Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Zen and the Art of Faking It, by Jordan Sonnenblick

Title:  Zen and the Art of Faking It
Author:  Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2007
Pages:  264
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, Family, First Love, Identity
Age Range:  5th Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
When eighth-grader San Lee moves to a new town and a new school for the umpteenth time, he doesn't try to make new friends or be a loner or play cool. Instead he sits back and devises a plan to be totally different. When he accidentally answers too many questions in World History on Zen (only because he just had Ancient Religions two schools ago) all heads turn and San has his answer: he's a Zen Master. And just when he thinks everyone (including the cute girl he can't stop thinking about) is on to him, everyone believes him . . . in a major Zen way.

I saw Jordan Sonnenblick speak at the Illinois Reading Council Conference this past March, and since then I have been on a mission to read all of his novels.  I had read After Ever After a couple of years ago, and I found it humorous and moving in a way that I don't always expect books about middle school age boys to be.  Sonnenblick, a former middle school English teacher, seems able to perfectly capture the angst, confusion, and general awkwardness of kids at the cusp of adolescence.

There are two things that I really love about this particular book.  The first is the fact that he uses the Zen philosophy as a framework for the events that take place.  While no one in the novel is actually practicing Zen Buddhism in any real way, kids who read it will get a glimpse of a religious cultural tradition that may be completely new to them.  Learning something new in the context of a really good story is never a bad thing.  The other thing that I really like about this book is the way that it looks at issues of family and identity.  San is Chinese, adopted by a white America family as an infant.  Raised by a con man and his hard working mother, who is apparently blinded by love to her husband's faults, San is basically taught that people are gullible rubes who can be manipulated to get you what you want.  When his father is arrested and imprisoned, San must question everything he's been taught about how the world works, and he completely rejects his father, refusing to talk to him.  But he finds himself acting like him, lying to people he cares about in an effort to reinvent himself, and keep people from knowing about his family's past.  Eventually San has to choose between being honest and jeopardizing his budding romance, or living a lie, just as his father did.  This struggle provides rich fodder for conversations about identity, how much our family affects who we are and who we become, and healthy relationships.