With his new children’s book Troublemaker, John Cho stirs up some good trouble, tackling racism, riots, and parenting through pandemics and problems. 
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Actor John Cho
Credit: Benjo Arwas

Actor John Cho has been many things in his 25-year career: a teen with a thing for MILFS, a workaholic stoner, a geeky accountant, an FBI agent, the first-ever Asian American rom-com lead on TV, and a dad on the hunt for his missing kid. And most recently, a space cowboy. But in his latest role, he turns kids' book author with his middle grade debut, Troublemaker, on shelves now.

"I was such a reader as a kid, and during those years, I never really saw myself on book covers," Cho tells Parents. "But it would be really awesome to have that in a library somewhere for a kid to stumble onto, and that was the dream."

The book, set after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, centers on 12-year-old Jordan, a Korean American kid who goes on a big—and sometimes scary—adventure in the thick of the lockdown as riots take Los Angeles. It's a historical moment that, in Cho's mind, holds many parallels to the upheaval kids today are experiencing when it comes to issues of race, class, and especially equity. "The pandemic happened, and George Floyd was murdered, and there was all this anti-Asian violence," says Cho, dad to two. "It was a very distressing time and compounding that we were all kind of locked up at home, and you know, my kids were witnessing all of this. Sometimes we just don't know how to discuss these things with our kids."

The book was Cho's way of delving deep and starting conversations—and here, he chats with Parents about race, writing, parenting, and embracing his role as Hollywood's new favorite everydad, soon to be complete with RV. 

Troublemaker tackles some big issues: racism, riots, a family coming together through it allBut initially, you started out writing something different.

The impulse of writing a book was always there, but yeah, I was set on writing something lighter, like a mystery, because that's what I liked when I was that age. It was such a quick decision and impulsive; I'm only now excavating sort of the reasoning behind it. We've all been through a lot in recent years. All of that was on my mind, and because of that, and because of a kind of a general reevaluation of the country I lived in, I think that's at the root of it. I was just sort of, as an immigrant saying, "What was the conception of my country when we got here? What did I conceive of my future and what my children's future would look like? And where are we now?" It caused me to look backward and look at another incident of social upheaval.

That's where the setting for Troublemakers came from—Los Angeles in the 1990s, during the riots after the Rodney King verdict. 

I think it was a desire to think a little bit more about that event, a way to discuss, to think about the things that were happening right now in a different context. In a way that felt a little safer for my kids. I wondered what that event might have looked like for a kid. I have a son who's about to be 14, and a 9-year-old daughter. I wanted to figure out how to make sense of things for kids like them.

As an actor, it could have been a movie. But you were an English major in college. What made you decide it was a book? Were your parents pushing you: "When are you finally going to use that English degree? Rake in the big bucks?"

Yeah, because publishing is it, right? But there's something about books. They're immersive in a way that nothing else is. And reading was my primary way of connecting with my kids from their earliest ages. We always read a couple of books before bed. That was our thing, our way of communicating. I have always associated it not only with childhood because of my own love of reading, but because it was a way to connect with my children. In our house, it's important, they're both readers. I do think that there is something about the impenetrability of the book. The singularity and function of the book is really special.

What was John Cho the kid like as a reader?

When I was younger, I liked Little House on the Prairie very much, and they're still important in our house. I would say those are the most important books of my life. Really, I saw in this pioneer family a real kinship as immigrants. A simpler time. I enjoyed learning about how things were done by hand back in the day. I also liked the Beverly Cleary books. The Henry Higguns books were really important to me, and also Dear Mr. Henshaw. There was something about this inner life of a kid struggling with something; I needed to read about a kid that was dealing with something very adult and difficult. And then I liked a lot of mystery books. There was a series called The Three Investigators. They had a clubhouse in a junkyard in an RV. That was hidden by a big pile of junk and only they knew the path inside, and my kids, give me a lot of heat because I still fantasize about buying an RV or a really cool van. I'm always scoping them out and threatening to buy one.

Makes sense. You guys did just come off a big adventure with Cowboy Bebop and New Zealand.

