Olivia Rhee

Darcy Phillips is a love guru. Through her top-secret relationship counseling service—she emails advice in response to notes her classmates pass discreetly into long abandoned locker number 89—Darcy can solve any romantic woe, no matter how epic or seemingly trivial. 

When popular senior Alexander Brougham spots Darcy opening the locker, however, he quickly pieces together her secret, putting both her business and her reputation at risk. Darcy agrees to help Brougham win back his ex-girlfriend in exchange for his silence, but the task will put her relationship knowledge to the test in more ways than one.

Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper effortlessly conveys the complex web of social interactions that high school students navigate every day. Darcy’s frank, thoughtful and not quite self-aware narration is captivating and genuine, an authentic depiction of young adulthood in the 21st century. Teen readers will connect with Darcy’s struggles, cheer for her relationships, cringe at her missteps and maybe even take a piece of advice from locker 89 to heart.

Gonzales’ novel also admirably reflects recent shifts in the representation of LGBTQ+ characters in YA literature. By including both queer and transgender characters whose sexuality and gender identity are neither their defining trait nor the source of the conflicts that drive their narratives, Gonzales reflects the lived experiences of teens today and delivers a relatable read with multiple points of identification.

Heartfelt, witty and thoroughly entertaining, Perfect on Paper is an enthralling tale of young love and the joy, heartbreak and growth it brings.

Darcy Phillips is a love guru. Through her top-secret relationship counseling service—she emails advice in response to notes her classmates pass discreetly into long abandoned locker number 89—Darcy can solve any romantic woe, no matter how epic or seemingly trivial. 

Many high school basketball players dream of having the talent and the drive to make it to the next level—but what happens to those who actually do? Liara Tamani’s All the Things We Never Knew explores the lives of two young players and the bond they form both on and off of the court.

Carli and Rex are both star athletes with promising careers ahead of them. When Carli literally falls into Rex’s arms during a game, it seems like destiny that they should end up together. But as the two are swept into a whirlwind romance, it quickly becomes clear that their lives are more complicated than they first appeared.

Rex is ambitiously pursuing his goal of playing basketball professionally in the NBA, but Carli is determined to escape the sport permanently. While Carli grapples with her parents’ sudden, jarring divorce, Rex strives to connect with his father, who has become emotionally absent since Rex’s mother’s death. All of this leaves Carli and Rex struggling to hold onto one another.

In chapters that alternate perspectives between Carli and Rex, Tamani develops distinct narrative voices for each character that ring true. Readers will cheer for them, cry with them and occasionally—but passionately—question the choices they make. Tamani doesn’t avoid complexity; although few teens share Carli and Rex’s athletic gifts, every teen has made a mistake and hurt someone they love, and Tamani’s willingness to let her characters make these mistakes too will endear them to readers all the more. Raw and honest, All the Things We Never Knew is a slam dunk.

Many high school basketball players dream of having the talent and the drive to make it to the next level—but what happens to those who actually do? Liara Tamani’s All the Things We Never Knew explores the lives of two young players and the bond they form both on and off of the court. Carli […]

Abigail Hing Wen’s debut novel, Loveboat, Taipei, is an effervescent blend of self-discovery and romance, set over the course of one unforgettable summer. It’s the story of Ever Wong, whose parents send her to Taiwan for a cultural immersion program nicknamed “Loveboat” by attendees because of its notoriety for matchmaking. We spoke to the author about how her own teenage experiences with a Loveboat-esque program informed the book, developing characters, battling stereotypes and her hopes for her first novel.


How did your own personal experiences influence the writing and storytelling process of Loveboat, Taipei?
The Loveboat experience was such a unique and iconic one in the Asian American community. I knew I wanted to write a story about it. But it took me a while to figure out who needed to go on this trip. I discussed it at length with my husband, who also attended Loveboat a few years before I did, trying to get to the heart of the experience. We came to the conclusion that it was about discovering identity in all its facets—cultural heritage, certainly, but also a coming-of-age in such important formative years.

I’d grown up in Ohio, not always proud of my Asian American heritage. I was even less familiar with all the wonderful parts that came with it. On Loveboat, I was amazed to meet Asian Americans my age who were as enthusiastic about scallion pancakes and Dragon’s beard candy as my Ohio friends were about pizza and donuts. Instead of feeling ashamed of non-English speaking relations, Loveboaters were excited to visit families in the traditional Hutong.

