In this book], I explore my mother’s side of the family and imagine what it would be like to be a child with two Jewish parents. Being a biracial kid with two religions in my family, I had always imagined what it would be like to have two parents like my mom or two parents like my dad. [The book] goes into personal feelings about my own connection to Judaism and the white, Jewish side of my family—how that feels and the complications and joy in that. I’m very connected culturally to the Jewish side of my family. There are complexities in this identity: the privilege of being white and also being part of a historically marginalized persecuted group, and being both things at once.
Then I started researching: what was the world like for [my parents] aside from in the family sphere? What do I need to know about what was or was not unusual for what they did? What were the expectations for people at that time? What was going on in the larger scope of the country? I read books and watched documentaries and talked to people, but also kept talking to my parents and relatives, just trying to weave it all together. I was also coming up with a fictional story, and deciding what lens I wanted to put on this time and space that’s inspired by my family experience.
How did you come to the decision to use the second person?
I’ve always had a fascination with the second person point of view. I love how it forces the reader to be the main character—whether you want to be or not—while at the same time, being a separate character. It’s also strange in a way, and uncomfortable and off-putting sometimes. I wrote my first novel in second person. I changed it, but I always wanted to try again. It [finally] felt right to try it with this character because of her specific situation. She’s living in Connecticut as a Jewish girl with two Jewish parents and part of a small Jewish community. She is lonely in school and has some learning differences. All these things make her feel outside of things. My editor, Namrata Tripathi, was supportive of my risk taking. There were times where [the second person] didn’t quite work or felt awkward. We kept working on it. I revised it a million times, but the essence of it was there from the beginning.
Baked goods are ever-present in the story. Can you tell us about that?
My grandmother’s parents owned a deli in Brooklyn and my husband’s grandparents owned a bakery. I love incorporating food and representing characters with food, and I just went there with cookies this time. I tested some of the recipes. I made the black and whites and rugelach. I ate plenty of rainbow cookies. Maybe someday I’ll feel gutsy enough to make them.
Have you shared the book with family members and, if so, how have they reacted?
My mom read many drafts. She was helpful because she worked as a special education teacher in the ’60s and was also a school psychologist. Ariel deals with some learning differences. [My mother] was helpful in giving me context and sharing her experiences. And then, of course, the little details and the food and the choices they might’ve made and the choices they did make. She was with me all the way. She was very moved by it. “It’s so strange, but also amazing to see so many parts of my story in this book,” she said.
This is your first novel after receiving the Newbery Honor. Did the writing feel any different?
It was so different, for so many reasons. I sold this book before I finished it. Namrata was seeing raw drafts. That was scary. I certainly felt pressure to follow up what other people had validated as a good book. At the same time, I lost myself in the story. It’s hard to write a book and that didn’t feel any easier, but I tried to push away the pressure.
How do you think this book resonates in the present moment?
I don’t want to see these histories repeat themselves, and yet here we were. I was writing about 1967, doing research on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panther movement and protests and racial unrest, and I found myself in local protests and rallies for Black Lives Matter. White supremacy is still here, very much alive, very much affecting all of our lives, and the fight is still going. Not that I didn’t think that was true, but it felt heartbreaking while I was writing this book. Ariel is protected in a way, but she’s thinking about these issues in a way she’s never had before. She’s watching her sister make a decision that forces her whole family to consider who they are in society and who they are racially.
What do you hope readers take away?
I hope that they want to keep turning the page, that they find it satisfying to be immersed in the story. I would also like for people, no matter what background they have, to be a little more conscious of who they are in the world and of their responsibility for themselves and for others. To think: how do I feel different? How do I feel part of a community? How do other people around me feel? Can I be both marginalized and privileged at the same time? A lot of times we think of it in black and white terms. I’m constantly wrestling with that on so many levels. If you are marginalized in a certain way, it doesn’t mean you might not have an enormous amount of privilege in another way. You have to give both their due.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to The Night Diary. If you go through a traumatic time in history, often we see stories like the one I created. But what happens after you survive? You’re trying to rebuild your life. I’m exploring how the family from The Night Diary rebuilds after their traumatic experience and how they’re both strengthened and weakened by that.
How to Find What You’re Not Looking for by Veera Hiranandani. Kokila, $17.99 Sept. 14 ISBN 978-0-525-55503-2