EW talks YA: You can't resist these swoony summertime romances
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations for the biggest new YA titles. For April, we’re discussing several distinctly affecting romances, each tinged with some genre elements, as well as an impressive sophomore novel. Check out our roundup below, and in case you missed our column from March, we’ve got you covered.
April’s Top Pick: Love From A to Z, by S.K. Ali
It’s super-easy, as an adult at least, to be jaded by the concept of fate — which is only more of a reason to get fully absorbed in S.K. Ali’s sparkling Love from A to Z, a YA romance that follows the footsteps in some of the best ~fated~ YA meetings like Eleanor and Park and The Sun Is Also a Star.
Ali’s wonderfully swoony novel is ideally structured for such a tale, getting us into the heads of Zayneb and Adam, two teens who have a chance meeting on a flight to Qatar and an even more chance encounter afterward. Beyond that meeting, another notch in the fate column is the Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence journal that they both own. While Ali’s narrator will at times interrupt the action of the story, the thoughts are all Zayneb and Adam’s, diving us right into their initial meeting (and detailed descriptions of one another’s immediate attraction to the other) and how the hand of fate continues to draw the two together.
Their journals get us deep into their heads — Zayneb is headstrong and smart, and Adam calm and caring. Both teens are Muslim, which Ali makes both completely essential to the story (Zayneb’s dealings with Islamophobia at her school, the two bonding over their traditions and practices) and also just about two people falling for each other at a confusing period in their lives, in Zayneb’s dealing with the aforementioned and Adam’s recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Love From A to Z ends up being a compulsively readable, beautifully romantic look at how fate can intervene when we might just need it the most.
Hot Dog Girl, by Jennifer Dugan
Jennifer Dugan’s Hot Dog Girl is a great, fizzy rom-com that’s a little at odds with itself. The setting is ingeniously imaginative — an amusement park, where over one summer teens dressed as princesses, pirates, and (yes) hot dogs are left to flirt and gossip and fall in love. And her heroine, Lou, is beautifully realized: a complex bisexual woman who finds her desires and expectations challenged by a strangely magical world.
It’s Lou’s second summer working the park, which is set to shutter at the end of the season. So there’s a ticking-clock element to all this, too: the reality that whatever dreams she’s had of happening in this place will soon turn impossible. With her best friend Seeley in tow, she’s alternately trying to save the place that already occupies a special place in her heart and negotiating her diving pirate-costumed Nick, who already has another girlfriend (the park’s resident princess, no less). The placement of this sort of classic romantic tension — Seeley pretends to be Lou’s girlfriend, in order to push the latter closer to Nick — against such a sweetly artificial backdrop pays dividends. Dugan has a lot of fun unfurling this love story in the absurd confines of the amusement park. Things get cheesy, but enjoyably so. And the author also offers poignant glimpses of Lou, as she looks back on her family and remembers the mother who abandoned her family.
I only wish the plotting were a little looser; Dugan does a lot of work here to push her story forward. Lou being manipulative works fine here, but she gets a little too schemey for the story’s good You feel the strain of attempts to create wild set pieces and sharp emotional conflicts. In the end, Hot Dog Girl is best at its simplest — a generous rom-com that nicely blends the ridiculous with the sincere.
How to Make Friends With the Dark, by Kathleen Glasgow
Kathleen Glasgow’s How To Make Friends With the Dark manages to be a devastating yet hopeful portrait of grief. When 16-year-old Tiger loses her mother, her ordinary life as a high school student becomes one of guilt and despair. Once preoccupied with having a crush on her lab partner and deciding what to wear to the school dance, she now grapples with adjusting to different foster homes and facing each day without her closest ally.
Yet though she appears set for a difficult and lonely road ahead, a new, rather unconventional family begins to form. With the aid of her best friend Cake, Tiger finds solace in an emerging cast of characters who help her begin to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Glasgow’s vivid descriptions of those Tiger meets along the way leap from the page with pulsating detail. In addition to unexpected turns and reveals, much of what makes the novel such a grippingly poignant read lies in the author’s ability to tackle bleak themes with a degree of humor.
The stages of mourning are captured with a haunting intimacy, making Tiger’s pain palpable. As she navigates a new, darker world, she slowly makes peace with who she must become in order to survive, allowing the story to serve as a guide for those grappling with a similar tragedy. Even the most arduous of tasks she faces are illustrated with a poetic sensibility — facing the tragic news in a claustrophobic hospital room, the funeral, the collecting of her mother’s ashes.
How To Make Friends also provides a startling glimpse into the foster care system and the unsettling circumstances faced by the children and teens placed into it. Not only does Tiger’s story evoke a visceral set of emotions, it illuminates problematic social issues in need of more attention. A follow-up to her 2016 debut, Girl in Pieces, Glasgow’s new novel further showcases her ability to write thought-provoking work that stretches well beyond young-adult audiences.
The Red Scrolls of Magic, by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu
Cassandra Clare expands the storytelling of her Shadowhunters world with this love-story-meets-fantasy-adventure, focused on fan favorites Magnus Bane and Alec Lightwood. Set partially during the events of Mortal Instruments novel City of Fallen Angels, The Red Scrolls of Magic follows Magnus and Alec on a European vacation during the relatively early days of their relationship. Magnus wants to sweep Alec off his feet with a romantic trip, but things go haywire when they find themselves investigating a demon-worshipping cult called the Crimson Hand that Magnus purportedly started centuries ago as a joke.
Clare explains in her author’s note that when originally beginning her series, she was eager to show LGBTQ+ representation and love in her YA stories — despite pushback from various parties. Red Scrolls was an opportunity for her to fulfill something she’d long wanted to do, in making Magnus and Alec primary romantic protagonists. She and co-author Wesley Chu succeed in spades. Magnus and Alec are winning heroes. Magnus’ bold and brazen personality combined with his innate kindness make him an endlessly compelling character — that person at the party we all wish we could be more like, or at least be with. In contrast, Alec’s quiet devotion and steely loyalty make him a perfect foil.
The adventure at the book’s center is compelling, a race across Europe’s great cities to uncover the truth about a demonic cult and its ties to secrets in Magnus’ past. Though it’s a puzzle piece in a story fans of the Shadowhunters novels have already seen much of the end of, it also works as a standalone romp. The book deepens Clare’s rich world, filling out the lives of beloved characters for fans while also offering up a diverting adventure story that newcomers can dive into with little confusion. It marks the first in a planned trilogy, and since we know much of Magnus and Alec’s story, it will be interesting to see at which junctures it chooses to jump in further down the line.
Clare is no stranger to weaving political themes into her work. Her previous series, The Dark Artifices, dealt heavily with an extremist faction that seized control of the government, plumbing morally gray areas of ideological dissent. This book is breezier by far than the heavier themes of that novel, while still willingly engaging with themes of acceptance, loneliness, sexual identity, and more. She hammers home the importance of representation simply by allowing Magnus and Alec’s love story to take center stage. More than anything, the novel is a rip-roaring adventure merged with a satisfying romance — one that feels like a serial adventure of yore, complete with lush European settings (and a dash of orgiastic magical Venetian parties with masks to shake things up). Clare and Chu raise the stakes for both Magnus and Alec, allowing readers to see what laid the foundation of their love, while never losing that breathless sense of adventure that makes their story so fun to read.
—Maureen Lee Lenker