Pulling from his experiences living in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots following the Rodney King verdict, actor John Cho has written Troublemaker (Little, Brown and Company), his debut middle-grade novel. The book, released in March, follows 12-year-old Jordan in the wake of the riots while he balances school and complicated family dynamics. American Libraries caught up with Cho before his June 25 appearance at the American Library Association’s 2022 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C., to talk more about his inspiration for the novel, Asian American representation in the media, and books that influenced him as a kid.
Your book Troublemaker draws from your own experience. What inspired you to put those memories into a novel—especially one for young readers?
I started reflecting on the ’92 riots-slash-uprisings because of the events of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. We were stuck at home watching the news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests, and the children were home because of COVID. [We had] CNN on 24/7 it felt like, and I was starting to wonder how my kids were processing it all. That caused me to reflect on a very similar incident. I was just thinking about what had changed and what hasn’t changed since 1992. As a Korean American, that was a particularly thunderous event in my life and in the life of our community.
Troublemaker and your film Searching focus on children at the center of, and overcoming, danger or violence. What is it about this theme that resonates with you? How has being a parent influenced your point of view?
Being a parent is a permanent alteration of your values and your personality, really. Having kids introduces you to a kind of love that you didn’t know was possible or even existed. Understanding what love is changes my choices and what I’m interested in, and I’m not sure I could have done that role [in Searching] without having been a parent already.
When you starred in the 2014 TV show Selfie, media outlets reported that you were the first Asian American actor cast as a romantic lead in a sitcom. How have representation and the quality of roles for Asian Americans in television and film changed in the eight years since you were crowned with this superlative? Do you think more can be done to mitigate the harm of years of misrepresentation or underrepresentation in Hollywood?
There have been a lot of improvements. There’s an influx of talent and a generational shift that’s happened. The most important thing is not necessarily what I see on screen, but it’s behind-the-scenes work. When I started in the business, it was a little bit like, you know, when you went to a party, and you and someone else were the only two Asians, and you didn’t know whether you were supposed to talk to them or not. And now, the ethos is different. And I think now, we would likely say, “Hey, what’s your name? Let’s compare notes and get to know one another.” That’s an incredibly critical difference. What I hope, going forward, is that Asian American creatives are less bound by mainstream representation and responding to that but feel completely free in how they write or create, operating outside of the [mainstream] sphere of influence and stereotypes.
What role have libraries played in your life?
Oh, man. Libraries. They’re so important to me, especially being an immigrant and being poor. I see them as one of the last bastions of democracy. You don’t have to have money to go into a library. I always love librarians. As much as I love teachers, teachers gave you assignments and disciplined you—but librarians, all they did was say, “What do you need?” And I got my first civics lessons from libraries. You know: “This is how you participate.” You pay “taxes” if you’re late returning a book. For me as an immigrant, the best of this country is in that building.
You were an English major in college and taught middle-school English in Los Angeles. What books were foundational for you as a young adult?
The most important book series of my youth was Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I didn’t have books that resembled my childhood—except for maybe Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, though [Wong] was Chinese American. But Wilder’s books felt like my childhood because we were immigrants, and [the characters] were migrants across America. They felt vulnerable in a way that I could really relate to. … I share [those books] with my children; we read them in our house.
Kal Penn recently spoke at the Public Library Association conference in March, where he raved about your book and said he’d be on board for a Harold & Kumar movie sequel. Do you think, now that you’re both published authors, the world is ready for a Harold & Kumar Go to the Library?
Yes. The world is clamoring for it. We do have a pivotal flashback sequence set in a library in one of the Harold & Kumar movies. Kumar met his girlfriend in a library and they were breaking the rules.