The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins

iffer's review against another edition

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Perhaps it is merely because I loved the last book I read, Elijah of Buxton so much, but The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen did not arouse the type of churning emotions and thoughts I’ve come to associate with good novels. I did like it, but I did not feel that it was a must-read.

Although not of South Asian heritage, I, as a Southeast Asian American, feel that my upbringing shares much with Sunita’s, including family/community-centered values, crazy grandparent visits, the permanent smell of ethnic food cooking, a European American boy crush, and of course, the difficulty of reconciling mainstream American culture with that of your parents’ native country. However, for some reason, Mitali Perkins’s novel stirred resistance in me.

Although the novel should feel authentic to me because it has been written by an author who, like her main character, was born in India and grew up in California, Sunita Sen seemed, to me, similar to novels I read as a junior high girl, and resented, about 1.5 or 2nd generation children written by European Americans (several generations removed from their immigrating ancestors). I acknowledge that many stereotypes, especially of the 1.5-2 generation experience, are based on common experience/truth, but Perkins’s novel felt stereotypical to me insofar as being embarrassed by her family’s blatant displays of “Indian-ness,” fearing her family’s (non)acceptance of a white boy( )friend, desire to wear makeup, etc. A large reason that I felt that these topics were stereotypical is probably because Sunita Sen lacks the emotional and situational complexity that I’ve been craving since I was a little girl, which I think is a result of Perkins’s writing style and structure.

The novel has a standard, nearly palpable plot line; I could nearly see the line being drawn in my head of the rising action, climax, and denouement, with perhaps a few other blips. Furthermore, I felt that Perkins’s writing told us about the emotions and situations rather than conveying them in subtle ways. Because of these reasons, as well as because everything is wrapped up neatly at the end, Sunita Sen fails to communicate the complexity of cultural identity and family dynamics. To me, this novel primarily approached multicultural children’s literature with the message of affirming and accepting diversity, a positive message, but which, in conjunction with the emotional and situational simplicity may give the wrong message that true understanding of cultural differences and their impacts on past and present society may easily be achieved with the “‘tourist’s conception of multiculturalism’” (Hade qtd in Cai, p. 8). These are the primary reasons for which I would not recommend The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen generally.

Some might say that I am being too harsh on the novel, and I would agree in some respects, because the novel is supposed to be light-hearted, simple, and for middle school readers instead of a heavy work, which have an important place in children’s literature; children shouldn’t always be reading issue-laden, depressing books. However, I would argue that there are, or should be, novels out there that are lighter and deal with similar issues as Sunita Sen in a better-written novel, because, as we’ve seen in Elijah of Buxton, it is possible to deal with myriad issues but maintain a balance between seriousness and light-heartedness.

I do acknowledge that the existence of such a novel has the potential to positively impact many children struggling with bi- or multi-cultural identity, because children might be relieved that there is finally a novel showing someone “like me.” On the other hand, I look forward to the day after which we can pick and choose the best Indian-American experience books to read and share with others, rather than merely being grateful that one exists.

sheabutterfemme's review against another edition

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I read this book so long ago, so I hope to re-read it next year. I gave it five stars because growing up, I remember reading this book over, and over, and over again. It took me forever to find it because I couldn't remember the title.

eupomene's review against another edition

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Very sweet though somewhat typical -- in my eyes worth reading simply to get to know Sunita's grandfather. He is adorable.

librarydanielle's review against another edition

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I was a little disappointed in this one. I didn't care for Sunita at all. She's spoiled and selfish and doesn't really redeem herself in the end, she just gets her own way. The descriptions felt flat to me and the people like they were overblown.
I was hoping to use this for a middle school book club, but now I'm going to pass.

backonthealex's review against another edition

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Sunita Sen, 13, is a typical California teenager who likes to play tennis, eat pizza, do well in school and really likes Michael Morrison, with whom she has just spent the summer. She also has a best friend since first grade, Liz Grayson, and a riva for Michael's affections - the very flirty LeAnn Schaeffer. Oh, yes and Sunita is an Indian American who has really not given a lot of thought to her Indian heritage. That is, until her grandparents, Dadu and Didu - arrived from Kolkata for a year long visit with Sunita and her family.

Suddenly, her professor mother goes from wearing tailored suits and silk shirts to wearing sarees, a red dot on her forehead and red powder stripe in her hair to indicate she is married. She even quits her university job for a year to stay home and cook Indian food for her family. And when she tells Sunita no boys in the house, not even to play ping pong in the basement, she apparently drives Michael right into the arms of LeAnn. Sunita has cut herself off from Michael anyway, not wanting to tell him about her grandparents and thinking he wouldn't like her Indian family.

As her grandparents settle into the Sen household, Dadu decides to plant an elaborate garden of flowers and vegetables in the backyard, while Didu becomes hooked on American soap operas, in particular, one called Endless Hope, even deciding to participate in the Endless Hope Plot Solution Contest (this is a very funny side-storyline).

But as time goes on, and Sunita misses Michael, and resents his apparent attraction to LeAnn, and as she watches her mother's attempt to be the perfect Indian daughter for her parents, she becomes angrier and angrier and begins to withdraw from everyone.

