February is usually a month of love, and I don’t know about everyone else, but this particular time always puts me in a good mood. This year I found myself embarking on a YA contemporary binge, complete with coffee shops, meet-cute rivals, and social media mysteries.
The goal? To catch up on debut romance novels I missed out on in 2020, plus some new ones from 2021.
If you’re also interested in some feel-good reads, here’s a list of five YA debut romances to check out.
1. The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss by Amy Noelle Parks
The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss rings in the year with a math-centered take on the friends-to-lovers trope.
Best friends Evie and Caleb attend an elite academy that specializes in academic subjects. They’re both in their last year of school, preparing for university admissions. Evie, a math genius with social anxiety, wants to enter a prestigious competition. Caleb, a programming whiz, has been in love with Evie his entire life.
When Evie asks Caleb to team up with her for the contest, Caleb says yes. Unfortunately, Evie starts dating another classmate during the contest, and she’s not interested in ruining their “best-friend” status. Caleb’s solution to this rejection? To pretend he’s another person online to win back her heart.
I personally went into Quantum Weirdness expecting a math-heavy plot, and I was not disappointed by that. However, I also loved it for the way it let Evie care about her schooling and her love life. I also loved the nuanced depiction of social anxiety and what it was like to live with a codependent parent. The story treated both of these points with care.
You can read the Quantum Weirdness Goodreads page for more info.
2. Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
This was such an interesting read, but one that simultaneously hit too close to home!
Putting the “cute” in a Tweet Cute summary, rival fast-food scions Pepper and Jack attend the same upscale school. Pepper is the daughter of a burger baron, while Jack is the son of a local deli king. Both Pepper and Jack happen to be very, very good at Twitter. As such, they run the business’ corporate accounts.
When Pepper’s family is accused by Jack’s of stealing a grilled cheese recipe, it sets off a Twitter war. As the monetary stakes increase, each kid is told to up the ante between their competitive parents. Unbeknownst to either of them, they happen to know each other in real life—even if their online Twitter rival is hidden behind a corporate logo.
While Tweet Cute was a little too close for home when it came to Twitter (I used the app every day and have complicated feelings about it), this story was a super engaging rivals-to-lovers. Definitely a firm rec if you’re looking for a comfort read.
3. The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park
I have to say, this was probably one of the most unique takes on zombie fiction that I’ve read in a while.
One-third contemporary romance, one-third tech startup, another third zombie horror, this YA contemporary follows Nate Kim and Kate Anderson: a straight-A student who wants to become a tech entrepreneur, and the daughter of a local tech titan who wants a job in the arts.
Both Nate and Kate love zombies, cool gadgets, and need lots of money to see their dreams realized. When a contest with some serious cash prizes shows up, Kate convinces Nate that they should partner up. All they have to do to win is outrun, outwit, and out-survive everyone else on a heavy-duty survival course.
The big catch? Nate’s idol and the person he needs to impress with his entrepreneurial skills is Kate’s erstwhile dad—the same man she’s planning to run away from.
The Perfect Escape has a great concept with great action. It’s perfect for anyone looking for some mild sci-fi vibes in a contemporary setting.
4. Keep My Heart in San Francisco by by Amelia Diane Coombs
This book made me cry buckets. Huge, heaping tears. I related to the main character and her struggles so much I ached—in a good way, to be clear.
The setup: Caroline “Chuck” Wilson is the daughter of a local businessman who owns a bowling alley in San Francisco. The two of them have been living with Caroline’s aunt ever since Caroline’s mother died. Caroline—still upset over the fallout with her best friend the previous year—has become moody and withdrawn. What’s worse, the bowling alley is on its last run. When she finds out that they’re being evicted, she doesn’t know what to do.
In steps Beckett, Caroline’s ex-best friend. Beckett needs cash, and when he approaches her with a get-rich-quick scheme involving illegal bowling, Caroline says yes. After they rake in the wins quickly, however, she plummets into high-stakes, self-destructive behavior. As she does, she risks falling down the same path as her mom.
The emotionality in this book was beautiful, and the prose was excellent. Most of all, I loved it for its nuanced depiction of bipolar disorder and living with depression—specifically how the fear and stigma surrounding it can control your life.
Content Warnings: Depression, mentions of suicide.
5. Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant
Happily Ever Afters follows Tessa Johnson, a budding writer who arrives at a prestigious arts school to take part in its well-known writing program. Tessa grew up wishing she could see characters who look like her in the books she reads, and when she arrives at her new school, she just wants to write; to have her stories and her characters get the praise they deserve.
When Tessa realizes that she has to share her writing in a workshop, however, and that her work will be critiqued, she freezes up. She’s terrified that her stories will be judged as lesser than by the rest of the class and that she’ll be labeled a fraud.
Her best friend’s solution to this writer’s block is for Tessa to find inspiration for her romance novel by experiencing some romance herself. But when Tessa pursues the school’s heartthrob, her grades begin to slip—and the feelings between her and her new neighbor become romantically charged.
This book was incredibly relatable in Tessa’s quest to become a writer. The HEA is perfect.
Content Warnings: Attempted cheating. Microaggressions and ableism expressed by some of the characters.
Find Your Next Coffee Shop Romance
Current events can become chaotic, but there are always brand-new books to keep you company. If you’re looking to read some more contemporary novels, check out the most anticipated YA books of 2021.