Editor’s Note: This year, actor Maulik Pancholy will release his first book, The Best At It. The book is about the story of 12-year-old Rahul Kapoor who begins to realize he is gay. It explores the struggles he faces with peers, family, and identity and his own journey in finding himself.
This interview with Maulik was originally published on the blog “Watch. Connect. Read.” on February 14, 2019.
Hello, Maulik Pancholy! Welcome to Watch. Connect. Read.! I am a huge fan of yours and The Best At It. I could not put it down. Rahul, Chelsea, Bhai, Arun, Sarita, Anish, and the Auntie Squad and Uncle Brigade will stay with me for a very long time.
Maulik Pancholy: Thank you so much! I’m honored to be featured on your incredible blog, and to receive such a warm welcome for my debut novel. To hear that these characters will leave a lasting impact on you is a compliment that means a great deal to me.
I am honored you’re here. What ran through your head (or your heart) the first time you saw Parvati Pillai’s cover illustration and Cara Llewellyn’s design for The Best At It.
Maulik: I remember that as soon as I opened the pdf, my heart leapt. I kept nodding and saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” After staring at it for what seemed like an eternity, I forced myself to put it away. Only to immediately open it back up again.
Parvati really captured the spirit of the book. To me, the movement in it reflects the flurry of activity in Rahul’s world, the bold colors are a nod to both his cultural background and his identity, and I love how determined he looks flying into the air. It’s a very optimistic cover, which feels exactly right. I’m beyond grateful for what she so thoughtfully illustrated.
Scenario: You’re in an elevator at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference when a teacher-librarian spots you holding a copy ofThe Best At It. He asks you what it is about. You have approximately 30 seconds (the elevator stops at almost every floor) to book talk it. What do you say?
Maulik: Well, first I thank him for asking. Then I hover my finger over the “close door” button…just in case.
“The Best at It is about Rahul Kapoor, a twelve-year-old Indian-American boy who’s beginning to realize that he might be gay. Struggling to come to terms with his identity, he believes that all of his anxieties will disappear if he can just prove to the world that he’s the best at something. But he’s got two major problems…what is he going to be the best at, and what happens if he falls short? It’s a story about friendship, family, and the courage it takes to own your truth.”
I love your booktalk. What would The Best at It have meant to 11-year-old Maulik?
Maulik: I loved reading books as a kid. I still do. But growing up, I never saw characters who looked like me in the books I read. Let alone kids who were dealing with the things I was dealing with. I think seeing a kid of color grappling with his sexual identity and the anxieties of feeling “different” — on multiple levels — would have made me feel a little less alone in the world.
It’s vital for young people to see their stories reflected back in the books they read and in the television shows and movies they watch. As an actor, it’s something I’m very conscious of. Because I know firsthand that when you don’t see yourself, you can start to question how you fit into the world. Or think you need to be someone you’re not. Because you’re effectively being told that your story doesn’t exist, that it isn’t valid, that it doesn’t matter.
So, I certainly could have used a book like The Best at It in middle school. But I also hope Rahul’s story will have universal appeal, just like so many of the books I loved as a kid. Because I think every child can relate to feeling different and needing to prove their worth. Sometimes, even to themselves.
Please finish these sentences starters:
I hope The Best at It finds a home in the heart of any kid who’s ever thought they needed to be ‘better’ than they are just to exist. I hope that Rahul’s journey inspires, offers understanding, and provides some good laughs along the way.
School libraries are magical places. I remember disappearing in the stacks for whole afternoons going on adventure after adventure, one book at a time.
Mr. Schu, you should have asked me if I was a Mathlete! Which I’m proud to say, I was.
Maulik Pancholy is an award-winning actor whose television work includes30 Rock, Whitney, Web Therapy, Elementary, Friends from College, The Good Wife, The Comeback, The Sopranos, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and more. He is also the voice of Baljeet on the Emmy Award–winning animated series Phineas and Ferb and of Sanjay on Sanjay and Craig. Maulik is the recipient of an Asian American Arts Alliance Award and the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. In 2014, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. While at the White House, he helped launch an anti-bullying campaign called Act To Change, which he continues to lead today. Maulik lives with his husband in Brooklyn, NY. This is his debut novel.
The Best At It is available for pre-order.