The Secret Battle of Evan Pao

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secret battle of evan pao

Middle school can be a battlefield... From award-winning author Wendy Wan-Long Shang comes a poignant and timely take on prejudice, bullying, and claiming our own histories, perfect for fans of Front Desk.

A fresh start. That's all Evan Pao wants as he, along with his mother and sister, flee from California to Haddington, Virginia, hoping to keep his father's notoriety a secret.

But Haddington is a southern town steeped in tradition, and moving to a town immersed in the past has its own price. Although Evan quickly makes friends, one boy, Brady Griggs, seems determined to make sure that as a Chinese American, Evan feels that he does not belong. When Evan finds a unique way to make himself part of the school's annual Civil War celebration, the reaction is swift and violent. As all of his choices at home and at school collide, Evan must decide whether he will react with the same cruelty shown to him, or choose a different path.

Wendy Wan-Long Shang, the critically acclaimed author of Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award for Children's Literature winner The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, weaves a timely and deeply moving portrait of all the secret battles Evan Pao must fight as he struggles to figure out how he fits into this country's past and how he will shape its future.---from the publisher

272 pages                                  978-1338678857                                     Ages 9-13

Keywords:  middle school, Asian American, fitting in, belonging, bullying, prejudice and racism, family secrets, traditions, 9 year old, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old, Social Emotional Learning SEL, diversity, diverse books

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“A simple trip to the market, thought the streets were safe

Turned targets, I speak up for my people's sake

From this pandemic, I'm hopeful that we'll see escape

Until then, love's the only vaccine for hate”

– MC Jin and Wyclef Jean, “Stop the Hatred” (2021)

“During the playoffs, right before they ran out of the dugout, Mr. Nelson gripped Evan by the shoulder and told Evan that he was a good pitcher, and that he’d be proud of Evan no matter what happened. Just go out there and do your best.

The words were like a punch to the head. Evan felt dizzy, as if he were seeing double. In one frame, the coach was smiling and supportive, You’re a great pitcher! Just do your best! In the other frame, the coach was tense and unhappy, whispering, Just strike these guys out, okay? I really want to win. The coach wasn’t really saying those words, but Evan could hear the words of what the coach really wanted, slithering underneath the words he was saying out loud. There were two movies, playing side by side, but he could not get them to come into one coherent image.

Evan promptly ran out to the mound and threw up.”

Evan Pao has an unusual but unpleasant “gift”: He experiences significant physical discomfort when someone tells lies in his presence. His response is so reliable that his Mom has come to rely on Evan to judge the honesty of repairmen, real estate agents, and others that she needs to deal with.

The most unusual aspect of this phenomenon is that Evan never sussed out that his father was dishonest with him, his sister Celeste, and their mom. Dad persuaded their friends and neighbors to invest in a financial scheme he had developed, then disappeared with everyone’s investment money.

That’s why THE SECRET BATTLE OF EVAN PAO begins with Mom, Evan, and Celeste driving across the country, from California to Virginia. They’re moving away from Evan’s father’s victims, heading to the town where Mom’s brother, Uncle Joe now lives.

From their relatively cosmopolitan California community, Evan, Mom, and Celeste arrive in Haddington, Virginia, one of those old towns where so many of the families have been around for multiple generations. There Evan becomes the only non-white student in his class at Battlefield Elementary. It takes less than a minute for the class thug, Brady Griggs, to call out to Evan as to whether he has the China virus.

Evan’s  just-about-to-retire new teacher, Mrs. Norwood, has long organized an annual end-of-the-school-year Battlefield Day, when her class dresses in costume to commemorate the Civil War and parents run activities.

It turns out that Evan is a competent researcher and will surprise both the class and Mrs. Norwood regarding the fact that people who looked like him–Chinese Americans–fought in the Civil War. As I was surprised to learn, Evan also discovers that,

“Because of…the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese were not allowed to become citizens, not even someone who had fought in the war.”

Another significant thread in the story involves the stray dog that canine-loving Evan brings home, with Uncle Joe’s support. The lovable stray they name Mochi, has a few tricks of her own to reveal.

What would it be like to have a sibling or a friend who was a walking truth-o-meter?

THE SECRET BATTLE OF EVAN PAO is a lively and notable contemporary tween tale that tackles Asian hatred, contains an excellent boy-and-his-dog tale, and enlightens young readers about the Civil War. The setting is quite interesting, and a number of Evan’s classmates are well-drawn characters who could easily become the focus of a future sequel.

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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