Can Sunita learn how to happily be both Indian and American?

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen is what I like to think of as a journey or process novel. The single event, her grandparent's visit, that brings on the conflict of cultures that Sunita feels is the start of her journey towards understanding who she is.

And Sunita is an interesting character. At first, she is somewhat bratty, pouting, getting angry, and even lashing out at home and school, totally stunning her parents when she finally, angrily, tells her mother what she thinks of everything. But the beauty of coming of age novels, it that there is generally definite positive growth for the main character, and Sunita certainly does grows.

Sunita seems to epitomize the dilemma of adolescents who are standing between cultures and feeling like they must choose one over the other. Feeling confused, lost and alone, she turns to her grandfather for company, gradually realizing how very wise he is about human nature, so that, ironically, it takes this visit from her Indian grandparents to teach Sunita how to embrace both cultures.

Original 1993 Cover
I really liked The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. It takes a serious topic and handles it with a nice measure of respect, seriousness and humor. And along the way, the reader learns a good bit about Indian culture and customs. And I loved the way Perkins has treated the intergenerational theme. I thought they were realistically drawn, avoiding the kind of grandparent stereotypes so common in a three-generation household.

It was originally published under the title The Sunita Experiment in 1993 and I believe it is Mitali Perkins's debut novel. I thought that Perkins did a phenomenal job capturing Sunita's personality and her conflicted feelings about her heritage. I read this on the heels of Born Confused, Bombay Blues and a few other more current books about Indians or Indian Americans, and I felt that even though this came out 23 years ago, it doesn't feel at all dated except that no one has a cell phone.

Actually the only thing I didn't like was Sunita's daydreaming scenes related to her favorite movie Casablanca. Even though I got the significance of them in terms of her awakening awareness of how other cultures are presented in movies (and books), I still felt it interfered with the narrative flow, but not to the point that I wouldn't still highly recommend this book to readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

This review was originally posted on Randomly Reading

dandelionfluff's review against another edition

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I'm a bit hesitant on this one. Firstly, I'm sure someone out there would read this and see parts of themselves reflected back. For people outside this cultural sphere, it can provide insight into the identity crisis some people have, being the children of immigrants or part of a family with roots outside of America. I'm sure this would be valuable to have in a library, too, as a conversation-starter... But I felt that other books might tackle this conversation with greater depth.

SpoilerSunita Sen struggles with her Indian heritage, longing for a truly American identity, but the entire journey is rather... annoying. I wished she would stop incessantly complaining, even if it is a rather accurate picture of a disenchanted middle schooler. Even when she yells at her mother, is reprimanded by her father, is told she's going to an Indian festival regardless of her attitude, the whole thing is made a non-issue in a heartbeat, with no further repercussions for her being a total jerk. At this point, a little over halfway through the book, I started speed-reading.

Geetie, her sister, is painted as a liberal vegetarian eco-warrior feminist in such an eye-rolling way that I flipped through even faster, never being so taken with anything that I'd slow down. In the end, Sunita becomes a bit more comfortable with herself, but I appreciated her grandparents more than anything. Her Dadu, especially, was a very wise, compassionate, patient character. Her parents, too, were more interesting to me, with her mom struggling to be a good Indian daughter. I dunno. Just finished this feeling a bit relieved that I didn't have to endure Sunita's immaturity any more.

nwhyte's review against another edition

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Nice little novel about a Californian teenager whose grandparents from India come to stay for a year, adding a sudden awareness of cultural difference to the usual bundle of teenage angst. There's a particularly good bit when Sunita realises that Casablanca and The Secret Garden are told entirely from the white folks' point of view. Otherwise, I'm out of the target market for this but I would certainly buy it for kids who are in that market.

kendraahampton's review against another edition

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Read for an American Literature course. This was just okay. Tolerable. It’s a tale of an India girl being insecure about her identity and is even more so embarrassed when her grandparents come to visit for a year. Her household is turn upside down and she must navigate who she is with while she thinks she should be. The story is slow and character driven. Characters are easy to like but the main character is simply annoying. I believe she was written to be so that is not what bothered me about the novel. Mostly, what I was hoping for was outside forces making Sunita feel inferior but there were none. And maybe that was the point. Maybe the overall moral is that no one is a bigger critic of you than you. I think this would be a great story for someone in their eerily teens but for me, a 26 year old, I just found it to be okay.

line_so_fine's review against another edition

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For middle school readers. In Sunita's 8th grade year, her grandparents visit from India, and she is somewhat resentful of their influence in her life. Already kind of self-conscious about her "Indianness" with her friends, her grandparents' presence makes these feelings magnify. Although this story arc is not a new one (second or third generation child who is at first resentful of her heritage eventually grows to appreciate and understand it and herself better), this is a sweet story that has subtlety in Sunita's change of heart. Her relationship with her grandfather is especially touching.

krutikasurve's review

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hopeful reflective slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? N/A
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


It's a look into the mind of an Indian American teenager, highlighting the identity struggles that she goes through. Though it was relatable, there was nothing that grounded the book plot-wise. It just kept going about her life thus causing a reader to potentially lose interest (i.e. me).