Seoulmates: A Review

Seoulmates by Susan LeeHannah Cho’s dreams of perfect summer before senior year go up in smoke when her boyfriend dumps her. Nate, like most of their friend group, is obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas. While Hannah is Korean American, she has no use for Korean pop culture. After years of leaning into the American parts of her identity to better fit in, Hannah doesn’t know how to handle this shift. Especially when it leaves her suddenly single.

As a rising K-drama star, Jacob Kim struggles with questions of whether he’s committed enough–and Korean enough–to succeed. After years of training, he isn’t sure how much longer he can deal with the pressure to make himself constantly available to his publicity team, his costars, and the press. When a press junket leads to Jacob needing some down time, he’s excited. Until he finds out his mom plans to have them stay with the Chos.

Jacob and Hannah used to be inseparable as kids. But that was before everything soured between them. The two strike an uneasy bargain–and an even more tenuous truce–when Hannah enlists Jacob’s help to win back her boyfriend and Jacob, in turn, asks Hannah to help him complete his summer bucket list of all the things he’s missed in San Diego over the years.

As Hannah and Jacob get to know each other again they’ll have to decide if new memories are enough to make up for old hurts and whether they’re headed for a happy ending or some K-drama level tears in Seoulmates (2022) by Susan Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Seoulmates is Lee’s debut novel. The novel alternates close third person perspective between Hannah and Jacob with some fun vignettes from their mothers’ points of view along the way. All principle characters are Korean or Korean American.

Hannah’s relationship with K-dramas and K-pop is partially inspired by the author’s own journey to embrace her heritage and cultural identity. As such, Seoulmates is lovingly filled with as many zany adventures and heart-string tugs as K-drama fans would expect. While Hannah starts the novel bitter and angry at Jacob, her hurt is clearly defined on the page never leaving readers in doubt of the long history between these characters and the difficult conversations they have in order to get back to each other.

Their hate to love relationship plays out against the backdrop of a summer filled with big questions. Hannah has to figure out what it means to be Korean American when, at last, being Korean finally seems to make her cool enough without trying to change herself. Jacob, meanwhile, has to figure out if continuing as an actor is worth the lack of privacy and the pressure–a stressful question to consider when he’s also been supporting his family since his father’s death years ago.

Lee balances these different plot threads well leaving room for the characters to realistically learn and grow as they reconnect while also delivering gasp-worthy twists in the rocky road of Hannah and Jacob’s relationship.

Seoulmates is a fun and breezy summer romance where finding love is tempered well with finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: The Charmed List by Julia Abe, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan Lee here on the blog.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Charmed List: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Charmed List by Julie AbeEllie Kobata has been looking forward to her road trip with best friend Lia Park for months. Driving from Palo Alto to the California Magical Retailers’ Convention where magical merchants like Ellie’s parents can showcase their wares will be the perfect summer adventure even if traveling with non-magic-aware Lia poses some challenges. Luckily, Ellie is used to keeping magical secrets. Plus she will have Lia’s help knocking items off her Anti-Wallflower List which Ellie hopes will be able to change her quiet girl persona at school into someone more interesting to her classmates and herself.

Ellie’s high hopes for the trip are dashed when item four–getting revenge on her ex-best-friend Jack Yasuda–goes horribly wrong leaving Ellie grounded for the foreseeable future, in a fight with Lia, and worst of all driving to the convention with Jack.

With so many disasters, Ellie’s list is starting to feel like it might be cursed but as Ellie and Jack are forced to spend time together they might also have the chance to rehab their friendship and maybe even check off some other items from Ellie’s list like dancing under the stars and falling in love in The Charmed List (2022) by Julie Abe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Charmed List is Abe’s YA debut but you might recognize her name from her middle grade series Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch.

Ellie is Japanese American, Jack is half-Italian American, half-Japanese American.

