This heartwarming and heartbreaking middle grade novel is honest and layered and true. THE BEST AT IT by first-time author Maulik Pancholy made me laugh out loud (for real, not in the LOL sense) on one page and then gasp in despair on the next. The main character Rahul is about to start 7th grade with a loving and supportive family and best friend Chelsea on one side and a score of challenges on the other. Pancholy manages to create a host of characters readers will care about and root for while addressing racism, homophobia, identity struggles, bullying, and mental health with empathy and care.
Rahul Kapoor is a first generation Indian boy who struggles with trying to avoid sticking out in a school where jocks rule and white kids are the vast majority. Thanks to a wonderful grandfather, known as Bhai, Rahul has decided that this school year he’s going to find something cool and be “the best at it” in order to make this the best year ever. He tries football — and sprains his ankle in tryouts. He tries auditioning — and is told he’s not the right “type.” (The entire audition scene is at once hilarious and stomach-turning as Rahul and Chelsea cake on pale makeup in preparation and react to overt racism in real time.) When Rahul finally listens to his friends and himself and goes out for the math team, The Mathletes, he seems to hit his stride despite joining a “nerdfest.”
A central conflict for Rahul is how much to embrace his Indian heritage. He is immersed at home, thanks to his immediate family and his extended family of Aunties and Uncles. However, Rahul restrains himself at school and in public, and even seems embarrassed or ashamed of being “too Indian” at times. The bullying and teasing from a boy named Brent doesn’t help. Pancholy sets up several opportunities for Rahul to grow and learn to love who he is and what that means through various characters and difficult situations. Masterful.
Rahul also struggles with a growing awareness of his gayness, and his inner dialogue is so authentic and true to life that many middle grade readers will relate. Even how his complicated feelings about his attractions affect other people (like Jenny, who asks Rahul to the dance) is addressed. Similarly, as his stress grows, so does his obsession with tics that ensure his safety, like checking locks five times, checking the stove five times, and making sure his bed is not too close to outlets to avoid starting a fire. Both of these realizations grow organically throughout the novel, and Pancholy weaves other characters’ reactions and concerns for Rahul delicately and realistically.
Readers will find the characters in THE BEST AT IT delightful and lovable. Even the bully gets a thread of humanity throughout, and towards the end a partial reveal that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but maybe explains it a little. Also appreciated is that there is no perfection in the resolution, but much like life, there are lessons learned to help the characters move forward.