As we head into Year Two of the pandemic, everyone is understandably fatigued and, while cautiously optimistic, in need of books that provide a bit of escapism. Valentine’s Day 2021 will look very different from the same holiday one year ago, but even if romance and social distancing might be at odds with one another, readers can take solace in some of the diverting, richly textured YA romances out early this year that present a range of voices, settings, and subjects. These are novels that will make you swoon, laugh, daydream, and think, not to mention look forward even more to the days when we can once again boldly flirt in person at a distance of less than 6 feet—sans face masks, no less. These books celebrate characters who are diverse in their backgrounds and personal circumstances but who have in common the incredibly ordinary yet extraordinarily special human experience of falling in love.
Love is one equation that private STEM-school student Evie can’t easily solve in The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss by Amy Noelle Parks (Amulet/Abrams, Jan. 5). Anxious and risk avoidant, she has thus far avoided romantic entanglements. Not realizing that her best friend, Caleb, has long nursed a crush on her, Evie begins to fall for classmate Leo, forcing Caleb’s hand. A physics competition’s online forum gives Caleb the opportunity to interact with Evie and try to win her over without revealing—yet—who he really is.
Aspiring authors will find a kindred spirit in Tessa, who writes Black girls like herself—often missing from mainstream romance—into her love stories in Elise Bryant’s Happily Ever Afters (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, Jan. 5). A writing class leaves her paralyzed by a fear of publicly sharing her work, and Tessa’s best friend decides that experiencing a series of classic rom-com scenarios is the solution to her writer’s block. Tessa faces one burning question, though: Which of the two boys on her radar is her ideal match?
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (Dutton, Jan. 19) celebrates a love rarely depicted in print: one between young lesbians in 1950s San Francisco, one White and one Chinese American. Exploring their feelings against the backdrop of a hostile society, Lily and Kathleen must tread carefully, living as they do at a time when the odds are stacked against them; moreover, Lily’s Chinatown community suffers from xenophobia and suspicion. But these courageous young women find a way to be true to themselves.
Inspired by the author’s own childhood experiences, Love in English by Maria E. Andreu (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, Feb. 2) tells the story of Ana, a teenage immigrant from Argentina who is learning a new language, discovering American culture, and figuring out how she feels about two boys at school. These emotions are confusing enough, but how do you express them when you don’t yet have enough English to tell others what you’re thinking? The disorientation of navigating new relationships and a new culture comes across vividly.
A Phở Love Story by Loan Le (Simon and Schuster, Feb. 9) takes forbidden love in a delicious direction as Linh and Bảo, whose parents own neighboring phở restaurants, fall for one another despite express family orders to avoid any interaction with the competition. Nevertheless, when their paths do finally cross—thanks to a generous gesture by Bảo, who sees Linh struggling at work and offers to help out surreptitiously—they truly hit it off, and their secret relationship eventually becomes a catalyst for familial healing.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.