Love isn't easy

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” as Lysander points out in the beginning of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Valentine’s Day approaches on February 14, these six recent young adult novels may help readers realize how complex romance can often be.

Lark & Kasim Start a Revolution
by Kacen Callender
High School    Amulet/Abrams    336 pp.
9/22    9781419756870    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781647004125    $15.54

Seventeen-year-old Lark is sure that once they hit fifty thousand Twitter followers, an agent will pick up their novel, and they’ll finally be able to prove they’re “worthy of being loved.” Lark — who lives in West Philly and is Black, nonbinary, polyamorous, and neurodivergent — takes summer writing classes with other Black, queer teens, including their ex-best friend Kasim. Lark and Kasim butt heads because Lark believes in unconditional love and forgiveness, while revolutionary Kasim would rather “burn down” everything wrong with society. But when Kasim accidentally posts about his own unrequited love from Lark’s Twitter account, the thread goes viral, and Lark takes credit. As Lark lies for internet fame, they can’t help but wonder: who is Kasim really in love with? And does Lark even love themself? The Twitter posts re-created throughout are sometimes hilarious, sometimes unsettlingly real, exploring internet callout culture and what it truly takes to grow from one’s mistakes. The novel can be didactic at times, but the characters and their relationships are complex, engaging, and delightfully flawed. References to the COVID-19 pandemic are seamlessly interwoven into everyday life; frank discussions of topics like autism and ADHD in the Black community, and how to navigate polyamorous relationships, feel fresh and necessary in the YA sphere. A brief writing guide for aspiring teen authors is appended. BODIE SHANIS 

Boys I Know
by Anna Gracia
High School    Peachtree Teen    352 pp.
7/22    9781682633717    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781682634523    $12.99

June Chu, a Taiwanese American high school senior living in Iowa, struggles to understand her identity as she tries to reconcile the conflicting influences of her strict and traditional family, her at-times clueless friends, and the boys she dates. She bounces from emotionally unavailable Rhys to affectionate but culturally incompetent Brad (who calls her “China”) to devious Gang, all while experiencing difficulty truly loving and believing in herself. Her similarly fraught on-again, off-again commitment to playing the violin, especially as a means for getting into college, mirrors her unsuccessful attempts to separate from her mom’s influence and control. In a believable, immersive teen voice, June narrates her complicated feelings about representation and visibility as well as independence and coming of age. Pressured to call out her friends’ microaggressions, June is reluctant to do so, demonstrating the burden of emotional labor too often placed on BIPOC folks to correct others’ behavior. Most notably, Gracia’s sophisticated rendering of June’s sexual experiences normalizes sexually active and thoughtful teens, and models behavior that prioritizes consent, choice (including the decision to obtain the morning-after pill from Planned Parenthood), and self-care. J. ELIZABETH MILLS 

Practice Girl
by Estelle Laure
High School    Viking    320 pp.
5/22    9780593350911    $18.99

Seventeen-year-old Jo is devastated when she overhears the boy she recently slept with refer to her as a “practice girl”: someone to have sex with for experience, but not to date. She’s further humiliated to discover that she is widely known by that label among the guys on the wrestling team, of which she’s the manager; worse, her best friend, team member Sam, didn’t tell her about it. Jo quits, then defiantly rejoins — as a competitor. (Her love for the sport comes from her late father, who was the wrestling coach.) At her first meet, Dax, a rival wrestler with a reputation of his own, asks her out. But are his intentions genuine? They are, it turns out, and Jo and Dax are caring, honest, and mature together. Laure (Remember Me, rev. 3/22) demonstrates a keen understanding of adolescent interactions, and not only romantic ones. Jo’s reflections on her relationships with family and friends — in particular her complicated feelings for Sam — are nuanced and insightful. The protagonist’s growth, both physical and emotional, pays off: in the satisfying ending, she finds victory on the mat and recognizes that she deserves to be loved and appreciated unconditionally. She may well help readers to recognize that they deserve the same. RACHEL L. KERNS 

A Scatter of Light
by Malinda Lo
High School    Dutton    336 pp.
10/22    9780525555285    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780525555292    $10.99

The summer before heading to MIT, in 2013, eighteen-year-old Aria finds herself banished to her artist grandmother’s remote Northern California home after an unfortunate revenge porn incident. There she meets Steph, a twenty-something lead singer in a queer band. Their physical attraction is immediate, even though Aria has always dated boys and Steph has a girlfriend. Suddenly all aspects of Aria’s identity seem to be in transition. Is she gay or straight? An artist or a scientist? A dutiful daughter and friend or the kind of person who would cheat with someone else’s partner? When tragedy strikes, Aria realizes that asking the questions is more important than having the answers, and that life, as her grandmother Joan wisely observed about making art, “could be extremely frustrating, but the point of it was the process.” This deeply perceptive bildungsroman thoughtfully explores several absorbing topics, but first and foremost it is an intimate, exhilarating story of first love. It’s billed as a companion novel to Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club (rev. 1/21), and readers will be delighted to discover the connection between Aria’s and Lily’s stories. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN 

Twice as Perfect
by Louisa Onomé
High School    Feiwel    416 pp.
7/22    9781250823502    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781250823519    $10.99

While busy, high-achieving seventeen-year-old Nigerian Canadian high-school senior Adanna Nkwachi helps to plan her cousin’s traditional wedding to a Nigerian superstar, she is also dealing with her own feelings for two totally different boys. Additionally, her older brother, Sam, has left home following a fight with their parents, and Ada now feels the weight of their expectations resting solely on her. She begins to question whether law school — their plan for her — is really what she wants. When she and Sam eventually reconnect, Ada’s discovery of his choice to be a poet, against their parents’ wishes, inspires her to contemplate other paths for herself. Deftly drawn, charismatic characters bring a measure of humor to the story and reverently convey aspects of Nigerian culture. Themes of cultural appropriation, parental expectations, familial relationships, first love, and finding one’s own voice are seamlessly interwoven in a fluid plot that is honest and satisfying. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY 

Scattered Showers: Stories
by Rainbow Rowell; illus. by Jim Tierney
High School    Wednesday/St. Martin’s    288 pp.
11/22    9781250855411    $24.99
e-book ed.  9781250855428    $12.99

Teen readers of Rowell’s (Eleanor & Park, rev. 5/13; Fangirl, rev. 11/13) first short-story collection will relish spending time with her nine distinct narratives about love (four previously published). The author taps into her literary sweet spot of complex and memorable romance, including a friendship that evolves over multiple New Year’s Eves; a Star Wars movie premiere that brings two teens together; a college breakup healed by mixtapes from an unlikely source; and an invitation to a school dance that changes everything. New beginnings and longstanding relationships are staples, as are wintertime, Christmas, and Rowell’s home state of Nebraska, but variety in plot and characterization keep pages turning. These riveting character studies (including one of Simon and Baz from Carry On, rev. 1/16) often lead to truthful and profound conversations; within this mix of realism and fantasy (including the pandemic, a contemporary fairy tale, and a bit of metafiction), Rowell always addresses how love — in its many forms — is a fundamental aspect of life. Happy endings are in no way guaranteed (though they’re often implied), but every tale concludes with some degree of connection while leaving room for contemplation about what might happen next. There is a mauve and teal color palette in the text’s fonts, in scene-setting full-page illustrations at the beginning of each story, and in occasional spot art throughout. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

From the January 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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