By John Cho
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An instant New York Times bestseller!
An Indiebound bestseller!
An Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book!
Troublemaker follows the events of the LA Riots through the eyes of 12-year-old Jordan as he navigates school and family. This book will highlight the unique Korean American perspective.
12-year-old Jordan feels like he can't live up to the example his older sister set, or his parent's expectations. When he returns home from school one day hoping to hide his suspension, Los Angeles has reached a turning point. In the wake of the acquittal of the police officers filmed beating Rodney King, as well as the shooting of a young black teen, Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner, the country is at the precipice of confronting its racist past and present.
As tensions escalate, Jordan's father leaves to check on the family store, spurring Jordan and his friends to embark on a dangerous journey to come to his aide, and come to terms with the racism within and affecting their community.
April 29, 1992
I never knew a pair of shoes could scare me so much, but when I see Umma’s and Appa’s sneakers by the door when I walk in, I nearly jump right out of my skin. It’s not that they’re anything out of the ordinary. The shoes, I mean, with Appa’s laces fraying at the ends and Umma’s looking more gray than white like they did when she first bought them. What’s weird is the fact that they’re here at all. It’s just a little after four PM on a Wednesday and Umma and Appa should both be at the store. Not at home.
I thought I’d have more time before I’d have to face them today.
Their voices are quiet, muffled, coming from the direction of the kitchen. I stand real still by the door, listening, but I can’t hear what they’re saying from here. I move carefully down the hall, gripping the straps of my backpack with both hands, praying in my head. Don’t see me. Don’t see me.
Just as I’m about to pass the kitchen, Umma looks right up at me.
“Oh, Jordan, you’re home?” she says in Korean. She says it all casual like she’s here every day when I get home from school, like I’m not the one who should be saying, “Oh, Umma, you’re home?”
“Yeah,” I say back in English. A nervous feeling starts to spread through my stomach. My prayer changes. Don’t ask me how school was. Don’t make me lie to you.
By some miracle, she doesn’t. She just smiles and nods, turning back to Appa to carry on talking about whatever they were talking about, the air kind of tense and tight between them.
Huh. That’s weird. Umma always asks how school was. It’s pretty much her favorite question. Not to mention, I still don’t know what they’re both doing home so early. I linger by the door, wondering whether I should ask or not. But the more questions I ask them, the more questions they might ask me. And I want to avoid that for as long as possible.
Not that Appa would ask me anything, though. This whole time, he hasn’t even looked at me once. I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
It’s been this way between us for weeks, ever since our Big Fight. Things haven’t been the same since then. It’s like time split into a Before and After. Before: when I was just Jordan and he was just Appa, and I didn’t think twice about being in the same room together. After: when we’re not just Jordan and Appa anymore. We’re Jordan Who Doesn’t Know What to Say Around Appa, and Appa Who Basically Completely Ignores Jordan. He’s been so cold to me lately. Ice cold.
Maybe he’s waiting for me to say sorry first, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.
Maybe this means we’ll never talk again until the end of time. Maybe not even then.
I stare at the back of his head for a second longer and then I walk away.
Harabeoji’s in the living room, watching TV and eating ojingeo off a plate. At least grandparents are dependable. Always where you think they’ll be, sitting on the couch wearing a fishing vest with a hundred pockets even though you can’t remember the last time you’ve ever actually seen them go fishing, a piece of dried squid between their teeth. At least, that’s my grandpa. I don’t really know about anyone else’s grandparents.
“Hi, Harabeoji, I’m home,” I say, dropping my backpack on the floor and sitting down next to it.
He grunts, not looking up from the TV. He’s watching some sitcom I don’t recognize—his favorites are usually Full House and Home Improvement—the light reflecting off his huge rectangular glasses. Harabeoji’s not much of a talker, except when it comes to yelling at fictional characters on the screen. I don’t even know if he knows what’s going on. It’s been nine years since we immigrated to Los Angeles from Korea all together and I’m still not sure how much English he understands.
He didn’t want to come with us at first. To America, that is. He wanted to stay in Korea in the same house where he and my grandma had lived together for years, saying he wanted to die in the same room she did. But Appa said it would be the best thing for all of us, and that he wasn’t going to leave his own father behind. He eventually convinced Harabeoji to pack up his life and get on the plane with us, though I remember Harabeoji being unhappy about it. At least he’s found some joy in these American shows. I think he finds them funny.
I glance toward the kitchen and then back at Harabeoji, lowering my voice. “Can I tell you something?”
He grunts again without turning down the volume.
