John Cho Talks Trouble in Timely Middle Grade Debut

The renowned actor chats with SLJ about coming of age in tumultuous times, the importance of libraries, and how the summer of 2020 shaped his debut middle grade novel.

In Troublemaker (Little, Brown, Mar 2022), John Cho crafts the powerful story of 12-year-old Jordan, a Korean American boy who takes a big risk to protect his father during the LA Riots of 1992. The renowned actor chats with SLJ about coming of age in tumultuous times, the importance of libraries, and how the summer of 2020 shaped his debut middle grade novel.

Photo by Benjo Arwas

I'm so excited to talk with you about Troublemaker! In your author's note, you say this wasn't the book you were "supposed" to write. What brought you to this story at this time?
Well, I had this idea to do a mystery novel because that's what I read and loved in middle school. But as we were finalizing what that might look like, the pandemic hit. We had the kids, because obviously they weren't going to school, and we were watching the Black Lives Matter protests, the news about George Floyd, and the anti-Asian violence. I was worried about how my kids were understanding all these events. That's what led me back to April 29, 1992, and thinking about that event from the vantage point of a young person. So I told my editor, I can't stop thinking about everything, and we changed course. Looking back, what I was doing was really examining all these immigrant assumptions that this country was becoming more and more perfect every year, and [that] the country that my children would inherit would be better than the one I did. Those assumptions were really being challenged for me.

Why did you decide to make this a middle grade novel?
That was such a difficult age for me, because you're on the cusp of starting the transition to adulthood and essentially separating your identity from your parents. It’s a time that's fraught with mistakes and fights (in my case), and I thought it might be the most difficult age to experience something traumatic in the world. My inclination was to make my own assumptions in solitude rather than ask my parents about it. Deep down, it is my wish that this book prompts some discussion in the households where it’s being read.
The book addresses the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD and the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins, and the effect those tragedies had on Jordan and his family. How did you approach the depiction of violence and trauma for a young audience?
Knowing I was going to be dealing with those issues was why I thought it was critical to work with a cowriter, especially when pitching it for a middle grade audience. I knew that I needed to talk through just about everything in this book. I'm an actor, that’s my day job. I like to talk with people and interact with them—that’s how I arrive at decisions rather than sitting at a computer and thinking to myself. So this was a really collaborative process [with Sarah Suk], especially in that regard.
Jordan’s decision-making process feels authentic to a 12-year-old in that he doesn’t always understand his choices or his emotions. Did you draw from your own experiences for Jordan's character?
Yes. We didn't have a gun in our house, although I knew kids who did. But the personal event I was modeling it off of was being obsessed with the car at 13 or 14. I needed to drive the car, and I don't know why that desire was so strong within me. I snuck out of the house one night and took my dad's car keys and drove the car. I had no plan! I got four blocks before a cop pulled me over. I was taken to the police station and my parents were woken up in the middle of the night and told, “Your son is at the police station.” I know they must have peppered me with 100 questions, and I'm sure I didn't have an answer for any of them. Chiefly, “Why?” And I didn’t know why; I just had to.
You frequently pulled from personal anecdotes or references to ground details of the plot. Have the people in your life seen themselves in this book, and how have they reacted?
My parents read it, and I'm sure they recognize some of themselves in there. My dad called recently and said, “I finished the book.” I asked him, “What did you think?” and he replied, “It's really good, John. It made me think about my own life and who I was as a parent, and it's caused me to reevaluate some things.” I was intensely curious and he said, “I'm not ready to talk about that yet, son.” We left it at that. So I don't know what's going on over there in my parents’ house or what they’re thinking exactly. I told you that I hope this book prompts discussion in households across the country—and I think one of them is going to be mine.

I wanted the book to feel as authentic as I could, and so Jordan's relationship with his father is probably a reflection of me and my father's relationship with each other over decades, compressed into this one night. It took us many, many years to come to the kind of resolution that Jordan and his father have, but I think it is our relationship—and I'm still trying to figure out what it means. Maybe that’s the second book!

Jordan says Appa named him after the Jordan River as a symbol of freedom and new beginnings for his parents. You weave the idea of rivers, and running away or towards different things, throughout the book. How did you come up with this motif?
It was a bit of borrowing from my life. My Korean name is Johan, which is a Christian name. I was named after John the Baptist, but it also fits into the Korean three-syllable naming system. So I wanted Jordan to also have chosen a Christian name, but something that was off the beaten path. Very early on, I was thinking about these LA arteries: Florence, Normandie, Western Boulevard, Wilson Boulevard, and Vermont. I was thinking about the geography of the event and about rivers early on, so it was kind of a quick decision.
Jordan encounters many interesting people throughout his journey. Were there any characters that you wish you could have spent more time with?
I'm trying to remember all the things we pitched! I had a cast of kooky characters that I was going through in my mental yearbook and talking through with my cowriter, Sarah. There’s a lot of friends in the book. The character I would have liked to see more of was Hae Dang, the guy who gets them to Koreatown. He is quite a romantic figure in my head. I think if we followed him around on a weekend in LA, we'd see a lot of interesting stuff.
You were a high school English teacher once upon a time. Do you feel that working with those age groups shaped your approach to this project?
When I first moved to LA, after college, I taught seventh and 10th grade English for a year. I think it did, but it was more being a father—that's ultimately how I think of that age, and being that age. You know, I was so young at the time [of teaching]; I was close to their age and didn't have much distance from that period of my life. But being a parent is a really peculiar experience. Every day that your kid is alive, you're re-experiencing your own childhood as well as imagining every day that your parents had you. So you're occupying these spaces simultaneously: your kids' childhood, your own childhood, and your parents’ youth. Being a parent made me reevaluate what that age is like.
It's your hope that Troublemaker will prompt thoughtful discussions—do you have ideas for how librarians and educators can utilize the book in classrooms or library spaces?
For me, I wanted to get one accurate version of Korean family life on the page. And it was a bit of an homage to books like “Little House on the Prairie” or Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter. I loved experiencing another family and another culture when I was young, and I hope this book can be used in the same way. I also hope that it can be a specific starting point to discuss what kids are seeing around them. Maybe it being set in the past is an easier way to explore some of the things that are happening right now.
I just read a memoir called Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho, which is about a woman who's trying to excavate her mother’s past and understand her immigrant journey after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. It really made me go back and rethink all my assumptions about my parents’ previous life and interrogate my own memories. I suppose, with this book, I’m asking for people to interrogate the moment that we're in. 

As a child, what was your relationship to libraries? 
In my head, when the book idea was first presented to me, all I wanted was to be in a library. Not a bookstore, a library. They’re safe spaces for me and I have such fond memories of them. We couldn't afford to go to the bookstore when I was a kid. Libraries—they just saved my life, and librarians saved my life. I think they’re the cornerstone of democracy. There's no building more important in any city than a library. I'm really honored to indirectly speak to librarians!
What lessons do you hope children (and maybe adults) take away from your book about being troublemakers?
I don't know if I'm trying to teach any lessons! I was really thinking about the process of labeling anyone, and a child in particular, with anything. Jordan is in a time of his life where his identity’s very much in flux. I always thought that calling a kid a “troublemaker” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would like for people to think of every character in the book as a troublemaker and not a troublemaker simultaneously, to see if these labels actually fit.

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams ( is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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