By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Not Your Sidekick”
By C.B. Lee
Duet Books, 2016
In Andover, superpowers are commonplace. And as the daughter of the city’s two dedicated superheroes, Smasher and Shockwave, it’s easy to assume Jessica Tran would also have superpowers.
But as it starts to look like she will remain powerless, Jess starts looking for ways to pad her resume for college and lands an internship at robotics and tech company, Monroe Industries. Once she arrives, she learns she’s working for none other than Master and Mistress Mischief, her parents’ nemeses. On the bright side, Jess is working with her long-time crush, Abby Jones, as well as the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby.
In a world where there is a seemingly clear line between good and evil, Jess soon learns that things aren’t all what they seem to be and begins to wonder if she really wants to be a superhero — especially when she learns of a plot bigger than the fight between the good guys and the baddies.
“Sidekick” is a story about learning to be true to yourself, instead of trying to live up to people’s expectations, or even your own. Because of her heroic lineage, Jess, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, feels the pressure of needing to have her own superpowers. But as the story moves along, she grows into her own person.
In addition to a fun story with a few surprises and plot twists, Lee introduces readers to a diverse mix of characters with different racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as sexual and gender identities and expressions. Jess is openly bisexual and there are a few instances throughout the book in which characters’ preferred pronouns are discussed, which is not something I have seen often. And to have this in a middle school reader-level book is a good way to introduce readers (the young and not-so-young) to the concept of gender identity and gender fluidity.
“96 Words for Love”
By Rachel Roy and Ava Dash
Jimmy Patterson Books, 2019
Raya Liston has just been accepted to UCLA. It’s what she has been working toward her whole life. But instead of being excited, she’s freaking out, feeling lost and trapped in a future that feels set in stone.
So when her grandmother dies, Raya jumps to fulfill her Daadee’s dying wish to go with her cousin Anandi to the Indian ashram that meant so much to the older woman.
Raya hopes the trip to India will help her find her way and get some clarity on her future. What she doesn’t expect is for her life to change in a number of ways. She falls in love with the country, learns a surprising secret about her cousin, connects with a local girl who loves reading, and meets a boy, Kiran, who teaches her that in Sanskrit, there are 96 different ways to say the word “love.” “96 Words” is a modern retelling of the Indian legend about Dushyanta and Shakuntala, a pair of star-crossed lovers who overcome many obstacles to be together. But in addition to Raya and Kiran’s love story, the mother-daughter author duo of Roy and Dash touch on difficult topics ranging from racism to sex trafficking, adding a bit of depth to the story, taking it beyond a YA romance.
Roy and Dash also do a great job of portraying Raya’s relationships with others, from how much she misses her grandmother and how close she becomes with the students at the village school, where she volunteers as part of her service while at the ashram, to the friendship she forms with another teenage girl staying at the monastery.
Raya is a young woman who is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out her next steps — a place many people have been at various stages in life. The struggle and anxiety she goes through is realistic. She feels the pressure from her parents to be successful and it takes her grandmother’s death for her to learn that she has to do what’s right for her.
“Can’t Escape Love”
By Alyssa Cole
HarperCollins Publishers, 2019
Regina Hobbs’ pop culture media enterprise, Girls with Glasses, is taking off, but instead of basking in her success, she is stressed and losing sleep. In the past, she would watch and listen to videos of puzzle-obsessed Gustave Nguyen, whose voice helped soothe her to sleep. But all those videos have been deleted.
So when Reggie finds Gus online and reaches out to him for videos of him just talking, the two make a trade. Gus’ voice for Reggie’s help on an escape room he has been tasked with, themed around a romance anime. And when they meet in person, their friendship slowly becomes more.
Both Gus and Reggie are under a lot of pressure professionally and find themselves stressing to deliver. When they come together, we see a partnership form between the two of them in which they help and support each other.
“Escape” is a novella in Cole’s Reluctant Royals series and shows us Reggie’s story in finding love. Reggie is a strong character who is very sure of herself. She embraces her love of all things nerd culture and has even found a way to turn it into a business. And it should be noted that while she is in a wheelchair — as a result of falling ill when she was younger — Cole balances Reggie’s vulnerability over it with the fact that being in a chair is just a part of her everyday life.
Gus’ open, honest, and earnest personality makes for a good balance with Reggie.
As someone who is on the autism spectrum, he may not always understand romance, but he is certain about his feelings about Reggie and is not afraid of letting her know that. It may not always have the desired response, but that doesn’t stop Gus.
Reggie and Gus’ relationship shows readers that you shouldn’t be afraid to put yourself out there because you never know what good might come from it.
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.