Teens of color will represent more than 50 percent of American youth by 2040—and some estimates say even sooner. But books featuring kids and teens of color are still rare, representing fewer than ten percent of traditionally published stories. Which sucks, because every teen wants to see themselves as the hero, the one who saves the day, steals the show, and gets the guy or girl. But things are, very slowly, but surely, starting to change. Here are five YA must-reads that celebrate a PoC teen (or two!) falling in love. (And don’t miss my novel, with Dhonielle Clayton, Tiny Pretty Things, in which two Korean American kids fall in love.)
The Sun Is Also A Star, by Nicola Yoon
Yoon’s follow-up to Everything, Everything (in theaters now!) earned her a National Book Award nod, and with good reason. A truly stunning work, Sun takes a meandering wander through New York City as two teens connect over the course of twelve of the most intense hours of their lives. Jamaican-born Natasha has only ever known life in New York, but has just found out her family will deported the next day if she doesn’t do something about it, and fast. Dreamer Daniel blows off an important interview—and perhaps the rest of his future as planned—to chase the girl he met for a moment, but who captured his heart forever.
When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon
Yes, the title harkens back to that old Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com, but this YA summer romance brings just as much Bollywood flavor as it does Hollywood! Geeky, headstrong Dimple heads to app camp (yep, a real thing) expecting to focus on her next steps career-wise. Rishi heads to app camp specifically to woo Dimple, with whom his parents (and hers) are hoping to arrange his marriage. He’s ready to fall in love, she barely remembers who he is. What could go wrong? A lot—and it’s laugh out loud funny. Two brown kids in love? Truly groundbreaking.
I Believe In a Thing Called Love, by Maurene Goo
Desi Lee has a lot going for her: she gets straight As, can fix your car, and knows CPR. But when it comes to romance, well, she’s a bit of a mess. So when she falls hard for dreamy Luca Drakos, she turns to her trusted K-dramas to guide her through, with disastrous, hilarious results. Sure, she goes a little far—her character is decidedly results-driven—but what teen hasn’t taken it to the edge when it comes to love?
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
By all accounts, Starr Carter, the only witness to the headline-grabbing murder of a black teen by a white cop, has a lot going on—not the least of which is her interracial relationship with her very white boyfriend, Chris. As with the rest of the story, Thomas doesn’t hold back here: the couple’s relationship is sweet but fraught, with Starr calling Chris out on his privilege more than once. It’s refreshing to see that explored boldly on the page.
That Thing We Call A Heart, by Sheba Karim
Karim’s sophomore YA novel serves up piping hot pie, Urdu poetry, Radiohead, and a quirky summer of first love. Growing up Pakistani American in the heart of New Jersey, Shabnam Qureshi is used to not quite fitting in. Her hardcore feminist BFF has started wearing a hijab. She’s telling lies about a star-crossed Partition romance to strangers. And body hair is ever an issue. (As it was in Karim’s debut, Skunk Girl.) But when she meets charming Jamie, who hangs with her at her pie-shop gig all summer, she feels like things might be changing. But for better, or for worse?
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
Lush and beautiful, with gorgeous, wistful writing, McLemore’s star-crossed love story is a fresh take on fairy tales. Miel and Sam are yin and yang, two halves of a whole, incomplete without each other. He protects her as her eerie, unexplainable gift—roses grow from her wrists—make their fellow townsfolk ever more wary. But he’s hiding secrets of his own, and when the witchy Bonner sisters set their sights on the pair, things take a devastating turn.
To All the Boys I’ve Love Before, by Jenny Han
Han is the master of the impossible love triangle (see: her Summer series!), and this deceptively light series is no exception. It centers on Korean American teen Lara Jean Song, an on-the-verge (of everything) teen who believes in writing love letters she’ll never send (ideally!), baking up a storm, hanging out with her sisters, and falling hard for Josh, then Peter, then John Ambrose, and the list goes on. She wears her heart on her sleeve and often finds herself on unsteady ground,, but that’s what being a teen is all about.