I'm pretty sure that Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang were thinking about me when they wrote This is Just a Test (Scholastic, 2017). Yeah, they definitely were. They know just how I felt in 1983, when we (meaning everyone I knew) believed that the Cold War was about to culminate in nuclear war. As a junior in high school, I stared slack-jawed at the television screen while watching a movie called The Day After. They were showing us on national TV what was going to happen when the Soviets dropped the bomb. For a kid with an anxiety disorder (then undiagnosed because, well, 1983), The Day After churned up every feeling of terror, panic, and twitchiness possible.
So, This is Just a Test had me hooked from page 1.
David Da-Wei Horowitz is your typical, 12-year-old, half-Chinese, half-Jewish kid in 1983. He's awkward. He can't utter a simple sentence around the girl he likes. His little sister is annoying. But David has bigger fish to fry than these hum-drum worries of adolescence. His bar mitzvah is coming up and his grandmothers are about to kill each other. Oh, and he's digging a fallout shelter in his friend's yard, scrambling to finish before the Soviets drop the big one. Now that he has watched The Day After, that possibility is always in the back of David's mind. It's hard to concentrate on your schoolwork and your Torah portion when you're faced with potential annihilation.
This is Just a Test follows David's trials and tribulations as he straddles two cultures and navigates the troubled waters of middle school life. He and his best friend Hector are Trivial Pursuit afficianados and become members of a trivia tournament team with BMOC (Big Man on Campus) Scott. For reasons that don't become apparent until later in the story, Scott doesn't want to include Hector in his and David's half-baked plan to dig a fallout shelter. So, David finds himself playing intermediary, a role he performs at home, too. Both his maternal and paternal grandmothers hover and fuss and generally try to make David embrace one ethnicity over another. David is remarkably poised when it comes to his grandmothers, a little less so when it comes to his friends. David's parents are part of the story, too, but it's his grandmothers and his pals who are the focus of most of his energies.
The "test" of the title takes on multiple meanings as David careens through seventh grade. His friends test his loyalty and judgment. His grandmothers test his patience and mediation skills. And, of course, the Emergency Broadcast System tests its reach as its warnings blare across everyone's TV screens. David does his best with all of these tests, and he comes off as a totally authentic 12-year-old: questioning his own decisions and those of his family and friends, building confidence, and making his voice heard. Of course, we know that the world is not coming to an end in 1983, but David dauntlessly faces all of his life-changing moments with aplomb, or at least, a brave face.
One of the things I love best about This is Just a Test is its sensitivity to both the Jewish and Chinese cultures represented in the story. No one is a stereotype (though I certainly recognized my own mother in David's Safta), and neither culture comes off as more appealing than the other. David embraces his heritage on both sides, and though they sometimes exhaust him, his grandmothers are kind-hearted, loving women, each of whom has a lasting influence on David's life.
This is Just a Test reminds me a lot of Gary Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, a book that I adore for its humor and shrewdness. The book will appeal to middle grade boys and girls alike, though the looming threat of nuclear war may frighten some, considering the state of international relations today.