Ana’s middle school graduation day is going to be just perfect. She’s Salutatorian and at night there’s going to be a school dance and a chance to finally connect with her crush Jamie Tabata. But her dreams are shattered when a water pipe explodes, canceling her speech and dance. Her best friend Chelsea won’t sit by and see Ana’s day spoiled, so she invites Jamie to Ana’s house to dinner. With just hours left before everyone’s set to arrive, Ana must convince her family to prepare an unforgettable meal, hopefully without killing each other in the process.
You know I’m a sucker for cooking in a book, even more so when it shows a family coming together. Even if Ana’s grandparents don’t all get along with each other, it’s clear they all love her very much. The meal preparation ends up being the backdrop for lots of important conversations, something that is true in so many families. I love that Ana ends up talking about her crush with pretty much her whole family, taking a topic that so many tweens and teens are embarrassed to share with their family and normalizing it. The men in the family not only provide moral support for Ana, but they are a big part of cooking the meal as well.
It was also great to have a book where diversity means more than a single sidekick-of-color. Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet features a biracial main character, whose family is Chinese and African American, while her crush is Japanese. So “Asian” isn’t a thing here, people’s specific cultural background is. And that adds levels of both interest and complexity.
Initially I found the book a little jarring because it is written in third person present tense, but as a teacher, I got a little thrill from seeing the unusual choice. Kids need to see lots of variety in writing and this is a great opportunity to get familiar with something a little different.
Despite being a very enjoyable book overall, there were a few bits that just didn’t sit right with me. The first of these was how the oneupmanship between families took a financial turn. I’m not saying that this is unusual, but the degree to which it was taken (first class plane tickets, fully paid college tuition, a house) is a level of privilege few enjoy and which might ring false with some readers. I also felt that Ana’s choice to throw food at an adult was really out of character, even allowing for her having lost her temper. Finally, despite being a book with much positive diversity, Ana’s brother Sam is sometimes called the Samoan after his favorite Girl Scout cookie…it’s not just mentioned once, it’s used multiple times. Samoa is a really place, with real people and with their own traditions and culture. It seems like an odd choice. And finally, Grandpa mentions killing people with “yellow skin” during the Korean War. He mentions this of course, while at dinner with his Chinese in-laws and Japanese guests.
Good for & Age Recommendation: I expect this book will find it’s audience with readers in Grades 4-6. Much as high school books appeal to middle school students because they show what is coming in the years ahead. This book, showing the end of eight grade will definitely strike those same notes for middle grades readers. It may seem juvenile to some actual eighth graders, but the reading level will make it accessible to older students who are reading below grade level, without forcing them to read books about younger kids.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Opens with a daydream about slow dancing and wishing someone liked you. Ana reflects on how she’s never kissed a boy. There’s some general talk about dating. Ana’s grandmother says a classmate thought she was the “hottest thing since sunshine”. Ana spends a lot of time thinking about a girl she perceives as competition for the boy she likes. She imagines her last name with his. The younger girls are worried two (single) grown-ups are flirting. Her grandmother fell in love with her substitute teacher (high school). Their courtship is discussed and when she was pregnant she left college). Parents and grandparents kiss.
Profanity – “God”, “hell”, “pissed”, “sucks”,
Death, Violence and Gore – Ana’s grandfather grabs her by the wrist. Chapter 16 deals with Grandpa White’s time serving in Korea. Shots and grenades are mentioned and Grandpa says that not everyone made it to safety. He says he “killed three men with yellow skin”. He wrings a chicken’s neck.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Ana’s grandmother mentions another woman thinking about gin and tonic. A girl’s mother smokes a cigarette. Ana’s grandmother smoked when she was a teen.
Frightening or Intense Things – Ana’s grandfather lived in China when the Japanese destroyed their crops. He and his family did not have sufficient food.