Here’s the thing about my grandpa. We’re not close exactly, but he’s the one person in this family that I feel like I can really talk to, even if he doesn’t totally get what I’m saying since I speak to him in English. Maybe that’s the reason why I feel okay. Or maybe it’s because he’s too busy judging made-up people on television to judge me, and I know that whatever I tell him, he won’t tell anyone else.
“I got suspended from school today.”
At this, his eyebrows lift. I can’t be sure if it’s from what I said or from something on TV, but I keep going.
“I got sent to the principal’s office again. For cheating on a Spanish quiz. Or I guess, getting caught cheating. Again. Mr. Martins was so mad.” I make a face, hearing his voice in my head. He always talks real slow like he’s speaking through a mouth full of chewing gum. “He kept saying how he’s seen me in his office more than any other sixth grader in the school and how he can’t even count how many times I’ve been caught cheating now. And then you know what he says? He says I should try to be more like Sarah. Says that when she was in middle school, she was a model student. How could the Park siblings be this different? She probably makes your parents so proud. And you? Well, they’ll be so disappointed in you, won’t they?”
I scoff, but I can feel my shoulders slumping.
Mr. Martins doesn’t need to tell me what a disappointment I am to my parents.
I already know that.
Appa told me so himself.
Harabeoji turns off the TV, startling me. He leans forward in his seat, his left hand on his knee. He’s only got three fingers on that hand. He lost the pinky and ring finger during the Korean War. Umma says it’s rude to stare, but it’s hard not to when I’m sitting on the floor and basically eye level with it. I look at his face instead. He locks his eyes on mine, his mouth set in a grim line.
Uh-oh. Did I overestimate how safe my secrets are with him? My face flushes. Is he going to rat me out to Umma and Appa after all?
He holds out his empty plate with his right hand. “Get me more ojingeo,” he says in Korean. “I ate it all.”
Oh. Of course.
I take the empty plate and head for the kitchen. But as I get closer, I can hear Umma and Appa talking, only it’s not in those low voices I heard earlier. They’re louder now, almost yelling. Are they fighting?
I stay in the hallway, listening. My Korean’s not so great anymore, but I can understand more than I can speak, and I pick up every word.
“I think you’re worrying too much about nothing,” Appa says.
“You can never be too careful,” Umma says back. She sounds exasperated, angry. “People are mad about what happened with Rodney King. Tell me you’re not even a little bit worried that something bad might come out of that today.”
“Of course they’re mad. Who wouldn’t be mad?” Now Appa’s the one who sounds annoyed. “Doesn’t mean that bad things are going to happen. There’s no reason to think so. It will be fine.”
“You heard what they said on Radio Korea. They said there may be protests so we should pay attention, stay alert—”
“And we did, didn’t we? We closed the shop early and came home. That’s enough. You’re always thinking further ahead than you need to.”
“How do you think I’ve carried us this far? I won’t let this store fail like our last one. Someone has to think about this family!”
It’s like she’s sucker-punched him with her words. There’s this long silence and I don’t even realize it at first, but I’m holding my breath. I feel like if I let it out, the plate in my hands will crack, the air will explode, and Harabeoji will never get his squid because there’s thunder and lightning standing between me and the kitchen.
Umma is the thunder. Maybe she’s the lightning too.
“Fine,” she finally says. “I’ll go.”
“To board up the store.”
Before Appa can reply or I can even take a step, Umma storms out of the kitchen. She doesn’t see me. She’s too focused, pushing the little wisps of hair falling from her stubby ponytail out of her eyes and reaching for the coat closet. She grabs the handle of the sliding mirrored door and pulls hard.
What happens next is everything shatters.
At first, I think I’ve dropped Harabeoji’s plate, but when I look down, it’s still in my hands. It wasn’t me that broke. It was Umma.
The closet door’s always been too flimsy, teetering on loose tracks, and Umma’s pulled it open so hard it finally gave up and jumped the tracks. The whole mirrored door cracks and explodes into shards on the floor. She yells, jumps back, and then stands there, breathing heavy.
“What was that?” Harabeoji shouts from the living room.
“Everything’s fine!” Umma shouts back, even though I think what she means is really the opposite.
Appa comes out of the kitchen and looks at Umma, standing there with that broken mirror all around her. Then he notices me.
Sometimes I forget how tall he is, but when he looks at me, he has to look way down the way I do when I look at ants on the sidewalk. He stares and I stare back, right at his bushy eyebrows and the permanent furrow in his brow like God stuck his thumb there for too long and left a dent. It’s the first time we’ve really made eye contact since the Big Fight.
I’m bracing myself all over.
I think maybe he’s going to say something.
And he does. But not to me.
