The Secret Battle of Evan Pao by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Scholastic, 2022. 9781338678857
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4
Format: Paperback ARC (publication date 5/31/22
Genre: Realistic fiction
What did you like about the book? Evan Pao, together with his older sister Celeste and his mom, are driving to their new lives in Haddington, Virginia, leaving California and Dad’s financial scandal behind. Sensitive Evan has the uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying, but feels unsure about why he didn’t detect his dad’s scheming. Now he’s the only BIPOC kid in his 6th grade class, and is greeted with questions about the Kung flu from neighborhood bully Brady Griggs. The rest of the kids seem OK though, especially Max, whose family has lived in town forever and acts as a tour guide to Haddington’s traditions, including Battlefield Day. For this annual event, students research and dress up as Civil War soldiers and Evan and his Uncle Joe are excited when they find information about native-born Chinese who served in the Union forces. Despite his initial apprehension, Evan warms to Haddington, even adopting a lost dog named Mochi. But then he arrives home one day to find shattered glass and a bleeding and scared dog; police find a bullet but who’s behind the destruction? Blame falls on Brady, who confesses without apologizing and Evan’s truth meter detects subterfuge. When Mochi runs away, Brady comes to the rescue and the two boys eventually broker peace while Evan learns about the ways family and tradition can control actions.
This was a well-written novel with lots of hooks for reluctant readers and interesting situations that will lead to frank discussions. Evan’s small family, especially Celeste and Uncle Joe, were funny and 3-dimensional and Mochi gave the book heart. Evan’s teacher Mrs. Norwood shows growth; a Civil War buff, she begins to see that history from the perspective of underrepresented voices, as do Evan’s classmates, and even members of the larger community. Shang even manages to work some lessons on research skills, primary sources, evidence, and authority into the plot when Evan and Uncle Joe visit the library.
Anything you didn’t like about it? I thought the back story about Evan’s dad being a scam artist was unnecessary and confusing and Evan’s mom was pretty thinly drawn. The story, while not didactic, was blunt, without a lot of nuance. Evan’s BS detecting ability remained unexplored – I couldn’t tell if it was a vaguely supernatural ability or just an innate talent.
To whom would you recommend this book? This would be a good option for kids in grade 4-8 who like realistic fiction that addresses contemporary social justice issues. Recommended read alikes would include Front Desk by Kelly Yang or New Kid by Jerry Craft.
Who should buy this book? Elementary/middle schools and public libraries
Where would you shelve it? Fiction
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes. This will be a good book to offer reluctant readers, classroom teachers looking for read alouds, and as a curriculum/summer reading recommendation.
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: June 27, 2022