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This Sweet, Mid-Grade Story Is Perfect For Budding Romance Fans


They are up there, and maybe I should be embarrassed about it, but I'm not. When my kids were born, I stocked their bookshelves with books from my own childhood and teenaged years — so they are up there, nestled amongst the Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, easily taking up about a third of my girls' bookshelf. With their garish 1980s cover art, order forms in the back, and often some sort of badge proclaiming series names like "Two Hearts," "Caprice," "Heart to Heart."

Oh yes, the teen romances are up there.

Boy Crazy, Friendly Rivals, In the Middle of a Rainbow, oh yes, there they are. Will the clingy boy Kris has known since she was two get out of the way so she can land Mr. Right? When will Suzanne's annoying rival for valedictorian stop paying attention to her so she has a chance to be popular? And oh my goodness, will Corrie and Todd's relationship be strong enough to last when they go to college?

Teen romances have been around a long time

Needless to say, I loved these books; they were full of things I'd never done (skiing, Ski Bum by Helane Zeiger), summer jobs I'd never have (waitressing at camp, Love & Betrayal & Hold the Mayo by Francine Pascal), places I'd never been (Massachusetts Bay, Something Out There by Leslie Davis), and a life I imagined for my older self (college in New England, Illegal Notion by Joanna Wharton).

The teen romance has been around a long time ... The settings are different, the clothes are different, the aspirations are different, but the teenaged struggle for true love hasn't changed much since 1953.

And of course, they were about romance, messy, imperfect (until they became perfect), frustrating, easily-predictable (most of the time) romance. I couldn't get enough of them.

The teen romance has been around a long time. The oldest one I have is Ready or Not by Mary Stolz, published in 1953. Close on its heels is Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, published in 1956. Both books were written just after Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and more than a decade before The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967), which is often cited as the origin of young-adult fiction (Mary Stoltz and Beverly Cleary might beg to differ). The settings are different (cinders on the playground), the clothes are different (I.D. bracelets and stockings), the aspirations are different (does anyone go steady anymore?), but the teenaged struggle for true love hasn't changed much since 1953.

Friend troubles, boyfriend troubles, parent troubles: Jenna has it all

Enter Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai, by Debbi Michiko Florence.

It's just after winter break, and Jenna returns to seventh grade after her first holiday since her parents' divorce, being freshly dumped by her "perfect" boyfriend, and having fallen out of sync with her best friend, who has a perfect boyfriend of her own.

What a good start.

It's all there: the parent trouble, the competitive ex-boyfriend who is always underfoot, the best friend who has other priorities, and yes, an annoying yet interesting and handsome new guy, and the smart and imperfect girl who has to figure it all out.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And for good reason.

The first forays into romance are challenging to everyone, no matter age or orientation. As for most of us, Jenna's first romance consisted mostly of spending time with her now-ex, Elliot. They liked the same things and spent most of their free time together. So when the relationship ended, as happens for most of us, Jenna was at a loss as to how to rebuild her life. How would she ever enjoy the things she and Elliot had shared? Their relationship, and everything about it, had been how she defined herself.

I reckon I am lucky. For the majority of my teen years, I was completely-romance free, so my identity wasn't wrapped up with someone else like Jenna's is (I was just the weird girl who was into art and The Smiths). But I did see the people I knew go through those first fraught relationships and breakups, and now, as my kids grow, I know that they will ultimately go through them too.

A great read if you're still too young for classic teen romance

Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai is a worthy inheritor of the teen romance tradition, and it comes right on time. While most teen romances I used to read were about kids who were older than I was (16! I would never be 16!), my classmates started pairing off as early as the fifth grade, and by middle school, the drama was real. Frankly, books about kids who are old enough to drive away from a break-up are pretty aspirational for 13-year-olds. A protagonist who has to check in with Mom, whose Saturday plans are still family game night, and whose only transportation is a bike or two feet, that's what middle schoolers need.

'Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai' is a worthy inheritor of the teen romance tradition, and it comes right on time.

Jenna Sakai is that protagonist. She is prickly, as most middle-schoolers are, she's insecure, yet brash, as a lot of middle schoolers are, and she's extremely sensitive and easily hurt, the way most of us were and maybe still are. And just like for most of us, these qualities don't make life any easier for her.

As in the best of all teen romances, Jenna's life, relationships, and Jenna herself, begin to get harder before they get better, and much of the time it's her own fault. As adults, it can be difficult to see someone make the same mistakes we made when we were kids, and my feelings for Jenna are no different. While I may not have had a middle school romance, the discordant friendships, the changing relationships with parents, and the utter confidence that I and my problems were at the center of the universe all ring quite true.

But things change. Jenna changes, despite all her best efforts to the contrary, and she doesn't have to go to a ski resort or work at a summer camp for it to happen; the most exotic locale Jenna visits is her inner self. And that's what's so great about it. Yes, like all its predecessors in the genre, Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai does end with a budding romance, but in the end, the most interesting and important relationship Jenna has is with herself.

And bonus, the cover art is straight out of 1985!

Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juanita Giles