He walks over to Umma and puts his hands on her shoulders. “I’ll go board up the store,” he says. “I’ll call you when I’m there.”
Then he reaches into the doorless coat closet and grabs his jacket, takes his car keys off the hook on the wall, puts on his shoes with the fraying laces, and leaves.
He doesn’t look back once.
By the time Sarah comes home, the mirror’s been all swept up and thrown away. You’d never know what happened. Except for the mirrorless door leaning against the hallway wall, obviously. But if Sarah notices, she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she heads straight for the TV.
Sarah’s a junior in high school and probably the busiest teenager in all of Glendale. Maybe even all of LA. She’s always coming home late from some kind of after-school activity. It’s no joke. She’s part of every club, volunteers for every school event, and still somehow has time to hang out with her friends, driving around the city in the old beat-up Hyundai Excel that Umma and Appa passed down to her for her sixteenth birthday.
She’s one of those people that does everything right. Good manners, perfect grades, tons of friends. Adults love her. Me? I think she’s a suck-up. Our parents even let her sleep over at her friends’ houses. They never let me sleep over anywhere.
Umma, Harabeoji, and I are already gathered around the TV, eyes glued to the news. It’s been a couple of hours since Appa left, and he still hasn’t called like he said he would. Umma’s been going back and forth between pacing around the apartment and listening to the radio. Finally, she took the remote control from Harabeoji and turned on the news. “For more updates,” she said.
“Updates on what?” I asked.
Sarah comes into the living room, all hurried, but she does a double take when she sees Umma sitting on the couch. “Hey. How come you’re not at the store?”
“We closed early today,” Umma says.
She doesn’t explain more. Umma and Appa are kind of opposite in that way. Umma worries a lot, but in front of me and Sarah, she says everything is just fine no matter what’s really going on. Even when she was cleaning up the broken mirror and she realized I saw everything, all she said was “Umma’s so silly, huh? Good thing no one got hurt.” When I asked if she was sure, she looked me in the eye and said, all firm, “Geokjeonghajima.” She always says that. Do not worry. And that was that.
Appa’s not as bothered most of the time, but when he is, everybody knows it.
“O… kay,” Sarah says. Her eyes trail to the TV and she sits down on the couch next to me. The yellow plaid shirt she has tied around her waist bunches around her ankles as she pulls her knees into her chest. Whenever we watch anything, she sits like this, kind of cocoon-style. She has the same furrowed brow as Appa with the dent in the middle, except hers only appears when she’s worried. It’s there now, her eyes wide at the news footage. “I rushed home from volleyball practice to see this.”
Of the hundred and one things Sarah is always up to, volleyball has been her favorite lately. She wants to be captain of the team one day because, of course, she’s Sarah. If she does something, she has to be the best at it.
Harabeoji turns up the volume.
“It’s not right, not right at all,” a Black woman being interviewed by a news reporter is saying. You can tell she’s seething with anger, but her voice is controlled, and she doesn’t take her eyes off the camera, not once. “Where’s the justice? Rodney King was beat up by four police officers and those cops just get to walk off, scot-free? No. No way. We all heard the verdict today. But we’re here to say the verdict is wrong.”
People are marching down the street with signs, shouting, “No justice! No peace!”
The sound rattles our living room.
“If we let this happen today,” the woman continues, “it will keep on happening. That’s a fact. And we won’t have it.”
The TV cuts to a grainy shot of a Black man being beaten up by cops with nightsticks outside his car. He’s on the ground, face in the road, getting hit again and again and again, brutally, all over his body. They get him in the legs, the chest, even kicking him in the neck. He struggles to get up, but the cops keep on beating him with those sticks like they’re really trying to kill him. My stomach churns. It’s four against one with more officers just standing by, watching, and Rodney King is unarmed.
I’ve seen this on TV before, when the footage first came out last year. I remember feeling sick then too and Umma changing the channel, telling me not to look. I can feel her now, sitting to my right, her arm twitching like she wants to grab the remote and change the channel again. But this time we keep watching.
“On March third, 1991, this tape, provided by witness George Holliday, who captured the events on his video camera, was released of Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind using excessive force and brutality against motorist Rodney King,” a news reporter states. Their mug shots flash across the screen, and from what I can tell, they all look white to me. “In addition to being shot with a Taser, King was struck by their batons upwards of fifty-three times.”
The TV cuts to a photo of Rodney King after the beating, and I suck in a breath. His face is fractured and bruised, one eye dark red. The news reporter continues. “Today, at the trial in Simi Valley, all four officers were declared not guilty. Since the verdict was announced, unrest has been building in the city of Los Angeles. We cut now to live footage in South Central, where there have been reports of escalating violence.”