The Charmed List is a delightful standalone filled with romance and magic. Artist Ellie’s initially prickly narration will win readers over as she explains details of her magic-aware world including charms for things like joy or ambition and reveals more of her fraught history with Jack.

With road trip stops including quirky shops, welcoming inns, and magical cottages The Charmed List is as cozy as it is engrossing. Fans of the romance genre will recognize tropes including hate to love, there’s only one bed, and more in this story about second chances and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

XOXO: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

XOXO by Axie OhSixteen-year-old Jenny Go’s entire life revolves her plan to get into a prestigious music conservatory. Jenny knows she is technically talented enough. But after her music teacher says her cello playing lacks spark, Jenny is worried that might not be enough.

Still smarting from the criticism, Jenny decides to try stepping out of her comfort zone when she meets a cute guy at her uncle’s karaoke bar in LA. Everything about this boy screams bad decision. But that doesn’t stop Jenny from having a great time with him. He even says he’ll keep in touch when he has to go back to South Korea.

But then he doesn’t.

Jenny’s plan to forget about the boy and focus on her music goes sideways when she finds out her grandmother needs surgery. Jenny and her mom are going to South Korea to support her with Jenny spending the semester studying at Seoul Arts Academy.

No one is more surprised than Jenny when she runs into Jaewoo at the school. And finds out he’s a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands ever.

XOXO is a big deal. Being friends with Jaewoo and the other members immediately puts Jenny under an unwanted spotlight. Pursuing a relationship with Jaewoo would be even worse when his label strictly forbids dating. Nothing about Jaewoo is part of Jenny’s plan. But sometimes you can’t plan for matters of the heart in XOXO (2021) by Axie Oh.

Find it on Bookshop.

XOXO is narrated by Jenny with a fast pace and lots of humor. All characters are Korean or Korean American. Readers interested in audiobooks will also enjoy the audio production narrated by Greta Jung.

Meet cutes and clandestine hangouts abound as Jenny and Jaewoo find common ground despite their very different musical niches and try to decide if they can have a romantic future. Vivid descriptions of Seoul and Korean cuisine (both in LA and Seoul) will make readers feel like they’re right next to readers throughout the novel. Avid K-pop fans won’t find a lot of new takes on the world of pop groups and idols but Oh offers an accessible introduction for newbie fans and those unfamiliar with the musical genre.

XOXO is a exuberant ode to all things K-pop and music with cinematic romance complete with one big grand gesture. Recommended for romance fans and K-pop stans alike.

Possible Pairings: Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, For the Record by Charlotte Huang, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee, The Upside of Falling by Alex Light, Smash It! by Francina Simone, Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne

Admission: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“An important part of growing up is letting yourself see the world as it truly is, even if you don’t like what you see or your own complicity in it.”

Admission by Julie BuxbaumChloe Wynn Berringer has always known she’d have a bright future. It’s one of the perks of being Chloe Wynn Berringer.

She’s been accepted to her dream college. She’s going to prom with the boy she’s had a crush on since middle school. She has the perfect best friend, Shola. Even her mom, a longtime B-list celebrity might be getting a long overdue comeback.

Then the FBI knocks on her front door with guns drawn and Chloe realizes that her carefully curated world isn’t as picture-perfect as she thought.

Now Chloe’s mom is under arrest as part of a huge college admissions bribery scandal. One that Chloe didn’t know about even if it apparently helped guarantee her college spot.

Facing possible charges herself, abandoned by her best friend and her boyfriend, Chloe is the face of a crime she barely understands. Chloe knew that her parents were being weird about her college application process. Of course she did. but does that means she knew what they were doing? Does it mean that she needed them to cheat for her? Or that she wanted them to do it?

After years of taking so much for granted, Chloe isn’t sure who she’ll be when all of the easy pieces of her life are stripped away but she’s going to find out. Whether she wants to or not in Admission (2020) by Julie Buxbaum.

Find it on Bookshop.

If the plot of Buxbaum’s latest standalone contemporary sounds familiar, that’s because it’s inspired by the actual college admissions scandal involving real life celebrities including Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and William H. Macy among others that broke in 2019. The story alternates between Chloe’s present–starting with her mom’s arrest–and flashbacks to the year leading up to the explosive fallout from the scandal. Chloe and her family are white and the story is set in the same world as Buxbaum’s other contemporary YAs.

Throughout Admission Chloe explores both her complicity in the events as well as the embarrassment she carries that her parents felt they needed to go to such lengths to get her into college. As Chloe learns, there are no easy answers–particularly once she begins to understand the harm her parents’ actions (and her own inaction) can have for students unable to bribe their way into a school. This aspect of privilege is carefully explored through the deterioration of Chloe’s relationship with Shola–her Black best friend waiting for scholarship and financial aid results before choosing a school. (Shola is waitlisted at the school where Chloe is “accepted” thanks to her bogus application.)

Admission delves beyond the salacious details and, often, absurdity of the actual college admissions scandal to offer a story with more nuance and complexity as the scandal is explored from the inside out. By the end of the novel, Chloe’s easy life is torn apart but it leaves room for something to grow in even stronger as she learns more about what it means to stand on her own merit for the first time.

Possible Pairings: Off the Record by Camryn Garrett, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe

Instructions for Dancing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola YoonEvie Thomas is done with love.

After watching her parents’ marriage fall apart, she knows firsthand that love is a scam. Real life doesn’t have happy endings. The romance novels she used to adore are all lies.

While her mother tries to move on and her younger sister falls headfirst into every relationship she can, Evie is still angry at her father. And she’s furious that she wasted so much time believing in something that never lasts.

Giving up on love seems like the easiest course of action until Evie’s plan to donate her romance novel collection to a little free library goes horribly wrong. After accepting a mysterious book from a stranger, Evie can suddenly see people fall in love when they kiss. Her new visions trace each relationship from its tender beginning to the inevitable conclusion. It’s more than anyone can take but especially someone who is done with love.

Evie’s hunt for a way to stop whatever is happening leads her to La Brea Dance Studio and the owners’ charming, very cute nephew X. Where Evie is cautious, X is impulsive. If Evie is reserved, X is open–he always says yes. In other words, they are complete opposites and, through a series of events Evie barely understands, they are also suddenly partners in an amateur dance competition.

All Evie wants to do is stop her weird visions. If that means hanging out with X, fine. Falling for him is definitely not part of the plan, no matter how cute X might be. But the more time Evie spends with X, the more obvious it is that falling for him is as inevitable as standing close during the tango.

After witnessing so many heartbreaks firsthand, Evie knows that love always ends. As she gets closer to X, she’ll have to decide if having love at all is enough to risk the inevitable heartbreak in Instructions for Dancing (2021) by Nicola Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

In many ways Instructions for Dancing feels like a natural next step (pun intended) to follow up Yoon’s blockbuster sophomore novel The Sun is Also a Star. Through Evie’s visions this story spins out from main character Evie’s first person narration to show a world that is much larger, and more beautiful, that cynical Evie is at first willing to acknowledge. Elements of fabulism (think magic realism but not by latinx authors) add unexpected magic and whimsy to this subtle story. Evie and X are Black and backed up by an inclusive cast with strong friendships and memorable adults notably including X’s grandparents.

Evie’s reluctant immersion in the world of competitive dance adds a lot of humor to a story that tackles weighty topics like love and loss with nuance and care. Evie’s friend group also plays an important role in the novel as all of them prepare for the end of high school and what that will mean for each of them and their friend web.

Instructions for Dancing is the definition of bittersweet with an ending that is sure to garner a few tears from even the coldest of hearts. With a story that carefully balances hope and pragmatism, Instructions for Dancing is affirming and, ultimately, an ode to love in all of its forms.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre by Robin Talley

*An advance e-copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Light From Uncommon Stars: A Review

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka AokiShizuka Satomi has spent years building up her reputation as the Queen of Hell. It’s a name fitting for someone with her reputation of building up violin prodigies–more fitting than most people realize.

Shizuka made a deal with the devil forty-nine years ago. Now, if she wants to keep her own soul–and her own prodigious success–she has to deliver seven souls. With six delivered and one soul left, Shizuka should feel secure. But she doesn’t. She wants her last soul to belong to someone special. Someone she’s been struggling to find for years already.

Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no one to turn to. She has her hormones, her laptop, and her violin and she knows no matter how bad things get she can survive if she has those things. When Shizuka offers to help life Katrina lift her up, it seems too good to be true. As Katrina comes closer to Shizuka’s secrets she realizes how true her initial doubts really are.

From a donut shop on a highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Lan Tran is slowly drawn into this Faustian drama. A retired starship captain with four children to support and protect, Lan has her own priorities. She wants to keep a low profile at Starrgate Donuts for herself and her family. Which is why her blossoming crush on Shizuka is so inconvenient–especially when Lan realizes it might be mutual.

As Shizuka, Katrina, and Lan are drawn into each others’ lives, the three women begin to realize that in order to overcome their separate challenges they might just need each other in Light From Uncommon Stars (2021) by Ryka Aoki.

Find it on Bookshop.

Light From Uncommon Stars is a blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements in a contemporary California setting. The close third person narration shifts between Shizuka, Katrina, Lan, and other pivotal characters.

Aoki expertly blends these seemingly disparate elements into a seamless story filled with heart and hope even as Katrina, particularly, deals with rejection, hate, and sexual assault. Katrina also spends part of the novel as a sex worker while she tries to survive on the streets–an element that is handled thoughtfully but is still, understandably, heavy.

This evocative novel is imbued with a strong love of music and filled with delicious food descriptions. Light From Uncommon Stars is a sprawling story of redemption and connection. Recommended for readers looking for a novel that defies both expectations and genre classifications.

Possible Pairings: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu, Gideon the Ninth by Tamysn Muir, Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett, You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

If the Shoe Fits: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

If the Shoe Fits by Julie MurphyCindy barely made it through her senior year in design school. She filled her portfolio with old shoe designs while all of the pent-up grief from her father’s death just before college finally caught up to her. Even now, as a fresh college graduate, Cindy is completely uninspired. No wonder she has no industry job prospects.

Leaving her chosen home in New York City to return to California to nanny her much-younger triplet siblings could be a much-needed chance to refocus. The plan starts to sound even better after Cindy has a meet-cute on the plane with dreamy Henry who could easily pass for Prince Charming.

Adrift and not sure how to restart her creativity, Cindy makes a surprising choice when she volunteers to appear as a contestant on her step-mother’s popular reality dating show. Sure, it’s unexpected. But it will give Cindy a chance to showcase her work and get some exposure. Plus she’ll be appearing with her other step-sisters so it’s not like Cindy will be on her own. She knows she won’t win the Suitor. But maybe she’ll land a job.

When the producers decide it would make more sense if Cindy has no connections on the show, she’s worried. When the show’s suitor turns out to be a certain charmer that Cindy got to know on a plane, she’s concerned–what are the rules for dating someone you already know while on national television?

Just when Cindy is ready to go home, she finds out that the show’s viewers have embraced her as the first plus-size contestant pushing body positivity one group date at a time. She has to stay for her new fans. As the sparks fly between her and Henry and her inspiration slowly returns, Cindy might have to stay for herself too in If the Shoe Fits (2021) by Julie Murphy.

Find it on Bookshop.

If the Shoe Fits is Murphy’s first novel written for adults. The book is also the start of Disney’s Meant to Be series of romances which will retell different Disney classics. Being a Disney property, this novel is high on the swoons while being light on the steam.

Fans of Murphy’s previous novels will appreciate Cindy’s no-nonsense first person narration as well as her comfort in her own skin as a fat woman who isn’t afraid of being called fat. That doesn’t mean Cindy doesn’t have to confront fatphobia throughout the novel as the show’s stylists refuse to stock clothing in her size and, during one group date, Cindy is forced to cobble together an outfit out of designer clothes from a label that doesn’t make anything in her size. Rather than becoming pain points for Cindy or readers, these moments showcase Cindy’s ingenuity as a designer and underscore the book’s continued message of inclusivity.

Cindy and Henry are white. There is diversity among the show contestants, staff, and designers met along the way including one of my favorite secondary characters, Jay, who is a non-binary style icon.

While comparing If the Shoe Fits to the original Cinderella is a stretch in some respects, fans of the original will recognize key details from the original including Cinderella’s squad of helpful mice, beautiful shoes, and even a reimagining of the Disney princess’s iconic outfit. Obvious chemistry between Cindy and Henry along with their smile-inducing banter move the story along even when it gets bogged down in the conventions of the dating competition–a show that fans of The Bachelor will immediately recognize.

If the Shoe Fits is a Cinderella retelling replete with positivity in a story that centers romance and magical moments without any of the toxic feminity inherent to the original as Murphy reinterprets Cindy’s relationships with both her step-mother and her step-sisters. A must-read for Disney fans and romance readers alike.

Possible Pairings: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall, Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert, Natalie Tan’s Books of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, Charlie Glass’s Slippers by Holly McQueen

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Mayhem: A Review

Mayhem by Estelle LaureCalifornia, 1987: Mayhem Brayburn and her mother have never been like everyone else. May can see it in her mother Roxy’s constant pain, her pull to the water, the gaping hole of her father’s absence in the wake of his suicide years ago.

When her step-father goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem make their way back to the beach town–and the family history–that Roxy left behind when May was a baby. Santa Maria is everything May always hoped it would be. She meets her aunt’s foster kids, finds the family she always wanted and, amazingly, discovers her own connection to the Brayburn family’s long line of magic.

But not everything is magical in Santa Maria. Girls are going missing. Soon, Mayhem’s own efforts to find the culprit draw her into a strange world of vigilante justice and revenge as she learns more about the town–and her family’s–darker secrets in Mayhem (2020) by Estelle Laure.

Find it on Bookshop.

If this standalone fantasy sounds a lot like the 1987 film The Lost Boys, that’s because it is. While Laure imbues Mayhem with its own magic and world building, the story stays close to the original plot of the classic vampire film complete with brief appearances by the iconic Frog brothers. Laure also brings more diversity to the cast in her update–the Brayburns are white but May’s farther was Brazilian and Jason and Kidd are biracial (Black and white).

Questions of why this story had to be set in 1987 instead of modernized are also inevitable and not well answered by any authorial choices.

How you feel about this book might depend on your familiarity with the film and your feelings about it. Mayhem includes a lot of nods to the original film but shifts in surprising ways to make space for the Brayburn’s family history as seen in a mysterious diary Mayhem finds upon exploring her new home. Unfortunately these two storylines don’t always mesh well feeling more like two separate stories than one, cohesive plot.

Mayhem is ideal for readers who like their witches fierce and their vampire references vintage.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Lost Boys

Happily Ever Afters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Happily Ever Afters by Elise BryantAs a shy introvert, there’s nowhere Tessa Johnson would rather be that sitting down at her laptop writing. Tessa rarely sees herself in the romance novels she loves to read. So instead she writes her own, creating love stories where she and her best friend Caroline can finally see themselves as leading ladies. Writing is the one place Tessa feels like she is fully in control of her life. Sharing her writing with anyone but Caroline is a different story.

While moving for her father’s promotion is hard, Tessa hopes that starting her junior year at an arts school with a creative writing program will make the transition easier. The only problem is that Tessa fails to consider that being in a writing program means people will want to read–and critique!–her writing. Suddenly Tessa’s dream school turns into a nightmare when she loses all of her inspiration and her confidence.

Without any other ideas, Tessa agrees to follow Caroline’s advice: find some real-life inspiration with romance-novel inspired ideas while getting close to the incredibly cute, romance-cover-worthy visual arts student Nico. Checking things off her list turns out to be easy, but Tessa isn’t sure if it’s really going to help her find her words again–or the right guy for her own perfect ending in Happily Ever Afters (2021) by Elise Bryant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Happily Ever Afters is Bryant’s debut novel. The story is narrated by Tessa.

Having a Black father and a white mother, Tessa was used to never fitting in at her previous school where she and Caroline (who is Filipina) initially bonded as two of the only students of color. In addition to the culture shock of a conservatory program, Tessa is thrilled to find a much more diverse group of students at her new school as she bonds with new friends on her own for the first time.

Although Tessa struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, the novel is imbued with humor even as things go wrong. This levity is much needed to counter heavier parts of the story as Tessa balances her own life with the responsibilities and expectations her parents have for Tessa to help with her older brother Miles who has athetoid cerebral palsy which has led to mobility challenges and mental impairment.

While Tessa tries, with varying levels of success, to get closer to Nico, readers can appreciate Tessa’s swoony moments with neighbor and culinary arts student Sam. Both Tessa and Sam struggle with impostor syndrome as Tessa wonders if her romantic stories really “count” as creative writing while Sam tries to justify baking as an art to himself as much as to anyone else.

Happily Ever Afters is an ode to romance novels, creativity, and fandoms. A sweet story about how sometimes you have to learn to love yourself–and your passions–without apology before you can learn to love someone else.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett; Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne; Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon; I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

The Black Kids: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds ReedLos Angeles, 1992: Ashley Bennett is living her best life at the end of her senior year spending more time at the beach with her friends than in the classroom.

But Ashley’s summer of possibility seems like much less of a sure thing when four LAPD officers are acquitted after they beat a Black man named Rodney King nearly to death. Suddenly both Ashley and all of her friends are very aware that Ashley is the only Black girl in their group and one of the only black kids in the entire school.

As protests shift to violent riots and fires threaten the city, Ashley tries to pretend nothing is changing. As her sister throws herself into the center of the riots heedless of the consequences, Ashley tries to ignore all the cracks in her family’s facade of privilege. When Ashley accidentally helps her friends spread a rumor that could derail her classmate LaShawn’s college plans, she realizes she has to make amends.

Ashley has never felt like one of the Black kids but as she gets to know LaShawn and his friends, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about her family, her city, and her own place in both in The Black Kids (2020) by Christina Hammonds Reed.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Black Kids is an intense debut novel and was a finalist for the 2020 William C. Morris YA Debut Award. This story plays out against the backdrop of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, it includes scenes of protests turning violent as well as racial slurs (notably the n word) used by characters. While these situations are addressed and interrogated in the story as Ashley learns to speak up for herself and for others, be advised of what to expect as you read.

Ashley’s first person narration is both lyrical and pragmatic. Ashley is very firmly grounded in her reality–fully aware of her sister’s self-destructive tendencies and her own precarious position surrounded by her white friends. At the same time, she also dreams of better days to come as she looks back on formative moments with her current best friends and learns more about her family’s history in LA.

There are no easy answers in this story and there are no perfect characters. Ashley is secretly hooking up with her best friend’s boyfriend, a new friend is furious when Ashley reports possible abuse, and the consequence for Ashley’s sister joining the riots are severe.

While the riots shape the larger narrative arc of this novel, The Black Kids is ultimately a smaller story about one girl’s growth (and her stumbles) as she learns to embrace every part of who she is–not just the parts she thinks people want to see.

Possible Pairings: Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, Light It Up by Kekla Magoon, I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson