YA Romance for an Unromantic Time

Three new books find hope in young love

The world may be a trash fire, but let’s distract ourselves with the romance of star-crossed lovers.

No, I don’t mean Twilight.

The best young-adult contemporary romances feature a meet-cute scenario, a lot of self-awareness, insights into the tech-fueled world of today’s high schoolers, plus a happy ending. What’s not to love?

Here are three new titles full of all that and more. They follow enough genre conventions to comfort, yet also surprise with their deft handling of issues that include mental health, online vs. real-life personas and sexual preference.

This is My Brain In Love, I.W. Gregorio (Little, Brown, April 4, 2020)

Romance

Jocelyn Wu is a high school junior whose top priority is to make a smashing short film with her best friend, until she discovers that her parents’ restaurant is in danger of closing. Will Domenici needs an internship to make the school newspaper advisor see he’s got the chops to be a higher-ranking editor. Sounds like a romance in the making!

The two meet after Will summons the courage to answer Jocelyn’s ad for a restaurant intern. Will’s got plenty of ideas for a social media push for A-Plus Chinese Garden, and pop-up giveaways that will bring the Wu family’s killer dumplings to the masses.

Gregorio, who is a practicing surgeon as well as an award-winning author for 2015’s None of the Above, hits all the marks for Jocelyn and Will’s romance, from their instant attraction to the inevitable troubles when her stern father disapproves.

But Gregorio really excels in her treatment of both teens’ mental health. Their struggles undoubtedly affect their lives. Will has to rally his nerves to make calls to sources and Jocelyn swims through the heavy weight of depression. Yet these hurdles, as well as their eventual decisions about how to deal with them, don’t wholly define these young people.

Gregorio is open about her own depression and how she resisted trying medication for years. “In the first line of This is My Brain in Love, I assure you that it has a happy ending because I feel very, very strongly that all kids with mental illness deserve to realize that they can get one, no matter how long or difficult the struggle,” she writes in a letter sent with a review copy of the book.

It’s to her credit that this novel weaves in these challenges in a way that normalizes them. This is a love story with heft as well as heart.

What I Like About You, Marisa Kanter (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2020)

Romance

Kanter, a former book publicist, marks her debut with romance set in a world she knows well: YA publishing. Halle loves reading almost as much as she loves baking cupcakes. And even though she’s still in high school, she’s built a substantial online following with One True Pastry, a combo review/baking blog she started under a nom de plume. She’s Kels online since her grandmother was a well-known book editor, and she doesn’t want her readers to judge based on her family ties.

Her online success has mushroomed, with a legion of fans that includes Nash, a fellow blogger and her online BFF. But when Halle and her brother move to Connecticut to stay with their grandfather while their parents travel for work, Halle meets Nash for real in the library. Problem is, Kels is everything Halle thinks she isn’t – confident, witty, quick with a comeback.

“I’m not ready for real. How can I be certain the truth that is me won’t be a total letdown?” Halle thinks when she ponders coming clean about her online identity. “I imagine the flash of disappointment that crosses his face when I tell him who I am. His disappointment – it would ruin me.”

What I Like About You is a winner for its tender portrayal of the relationship between not just Halle and Nash, but her links to her friends, brother and recently bereaved grandfather as well. A bonus is the way Kanter weaves in Halle’s and Nash’s Jewish lives. While Holocaust narratives are undeniably important, it’s refreshing to see a contemporary story with Jewish teens that shows them at synagogue, but doesn’t center the religion as a persecution plot point.

Verona Comics, Jennifer Dugan (Putnam/Penguin, April 21, 2020)

Romance

Dugan knows the comics world as the writer and creator of two indie comics. And her debut novel, Hot Dog Girl, delved into love through one teen’s summer working at an amusement park amid assorted romantic adventures.

Now she melds these two spheres in Verona Comics, where indie-comics daughter and corporate-publishing son meet fittingly at a cosplay “prom.” Jubilee and Ridley meet again, unmasked, when he goes undercover in the store of the title as a spy for his father’s corporation.

Jubilee and Ridley reveal their secrets to each other fairly quickly as they bond over a shared love of comics and a predisposition to anxiety. Unsurprisingly, a romance develops. Jubilee has spent her entire life absorbed in cello practice, and hopes to snag a coveted spot at a summer conservatory program. Ridley deploys a fair number of coping measures (repeating random facts to calm his anxiety-riddled brain; escaping into long soaks he calls sadbaths) and wonders whether he’s really worth Jubilee’s attention.

Dugan shines in her sensitive handling of these teens, mapping the facades they present to the world as well as their insecurities and yearnings. And like Kanter with her protagonists’ Jewish lives, Dugan shows Jubilee and Ridley’s complex romantic history with same-sex partners as part of their story, but not the only part.

“I guess I just like who I like,” Jubilee says. It’s a wonderfully straightforward and accepting sentiment for a world that could use a little romance.

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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