Oh, being in New Zealand was a blessing for us. There was no COVID for a while there, and it was difficult for us to be away from family and friends. But I'm really grateful for the experience that the kids had of looking at their life and their country from a different place. I think that's very healthy, to get decentered for a minute and get uncomfortable a little bit, and experience another set of values. Another history. You know that country, in particular, is very interesting as they're coming to grips with their colonial past. They're making great strides to educate their citizenry about the Maori population, the history, and how their nation came to be, and it's sort of in contrast to some of the bills that are being passed in the United States right now. I find it to be refreshing. It was a healthy experience as a family to go over there.

That's why middle grade is so important. You're crossing the line into adulthood and learning your identities, and who you'll become, and I suppose that's why there's a political battle being fought over those years, and how we're going to educate those children. You know I am worried. I want our institutions to teach tolerance, to teach critical thinking, and about how we got here as a nation. About how to make it a more equitable society.

That's especially stressful right now, given all the anti-Asian hate and violence we're seeing, as you wrote about in your essay for the LA Times. How do you address that with your kids?

I don't have great answers, to be honest. What my wife and I try to do is balance, being honest and plain without distressing them to the point where they feel powerless, where they have anxiety. But we also don't want to shield them to the point where they are unaware of the dynamics around them since they're hearing about stuff. It's important to demonstrate an open line of communication between us about anything.

And through your work, you're really expanding what it looks like to be Asian American on-screen. To be American on-screen. And now through your books, too. In Troublemaker, Jordan isn't the quiet kid in the back of the class. In the book, he's literally the troublemaker.

I suppose, early on, when I started, I was reacting a lot to stereotypes and trying to combat them, you know, and that sounds high-minded. I was saying no to a lot of things in trying to do the opposite. Trying to zag when everyone was zigging. Now I feel that it's less responsive to the rules, and more about doing what speaks to me personally. Part of it is the boom of talent that's out there right now. I think it's a collective movement, and us expressing ourselves in whatever way we choose.

Troublemaker by John Cho
Credit: Little Brown Books for Young Readers

You've played a lot of parents recently, too. Everydad, in a way. 

The town decided I was old all of a sudden! The cool thing about playing a parent is that the stakes for parents are very clear and very dramatic and deep. Being a parent expands who you are. When my kids were born there was a part of my heart that just grew. They introduced me to an entirely new kind of love that I wasn't privy to before they existed. So it's been interesting to have that part of myself grow as a parent and then also be able to put that on-screen because it feels very much a part of me.

Next up is Don't Make Me Go, an Amazon original film—and another dad! 

It's a father and daughter story, with newcomer Mia Isaac. We shot it in New Zealand. In it, I'm a single dad, and I find out that I have a tumor that may kill me. That will kill me if I don't have a very dangerous operation. So I elect to not have the operation and instead spend my time with my kid, and we take on a road trip to meet her mother. But I keep the information about the tumor to myself. So it's a road trip movie like Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, but just a mom at the end. No burgers but yeah, it's a very special feature with a special actress, and I saw a rough cut of it recently and was very gratified.

Your own daughter is 9, squarely a middle grade reader. What did she think of Troublemaker?

She gave me a thumbs up and said, "Good job, Daddy." I'll take it! But lately, she's been asking questions. I think she's processing it, and I don't begin any discussions about the book with her. She might have a question about the plot or "why did you say this or that," so I'm still figuring out what it means to her.  

Okay, last one: best parenting advice you've ever gotten?

The big thing that I think my wife and I think about is making them feel safe, emotionally. Obviously, you're going to give them shelter and all that stuff. But they ought to feel comfortable coming to you and that's kind of a lifelong focus of ours. I just want them to feel safe with us so that whatever happens out there, they can always come to us. 

Oh! And the best advice my dad ever gave me was: Walk it off. Whatever the situation, take a walk around the block, come back to it. And I swear to God that his voice comes to me whenever I'm stuck. Whenever I feel stuck and frustrated, my dad tells me, in my head, "Take a spin around the block." That's excellent parenting and life advice!