The TV switches back to today. We’re looking at a dusty street and I feel like I’m watching some kind of movie. Bottles being thrown at cars, smashing against windows, trucks doing U-turns and peeling away like they can’t escape fast enough.
I sit up straighter. “Did he just say South Central?”
That’s where our store is.
As if reading my thoughts, Umma squeezes my hand and says, “Don’t worry, Jordan. Your dad is fine.”
“Huh?” Sarah turns to look at Umma. “What do you mean Appa’s fine? Where is he?”
Umma pauses. I can almost see the wheels turning in her head, like she’s trying to decide how much to share without freaking us out. “He went to go board up the store in case anything happens,” she finally says. “But it’s okay. Our store is far away from all of this. We’re farther north, close to Koreatown, and this is Florence and Normandie. We’re just being extra, extra careful.”
She smiles and I know what’s coming next.
“Geokjeonghajima.” She pats me on the shoulder and then reaches over me to do the same for Sarah. But it doesn’t make me feel much better, and by the look on Sarah’s face, it doesn’t do much for her either.
“Why hasn’t he called, then?” I ask.
Umma thinks for a second and then nods. “Traffic. He’s probably stuck in his car, still trying to get to Home Depot for supplies. Look at all these protestors.” She shakes her head, making a disapproving noise. “Blocking up the roads. Don’t they know people can’t get home?”
“Umma,” Sarah says in disbelief. “I think the roads are the least of anyone’s problems right now. Don’t you think it makes sense that people are mad about this? The Rodney King verdict is horrible.”
“I never said don’t be mad,” Umma says. “And I never said it’s not horrible. But what does this do? This violence? Who does it help? Anyway, I’m just saying, don’t worry about your dad. Everything is fine.”
Sarah looks back at the screen. “Not everything.” She sighs and rubs her eyes with the back of her hand. “I just wish there was more we could do.”
“Ya,” Harabeoji says, startling all of us. “You just focus on yourself.”
Sarah and I stare at him like he’s grown another head that’s started talking to us. I mean, he might as well have. He’s not exactly an advice-giving kind of guy.
“In Korea during the war, if you stop to try to help others, you lose your own life,” Harabeoji huffs. “So just do what you have to do for you.”
- “A heartfelt, insightful book exploring the bond between father and son who deepen their relationship while navigating social justice, police bias, Korean American identity, and the trauma of the L.A. riots.—Jewell Parker Rhodes, bestselling author of Ghost Boys and Paradise on Fire
- "An action-packed story about mistakes, redemption, and real-life danger. I couldn't put this book down!"—Alan Gratz, New York Times bestselling author of Ground Zero and Refugee
- “Complex family dynamics are at the heart of this compelling fast-paced debut novel. John Cho's highly personal Korean American perspective of the LA Riots combine harsh realities, racial tension, and ultimately hope."—Lisa Yee, author of Maizy Chen's Last Chance
- “A compelling story in a vivid setting that has not been explored enough in books for young readers. Jordan is a genuine, flawed character so real you can't help rooting for him. Deep appreciation to authors John Cho and Sarah Suk for writing this much-needed book.”—Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medalist and NYTimes bestselling author
- “An action-packed adventure that will not only quicken your pulse but make you think deeply about friendship, family, and justice.” —Nicola Yoon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Sun Is Also A Star and Instructions for Dancing
- “Fast-paced yet thoughtful and profound, TROUBLEMAKER revisits the fires of the past to shine light and wisdom for a better future.” —David Yoon, New York Times bestselling author of Frankly In Love
- “At its core, Troublemaker is a deeply moving story of redemption between a 12-year-old Korean American rebellious son and his strict storeowner father, set against the prescient backdrop of a riveting and suspenseful journey into the heart of 1992 Los Angeles’ Koreatown on the first night of what would become one of our country’s most iconic movements of civil unrest.”—Paula Yoo, award-winning author of From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement
- "Equal parts suspenseful and emotionally insightful."—Kirkus
- "...an accessible yet emotionally complex read."—Publishers Weekly
- "...will leave readers breathless with anticipation."—School Library Journal
- *"This debut middle-grade novel by Cho, well known for his acting work, achieves a complexity of theme that is welcome for this audience. It’s an important, even profound, story, yet related with a light touch. Jordan’s journey will have readers following right alongside him as he navigates the vicissitudes of his moment in history and his place in a family."—Horn Book, starred review
- " Readers drawn to action will revel in close calls and high emotions generated by Jordan's conflicts with family and friends."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Mar 7, 2023
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers