Hello, and thanks for joining us at Tundra Telegram, the column where we talk about things that are our current mood, and recommend some sick books you might low-key love.
We’re cheating a little this week by talking about yet another Netflix television series, but the entire Tundra team was just too excited for the return of one of the funniest teen comedy-dramas in some time, Never Have I Ever, to avoid it. And as star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan hails from Mississauga, Ontario, our Canadian pride was just too strong to resist. Plus, there are so few children’s books about heads of state taking classified documents.
Resultingly, this week we’re recommending picture books, middle-grade titles and – perhaps most fittingly – YA that connect, in one way or another, to the popular teen comedy series chronicling the victories and embarrassments of Sherman Oaks high school student Devi Vishwakumar. Read on, fellow Coyote Girls and Boys.
We’re sure that Devi (and the actor who plays her, Maitreyi) can relate to Mirha, the protagonist of picture book That’s Not My Name!, written and illustrated by Torontonian Anoosha Syed. Mirha’s classmates mispronounce her name, she can’t find a monogrammed keychain at the gas station, and begins to wonder if she should find a new one until Mama helps her see how special her name is.
Whether it’s grief that causes temporary paralysis or a volcanic anger that leads to verbal altercations with her mother and declaring nuclear war at model U.N., one thing Devi has is Big Feelings, which is also the name of a picture book by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman. The book, much like Devi’s therapist Jamie Ryan, helps children’ navigate life when they feel mad, frustrated, or overwhelmed.
This isn’t a spoiler, as Never Have I Ever essentially opens with the death of Devi’s father, Mohan, but a lot of the emotional challenges Devi faces are traced back to the loss of a parent. Many Shapes of Clay: A Story of Healing by Kenesha Sneed uses ceramics to tell the story of a mother and son (Eisha), coping with a lost father. Eisha learns to live with the sense of loss and of the joyful power of making something new out of what is left behind (even if it’s just a single voice mail).
More than a few times Devi’s father’s death has manifested itself in her dreams, which reminds us of another wonderful book about grief for young readers, A Garden of Creatures by Sheila Heti and Esmé Shapiro. After a bunny and cat lose their fellow garden friend, the big bunny, a strange dream prompts the smaller bunny to begin asking questions big questions about death. Along those same lines, Lost in the Clouds by Tom Tinn-Disbury, part of the new series, Difficult Conversations for Children, acts as a guide to talking to young kids about grief, as it follows Billy and his father while they navigate the loss of Billy’s mother
Never Have I Ever also makes us happy as it features a main character who is the romantic interest of several appealing suitors – and she has body hair. It reminds us of Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand and Nabi H. Ali, in which young Indian-American girl Laxmi falls in love with the hair on her upper lip, her arms, legs, and between her eyebrows!
The show wouldn’t be the same without the incredible narration from tennis star John McEnroe. Not only do McEnroe and Devi share a reputation for hot tempers, Devi’s story has sentimental connections to the tennis star. For a picture book that combines tennis greatness, temporary debilitating injuries, and social-emotional learning, you have to check out former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu’s Bibi’s Got Game, co-written by Mary Beth Leatherdale and illustrated by Chelsea O’Byrne.
CHAPTER BOOKS & MIDDLE GRADE
One element we haven’t dwelled on much yet is how uproariously funny Never Have I Ever is. Need another hit of humor? Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever. has got you covered. Edited by Betsy Bird and featuring hilarious stories by Cece Bell, Libba Bray, Raina Telgemeier, and many more – all featuring funny girl friends (not unlike Devi, Eleanor, and Fabiola).
For a book that more precisely marries comedy with the challenges of being a second-generation teenager in America, try Jessica Kim’s beloved Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Yumi, a shy outsider whose parents run a Korean barbecue restaurant, plots to become a stand-up comedian (under a false identity) while she’s supposed to be studying for a private school scholarship. Like Never Have I Ever, it’s a charming story with bighearted characters.
In The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller, Natalie and her friends’ interest in science may be more of a Fabiola thing than a Devi one . But it’s a funny story about three friends who hope to use science to win an egg-drop contest in order to get Natalie’s mom out of a depression funk. And, like much of the show, it’s all about a kid learning their mother is a real person, too!
And though the protagonist of The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan by Salma Hussain is a first-generation immigrant (from Dubai), and lives about 30 years before Devi’s story, we think there are definitely similarities. It features a headstrong young girl who falls in love and deflects from big problems with humor: “We didn’t even get any days off school!” she notes, when talking about the first Persian Gulf War.
Debate club? Witty banter? A headstrong brown girl fighting back against some anti-Indian online memes. High school romance? While those sound like the ingredients of an episode of Never Have I Ever, they also describe the new YA novel TJ Powar Has Something to Prove by Canadian Jesmeen Kaur Deo, in which a pretty, popular debater, TJ, sets out to demonstrate she can let her body hair grow naturally and still be beautiful.
Academic high-achieving rivals to lovers – shades of Devi and Ben Gross – Kavya and Ian anchor Beauty and the Besharam by Lillie Vale. Kavya has always been told she’s a little too ambitious, a little too mouthy, and a little too much – or besharam (remind you of any TV characters?). But when she’s cast as Ariel in a job that supplies Disney princesses to children’s birthday parties, and her academic rival Ian is cast as Prince Eric? You know what happens next!
With a teen romance in the robotics club, My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth falls more into the Fabiola territory. But like Devi, protagonist Bel has no interest in robotics or engineering (even if she’s good at it), until handsome Mateo Luna (the book’s Paxton Hall-Yoshida), captain of the robotics club, insists they need her talent.
While there’s a conspicuous lack of Bollywood content on Never Have I Ever, we still feel Nisha Sharma’s very funny romance My So-Called Bollywood Life should be included with our recommendations. Sure, Winnie Mehta is obsessed with Bollywood films and Devi shows no interest in them, but they both experience romantic disaster with comic results and are feisty, second-generation heroines readers will root for.
Frankly in Love by David Yoon is the story of Frank Li, who – like Devi – is a teenager living in Southern California and is torn between the more traditional expectations of his family (who sacrificed a lot to raise him in the U.S.A.) and his strong desire to live the life of a “regular American teen” – and that includes dating a white girl. Plus, like Devi’s cousin Kamala, he winds up in a fake relationship within his culture that turns out to be something more.
And Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi, follows Parvin Mohammadi, a bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Iranian-American who’s just been very publicly dumped. But she’s got a scheme to solve all her problems with dating the hottest boy in school, Matty Fumero. She just has to study rom-coms and be the perfect dream girl. But over the course of the book she learns, as Devi so often does, that to get the boy, you just have to be yourself.
Happy reading, friends!