On her 13th birthday, Pandita Paul escapes to her own secret garden—the Johnson property, an abandoned orchard and house where she and her now-deceased mother used to sneak away for quiet moments. In this haven just across the street from her home in Silicon Valley, Pandita keeps her most precious possessions: notes from her mother and a childhood photo of her mom, whom Pandita worries she’s beginning to forget.
That same night, during her family birthday celebration, Pandita hears that the property she adores is slated for development. This intensely personal and political conflict propels Hope in the Valley, an extraordinary middle grade novel from Mitali Perkins, who has previously published picture books (Between Us and Abuela) and young adult novels (You Bring the Distant Near).
Before Pandita knows it, her hidden treasures have been removed and the building demolished. Devastated, Pandita joins a historical preservation group trying to block the development. Meanwhile, one of her older sisters is working with a nonprofit group hoping to provide affordable rental units on the prized parcel of land.
As Pandita begins to learn more about the property’s history, she becomes fascinated with its long-deceased, widowed owner, Lydia Johnson, who stood up for the rights of Japanese American and Mexican American families, protecting their farms during World War II incarceration and disruption. As Pandita begins to understand the history of “Keep California White” campaigns, she reexamines her stance on what should happen to the orchard property.
If all of this sounds complicated or heavy, never fear: Perkins is an expert at weaving together a multitude of plotlines in a seamlessly thought-provoking, entertaining way. She addresses grief, fear of change, xenophobia, segregation and the power of friendships while reckoning with history and the legacies of injustice. Despite this boatload of serious subjects, the prose feels organic, portraying authentic dynamics in this extended Bengali family, which includes grandparents back in India, Pandita’s lively twin sisters, their grieving father and his new love interest. Each plot thread gets its fair due, and only a writer as talented as Perkins could turn a zoning board meeting into a pivotal, dramatic moment.
In addition to the many ways that history repeats itself, the novel also explores the power of the arts, bolstered by meaningful references to Emily Dickinson and a variety of children’s books, old and new. Against her will, Pandita is forced to attend a summer musical drama camp, where she meets a new friend (and crush)—a Filipino American boy named Leo. She also has a role in a production of The Sound of Music, in which she discovers “the magic of theater, inviting an audience to travel with actors across boundaries of time and culture into the heart of a story”—which is just what Perkins accomplishes in these pages.
Although she hates public speaking, Pandita is named after renowned Indian speaker and social reformer Pandita Ramabai. Like her namesake, Pandita gradually finds her voice, learning to move forward while honoring the past. Many books advocate for listening carefully to people of opposing views while following one’s own beliefs, but few do it better than Perkins’ exceptional Hope in the Valley.