I met all sorts of personalities: funny, quiet, timid, outrageous, gentle, angry, bitter, even snobby and exclusive, a surprise to me. It was both shocking and refreshing to witness rebellious Asian American teens getting demerits and getting drunk. They broke every model minority stereotype in the book.

“It was both shocking and refreshing to witness rebellious Asian American teens getting demerits and getting drunk. They broke every model minority stereotype in the book.”

Most magical of all in this experience: I felt included for the first time. The sweetest thing someone said was, “That’s so Abby!” I had never felt so seen before, which was exactly what Jane Lee on my HarperCollins team said about my book when I first met her. She’d read Loveboat, Taipei three times. I hadn’t put it into words until that moment, but that was what I wanted for this novel. To make others feel seen. To share with others a bit of that magical transformation I’d experienced myself.

Even now, as people begin to respond to the novel, I’m growing in my appreciation of what it meant to have this grounding experience. I’m realizing I’m so much stronger for it.

What kind of research or preparation did you do in addition to your own personal experiences?
After I wrote a draft of the book, I visited Taipei and took a bus tour of the island, similar to the one I took as a student on the program. This immersive reminder helped me get into the heads of my main characters as I connected with things they would connect with. For example, while there, I ran into foods I associated with my childhood and parents, like a huge platter of fried eggs. I knew that Ever would also have such moments on her trip.

In addition, two Taiwanese American friends read and commented on the novel: Judy Hung Liang and Chienlan Hsu-Hoffman. I later interviewed a number of Loveboat alumni.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Loveboat, Taipei.


Much of Ever’s internal conflict is motivated by the tension between her personal passions and her desire to meet expectations placed on her by others or to follow the rules. When you were a teen, where did you fall on the rule-following/rule-breaking, what-I-want/what-others-want spectrum? Do you have any advice for teens who find themselves sharing Ever’s internal conflict?
Great question! My dad came to the United States when he was 13, so he was a little more Americanized than my Asian American friends’ parents. He wasn’t a typical dad—we would often negotiate rules, and he would let me win if I was convincing. It taught me an important lesson early on—that I could disagree and prevail if I had a sensible idea. I think that freedom made me a little less rebellious than some of my peers.

But I really felt a weight of expectation from others in the community. Some of that was supportive, but some of that felt like a cage.

As for advice for teens, wow, this is hard. I wish I could say talk it out honestly with your parents, but not everyone is in a position to do that. I would say—take baby steps and pick your battles. Save the gunfire for the big issues that really matter to you, like your choice of college major or who you date.

Also something to keep in mind: While you’re a student living under your parents’ roof, it’s harder to strike out and do what you want. That will come to an end. You’ll become an adult and no one will be responsible for your decisions except yourself.

“While you’re a student living under your parents’ roof, it’s harder to strike out and do what you want. That will come to an end. You’ll become an adult and no one will be responsible for your decisions except yourself.”

Ever’s developing relationship with her family is an important part of her emotional journey over the course of the novel. What role does Ever’s family play in her identity, and how does that role change? Can you talk about some of the choices you made as you crafted that relationship?
Another tough question! Ever’s family’s values deeply influence her identity. There are positive aspects to it. She has a strong moral compass that comes from them. They have high career ambitions for her, in contrast to Sophie’s family, and those ambitions also raised the bar for Ever’s goals in dancing and choreography.

I spent time considering how Ever’s choices might impact her parents as well. And they do—especially her dad. That wasn’t so much a choice I made, but as a matter of craft, needing to really try to follow their characters along their natural arcs.

I loved all of the secondary characters in Loveboat, Taipei; you gave so many of them such engaging and complex stories. Who was your favorite secondary character to create and write, and why?
It’s so hard to choose! I love them all for different reasons. I love Sophie’s generosity and misguided energies, and Xavier’s fight against his personal demons. I have a sequel in the works involving them. I also adore the Gang of Five. I love how they went from angry to taking back their own stereotypes. I envision them in a musical like a bad boy band, popping out at intervals to speak their truths. When I told my agent, Jo about this, she said, “They’re like the Greek chorus.” She was so right! 

