Check out the cover and first chapter of Troublemaker, Cho's forthcoming middle-grade book.

By Lacey Vorrasi-Banis
June 22, 2021 at 08:00 AM EDT
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Actor-turned-author John Cho
| Credit: Benjo Arwas

It was the tinder that ignited the blaze that had been smoldering in Los Angeles for years: four policemen acquitted of the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King on April 29, 1992. Within hours of the verdict, Los Angeles - already at a breaking point of racial division - would be torn asunder. Looters and rioters set the city on fire. Adding gasoline to the inferno was a shooting that took place the same month as King's assault: Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl, was fatally shot by Soon Ja Du, a Korean store owner in South L.A., after she erroneously accused Harlins of trying to steal orange juice.

It's at this inflection point that Korean American actor John Cho has set his first novel, Troublemaker, a galvanizing middle-grade offering that follows the L.A. riots through the eyes of 12-year-old Korean American Jordan Park, whose parents own a liquor store. When Jordan's father leaves to check on the store amid mounting unrest, Jordan and his friends set out on a perilous journey to help his dad, and Jordan is forced to face the racism plaguing his own community.

Get an exclusive first look at the cover of Troublemaker, as well as the first chapter, below. The book will publish in March 2022 and is available for pre-order.

John Cho
The cover of John Cho's middle-grade debut novel, 'Troublemaker'

Excerpt from Troublemaker, by John Cho

CHAPTER ONE

Apr 29, 1992

I never knew a pair of shoes could scare me so much, but when I see Umma 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 4 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. Colder than a brain freeze. 

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 towards 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 underestimate 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.

"Yes, Harabeoji."

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 farther 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."

"Go where?"

"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 hinges, and Umma's pulled it open so hard it finally gave up standing. The whole mirrored door goes down 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.

Excerpted from Troublemaker, by John Cho. Copyright © 2022 by John Cho. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

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