Here are three teen stories with romance at the center and satisfyingly sweet endings, though all of them have the good grace to be as much or more about our main character figuring out who she is and where she wants to go with her life as the romance itself. Thanks to author Stacey Lee, who sent me both her own book and This is My Brain in Love.
This is my Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio. Little, Brown 2020. ISBN 978-0316423823. Won in a giveaway.
Jocelyn “Jos” Wu has never really had time for dating between homework and working in her family’s restaurant, A-Plus Chinese Garden. She and her best friend Priya are working on making a film together, and she’s finally feeling like upstate New York might be home when her parents say the restaurant is failing and they will likely need to move back to the city. But it took so much work to make this home that Jos isn’t ready to give up yet. She decides it’s worth using her savings to hire someone to help promote the restaurant to see if they can make it profitable.
Will Dominici wants to be a journalist, but it’s hard to gain traction even at the school paper when you have trouble talking to strangers in person. He is feeling pressure from his doctor mother to get “gainful employment” for the summer, and finds the poster that Jos put up.
Soon, they’re working together – and falling for each other. But Jos’s traditionally-minded father doesn’t believe in teens dating, and maybe especially not his daughter dating a Black teen. He makes them a deal – they can date if they can make the restaurant 30% more profitable. But is that even possible? And can Jos believe she’s worth it?
In addition to the super sweet romance, and the look at first-generation American experiences (Will’s mother emigrated from Nigeria), this book takes a serious look at the two most common mental health issues that teens have today, anxiety and depression. It’s so refreshing to see these being dealt with in a supportive, realistic, and hopeful way.
Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee. Katherine Tegen Books, 2016. ISBN 978-0062428325. Won in a giveaway.
I have been enjoying Stacey Lee’s historical fiction for years now, but had skipped over this contemporary book. Not that contemporary is a bad thing, but I might have read it sooner if I had realized that it has a touch of fantasy as well.
Fifteen-year-old Mimosa has just convinced her mother to let her try going to the local high school after being homeschooled up until this year. Her mother has reservations – Mim still has to keep up with her primary job as an aromateur in training, helping to blend just the right perfumes that will open their clients up to love. This job makes high school triply dangerous – not only does Mim struggle to find the time to keep up with her homework, but working with so many scents gives her a scent that’s powerfully attractive to boys, despite her thrift store clothes. And if she falls in love herself, she’ll lose the powerful sense of smell that lets her be an aromateur.
But when Mim is distracted and puts an elixir in the wrong coffee cup, she has to rely on Court, the school’s star soccer player, to help her put things to right. And in the process, she gets to know him a whole lot better. Even though it’s dangerous, Mim can’t seem to stop seeing him.
A nice side plot involves Mim’s relationship with her best friend, Kali, and its ups and downs as Mim figures out what to do when Kali is blackmailed with a threat to publicly out her. Mim knows the rules about her craft, but isn’t saving her best friend more important?
Although Paladin’s Graceby T. Kingfisher is both much more explicit and darker, being written for adults, it’s the only other romance I’ve ever read that also involves the making of scents as Secret of a Heart Note does.
Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno. Little, Brown, 2019. ISBN 978-1368039703. Listened to audiobook on Libby.
This was recommended by our teen librarian for our Modern Magic booklist. And I’ll just note that the Rosa on the cover looks a good deal paler than she’s described in the text.
Like Mim, Rosa Santos is not allowed to date. Her family’s particular curse, though, has meant that both her father and grandfather drowned – her grandfather falling out of the little boat he and her Abuela were taking to flee Cuba. Now she and her Abuela live in the tiny coastal town in Florida, avoiding the ocean, while her artist mother travels the country painting murals. Rosa hasn’t really had much time to date, anyway, what with finishing high school and the first two years of community college at the same time. She has her heart set on going to a college that will let her study in Cuba, so she can learn more about the former home her abuela won’t talk about.
Then, a developer threatens to buy out the marina, which would put a stop both to the upcoming spring festival (and the local bookstore owner’s wedding at it) and much of the downtown businesses. The town officials had applied for a grant that would support more sustainable use of the water, but the grant has run out of money. Rosa, though, decides that if they can really promote their spring festival, they can raise enough money to bring the local university in to help anyway, even without the grant.
And of course that puts her in charge of the project, together with suddenly-cute Alex, who with a beard and new tattoos is barely recognizable as the boy who sat in silence near her every day at lunch sophomore year. They have just two weeks to save the town and plan a wedding together. And Rosa’s not allowed to crush on him, even when she discovers that he has crazy good baking skills.
Even though Rosa’s abuela also does magical things with herbs for the neighbors, even though there seems to be a curse, the most unbelievable thing for me was that the bookstore owner, originally from Nigeria, would have planned a wedding with international guests and not have had all the details planned out a couple months earlier. Still, I’m guessing most high schoolers haven’t planned weddings and would be less bothered by this detail than I was. Alex is really sweet, and a rare example of an older teen for whom college is not working out. Rosa’s family and friends were all well-developed characters, with loving but still prickly relationships. This had a lot of the feel of The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya for a slightly older audience, but still with the focus on preserving a tightly knit Latinx community in Florida.