High school was a pretty rough experience for me. Not because of any horrible happenings outside the normal teen drama, but because it made me feel incredibly small, if not invisible. Having never really seen myself in media or popular culture, I frankly had no idea how I was supposed to fit into the school ecosystem, no idea how to be. My very own life felt like being a side character in everyone else’s stories, because nowhere did I ever see evidence that I — the mostly quiet, unassuming Asian girl — was allowed to be a main character with a full life and story of my own.
I especially never saw myself in romances. Nor did anyone else, as evidenced by the fact that my own beliefs that I was undesirable and undeserving of love were confirmed again and again by the people around me who saw me as nothing more than homework help. Even if my own high school life had stayed exactly the same, I do wish I had had some exposure to just the idea that teenagers like me could have the same experiences we saw other teens having because not having that exposure continues to affect how I think of myself even to this day.
What I hope for is that teenagers today don’t have the same experience that I did of not realizing the kinds of full, wonderful lives — including love lives — they deserve to pursue and have. And while nowhere near perfect, things certainly do look much better on the representation front now than they did when I was in high school. Each and every time I see a new Asian American YA romance announced or released, it gives me such a rush of joy and emotion that hasn’t faded no matter how many I see. In this list, I’ve highlighted a few recent (and upcoming) Asian American YA romances that would have been so beneficial for me had I had the opportunity to read them in high school, and that I hope are beneficial to the Asian American high schoolers reading them today.
From Little Tokyo, With Love by Sarah Kuhn
I am a huge fan of Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex series, so picking up her YA writing was a no-brainer. From Little Tokyo, With Love is a modern fairytale about Rika, a biracial teen girl with badass judo skills and a temper. Orphaned after her mother died in childbirth and her father ran off, Rika has been raised by her Japanese aunts and has struggled all her life to feel like she truly belongs. She embarks on a quest around Los Angeles to pursue family secrets with the help of Hank Chen, a young actor who also struggles with biracial identity and bonds with Rika over their shared experience. As an angry teenager myself, so much of Rika’s internal strife really resonated with me. And while I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty of stories that are love letters to my home city of Los Angeles, the focus on the Little Tokyo neighborhood makes this book particularly special.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is not primarily a romance, but does have a significant romantic plot. It is a historical novel, taking place in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s amidst the Red Scare, and follows Lily, a queer Chinese American teenager looking for acceptance and belonging in a society that rejects people like her. But when she finds the Telegraph Club, a lesbian bar, and meets Kathleen, she finds a safe space, motivation to stay true to herself, and love, despite the chaos and fear in the outside world that threatens the life her family has established.
Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach
I, for one, am here for “unlikeable” female characters, and especially so if they’re Asian and defying stereotypes about us being submissive and reserved, and Eliza Quan is just that. So when the results of the election for editor in chief of the school newspaper favor Len — an ex-jock with no experience — over the extremely qualified Eliza, she writes a manifesto calling out the sexism that accidentally gets posted online and quickly sparks a feminist movement. The two are forced to work together as a peace-making gesture, and Eliza finds herself falling for the symbol of the patriarchy she is trying so hard to fight. Beyond being a fantastic enemies to lovers romance, this book is also an incredible discussion of what it means to be a feminist, exploring issues of sexism, internalized misogyny, and intersectionality with race.
A Pho Love Story by Loan Le
One huge piece of Asian and Asian American culture that absolutely cannot be forgotten is the food. So here’s a book that puts food front and center (don’t read it on an empty stomach!). Bao and Linh are two Vietnamese American teenagers whose families run competing pho restaurants. Though the two have long avoided each other, a chance encounter and undeniable sparks lead them to try fostering this new relationship despite complicated family histories.
I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee
Skye Shin dreams of being a K-pop star, and seizes her opportunity when a new international talent competition show holds auditions in Los Angeles. She nails the audition, though not without the first of many hiccups due to the rampant fatphobia present in the Korean entertainment industry. But through an intense practice and performance schedule, media scrutiny, and an unexpected connection with fellow competitor Henry Cho, Skye must remain confidently and unapologetically herself if she wants to achieve her dream. The book’s discussion of the extreme beauty standards in Asia really hit home for me, and I also appreciated the lovely queer representation (Skye is bisexual, and there are a number of queer supporting characters as well).
All the Right Reasons by Bethany Mangle
Cara and her mother are cast as the leads on a new reality dating show for single parents. But as if navigating the wild world of reality television wasn’t enough, Cara also begins to develop a crush on Connor, the son of one of the contestants. Bethany Mangle is a Korean American adoptee and disabled author, and both Cara and Connor are characters “straight from [her] heart”. When I first heard about this new release, it felt like hitting the representation jackpot, and I can barely express how excited I am for it.
Debating Darcy by Sayantani DasGupta (Scholastic, April 5)
Pride and Prejudice but make it desi and about high school debate team? Yes, please! Leela is a strong competitor in speech and debate, and she plans to beat Firoze Darcy, a competing debater from an elite private school who she can’t stand. But once the tournament gets under way, Leela realizes not all is quite as she previously thought, especially when it comes to Darcy. Sayantani DasGupta is the author of the bestselling Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series for middle grade readers (and also a literal doctor!), and Debating Darcy will be her YA debut.
My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth (Holiday House, May 31)
One fond memory I do have of high school is of being on the robotics team, so this upcoming release about a Filipina American girl who joins robotics club has definitely secured itself a spot high on my TBR. Not only is it another enemies-to-lovers story (one of my personal favorite romance tropes, clearly), but it also explores the challenges of being a girl (and especially a girl of color) in STEM.
For even more YA featuring Asian American characters, this list of 2021 YA books by AAPI authors has got you covered, including more romances as well as books from other genres as well!