Veera Hiranandani’s How to Find What You're Not Looking for is a book that stays with you long after you have read it. The book explores difficult questions concerning religious and cultural differences that divide our society. This book also questions the meaning of religion and culture and their significance in everyday life. Is religion so important that you could sacrifice your family for it?
The book is set in 1977 when young Ariel is about to start middle school. Ariel’s older sister, Leah, falls in love with an Indian man whose name is Raj. Ariel and Leah’s parents do not approve of this relationship because Raj is not Jewish. They are adamant about preserving their Jewish culture and heritage and forbid Leah’s relationship with Raj. The Supreme Court had recently banned state laws that forbid inter-racial marriages. Leah is so upset and disappointed at her parents stunning narrow-mindedness that she elopes with Raj. Ariel’s family pretends not to care and seem to go on with their lives as if Leah was not a part of their family any more. Ariel, who has a close and loving relationship with her sister, struggles to understand Leah’s decision to run away from home and her parents’ intolerance toward non-Jewish people.
That is not the only problem Ariel has to deal with. Ariel’s family owns a bakery that will have to be sold and her family will have to move away from their home. During these difficult times, Ariel turns to poetry for support. She finds a new teacher who can advocate for her and help her with writing, which has always been hard for her because of a learning disability. Writing poetry helps Ariel cope with her feelings of loss, anti-semitism that she experiences, family tensions, and her confusion and disappointment over the intolerance of the adults around her.
This book is a revelation on multiple levels. Much like Ariel, I was stunned at how the Ariel and Leah’s parents could be so stone-hearted. In discussing the plot of the book with my family and researching inter-faith marriages in India, my own heritage, I was surprised to learn that while the majority of Indian people think it is important to respect all religions, a staggering proportion of people oppose inter-faith marriages and think it is important to stop inter-faith marriages. The same research finds that many Indians would prefer keeping people who practice a different faith away from their neighborhoods. While people in America may be more open to inter-faith marriages today, most Americans still marry within their faith. At the same time, political, ideological, racial and ethnic polarization is a defining feature of contemporary American life.
My family does not practice religion so I was intrigued at the impact religion could have on people’s decisions and their lives. Frankly, I never really understood how religion could be so important to some people that it could control your whole life, make you sacrifice your relationships, and not let you be with whom you love. It seems to me that some people are scared of letting go of their culture. It is hard for them to accept that culture changes and grows over time. They want their culture to stay the same.
Another revelation was learning how healing poetry can be. I JUST LOVED Ariel’s poems in this book. They reveal Ariel’s state of mind and her feelings incisively. In fact, Veera Hiranandani writes from a second-person point of view, which puts you (the reader) in Ariel’s shoes. This second person perspective immersed me in Ariel’s feelings, made me imagine the vivid scenery, feel close to Ariel, and helped me engage with story, rather than read it passively. This approach, in combination with poetry written from Ariel’s perspective and unique abilities, highlights the author’s extraordinary talent, creativity, and empathy. This approach makes the characters and setting extremely well drawn, making the reader a part of the story (as opposed to a passive viewer). I believe that there could not have been a better way to approach such a difficult and complex topic and make it accessible for children and youth, all without making it simplistic.
How to Find What You're Not Looking for is an intriguing title. I have concluded that the title is just like poetry. It can be interpreted in different ways and its meaning can change depending on the person’s experiences. For me, this title and the book is about how to deal with change and how to learn from those changes -- joyous and sorrowful, expected and unexpected. The unexpected and sad events in Ariel’s life help her cultivate her own thoughts, talents, and independence.
I was so inspired by the first Veera Hiranandani book I read and reviewed for the Stone Soup blog, The Night Diary. This book is equally inspiring and thought provoking. I am convinced after reading this book that we should do more to encourage meaningful interactions and friendships with people from different religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds at an early age. Exposure to books like How to Find What You're Not Looking for is one such meaningful interaction. I strongly recommend it for readers of all ages for this very reason.
How to Find What You're Not Looking for by Veera Hiranandani. Kokila, 2021. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!