February 2007 Reading List
Sunday Afternoon Visits: March 4

Nothing but the Truth: Justina Chen Headley

I'd been meaning to read Justina Chen Headley's Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) ever since reading rave reviews of the book by the Cybils Young Adult Fiction committee. And then Justina approached me about her new project, readergirlz, and I became a fan for life without even having to read the book. Fortunately, however, I ran across a copy on the new books shelf at my local library, and finally had time this weekend to sit down and devour it.

Nothing but the Truth is about fifteen-year-old Patty Ho, daughter of a controlling Taiwanese mother and a long-absent American father. Patty struggles to find her place in a world where she's not fully Asian, but not fully white, confronting both egregious and subtle prejudices from both sides. She also struggles with something I could personally relate to, being good at math, but also wanting to write. Her struggles come to a head when her mother sends her to Stanford for the summer for math camp (a month-long program for gifted high school students). While there she encounters humiliation and heartbreak, but also gains self-confidence, friends, and insight into her own family history.

Nothing but the Truth is a joy to read. Patty practically leaps forth from the page, fully three-dimensional. I refuse to believe that she isn't real. Every paragraph reveals something about her, or her family, or what it's like to be hapa (the Hawaiian word for someone who is half-white and half-Asian). Her mother, with her strengths and weaknesses, temper tantrums and quirks, feels real, too. Life at Stanford during summer session is also fully realized - the book is chock full of insider information about the university.

I particularly enjoyed the writing style in this book. Humorous, yet lyrical, and dripping with (frequently Asian-tinged) metaphors, and the angst of a teenage girl. For example:

Mama breathes in sharply. She must be smelling my exasperation polluting the air. (page 13)

"O-kayyy." Anne drags out the last syllable as if it's a hoe, raking through the intractable soil of my rudeness. (page 76)

I'm here because I don't want to be up in the Pacific Northwest where it's always overcast with disappointment and showering anger. (page 108)

Under the Dish that scans planets and distant galaxies, I know that the world -- the universe -- is bigger than high school and Mark Scranton and Steve Kosanko and their edamame-bean brains. That it's bigger than Mama and math camp. That maybe I am Zebra-woman, trapped behind black-and-white bars of my own making. (page 110)

Here's another passage that I enjoyed, because it reveals Patty's isolation from her fellow-campers (at least in her own mind), and something about her preferences too.

Later, as I sit in the common room with my fellow campers, listening to them discuss the problem (how to break a chocolate bar into small squares, with a minimum number of breaks), I realize I truly have nothing in common with anyone here at all.

I would have answered, "Duh? Zero breaks. "That chocolate bar would never have had a chance to make it out of it's wrapper without me devouring it." (page 96)

Despite the tremendous depth and authenticity that Justina Chen Headley brings to her hapa and Asian characters, this is a book that will resonate with teenage girls from all sorts of backgrounds. Because what it's really about (as is clear from Patty's essay at the end of the book) is the struggle to balance the conflicts in yourself, whatever they are, and find your place in the world. This makes it a perfect first book for the readergirlz discussion group, focused on celebrating gutsy girls in life and literature. An example of Patty's place as a gutsy girl is this passage, in which she muses about facing down her fears.

Is attitude truly the only thing separating embarrassment from triumph? That a little sass could turn you from a social zero to a social hero? (page 174)

I highly recommend this book for anyone who revels in reading about strong girls. For additional background about the book, and discussion questions, check out the readergirlz site and MySpace page.

Book: Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)
Author: Justina Chen Headley
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Original Publication Date: April 2006
Pages: 256
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: The Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Chasing Ray, Fairrosa's Reading Journal, lectitans, Sara's Hold Shelf, propernoun.net, Reading YA: Reader's Rants, Big A little a, bookshelves of doom, Tea Cozy, Mitali's Fire Escape, and interactivereader, among others. See also Jackie's notes on meeting Justina at the ALA Conference.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.