As readers might expect from the title, Loveboat, Taipei’s protagonist, Ever, explores not just her identity and questions about her future, but also the possibility of romance. What do you hope readers gain from Ever’s exploration of this side of herself and from the different possibilities she explores?
I want readers to see Asian Americans holistically. We are deeply human, and love and romance is an important part of our lives. Ever is smart and accomplished, but she is also flawed and lonely, and she craves love and connection as much as anyone.

Many of the male-identifying characters in Loveboat, Taipei struggle with expectations of masculinity. Why did you choose to explore this theme?
It always pains me to see anyone questioning their attractiveness because they don’t fit Western norms of beauty. I had to come through my own journey here with all the ways I don’t line up myself.

In many ways, Asian American males have it harder than Asian American females. Author David Yoon has spoken of how struck he and his author wife, Nicola Yoon, were when they found out Asian males and African American females are the least swiped on dating apps. These small social pressures can really shape how a person views and values themselves, especially if they don’t realize it’s not about them, but part of a larger social construct. Just because a guy doesn’t fit the typical masculine mold doesn’t mean he isn’t attractive.

“I want readers to see Asian Americans holistically. We are deeply human, and love and romance is an important part of our lives.”

Loveboat, Taipei breaks down so many stereotypes about Asian Americans and the Asian American community so skillfully. Why was challenging these stereotypes important to you?
Stereotypes have real ramifications. Women who are expected to behave submissively can be mischaracterized as aggressive or out for themselves if they don’t, and that can really get in the way of their effectiveness running projects or taking on other leadership roles. Stereotypes prevent leaders from identifying great talent. They unfairly box people in. I work with many enlightened men and women in Silicon Valley, but as a society striving for true equality, we aren’t there yet.

I am especially passionate about broadening our conception of what leadership looks like. There are so many kinds of strengths. Ever has an eye for talent and calls it out. Sophie loves fashion and clothing and yes, she is boy crazy—and she also gets things done like no one else. Marc brings people together. They are all leaders in their own ways and it pays off when they give themselves permission to exercise those gifts.

For me, I had to make a choice whether to share my novel at work. I’ve always worked in a very male environment and I did make a deliberate choice to begin to share about my novel. One well-meaning woman privately ask me if letting people know I’d written a romance novel undercut my authority. I agreed it was a risk to share, but I also want to broaden what leadership looks like. If male leaders can rave about fantasy football and sports races, then I can talk about my forthcoming novel. And instead of undercutting my authority with men, I think it has done the opposite.

What was the most challenging part of writing Loveboat, Taipei? What was the most enjoyable?
Most challenging:

Early in my process, figuring out who was going on this journey. There were literally thousands of teens who could go on this trip. Who would be the main character? He or she would be changed by the experience—who needed to go on a trip like this?

I wasn’t sure. I wrote from several points of view until four characters began to emerge: Ever Wong from Ohio, who doesn’t know who she is. The Yale-bound prodigy Rick, who needs to blow off steam. Sophie who is looking for love and Xavier who is a player, but in all three cases, not for the obvious reasons.

Most enjoyable:

Stephanie Garber really challenged me to think deeply about the love triangles. It was fascinating for me to dig into what it was that connected Ever to each boy—and when I really understood why a certain connection worked and why another one would lead them in the wrong direction, it felt so incredibly satisfying and fun—was this really part of my job?

What did you learn from the writing and editorial process of Loveboat, Taipei that you’ll carry forward as you work on new books?
That I need to put in the time to develop all my characters. There’s no shortcutting it, at least not for me. Without intending to, I wrote the novel five times, from each of the main characters’ points of view, including Jenna. I eventually rewrote the entire book from Ever’s point of view, but one of the most common comments I’ve gotten is that my secondary characters are really well-rounded. So it paid off!

See my blog post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations for more on this.

Loveboat, Taipei is your debut novel. Although readers will be reading your answers after the book is published, you’re answering these questions before its publication. How do you feel? What are you excited about? Nervous about? What part of publishing a book are you most looking forward to?
I have been overwhelmed and blown away by the support for Loveboat, Taipei. So many people have offered to help. For a while, there were folks from the Asian American arts community emailing me all the ways I was behind in getting the word out. I was really stressed out at first, until it dawned on me they were tiger-momming me! Then I felt very loved.

I’m also a little nervous about reader reactions. I know people from so many different aspects of my life: young and old, American and foreign born, from the tech, legal and writing worlds, literary and commercial fiction lovers. Art and fiction are so taste-based, and I know that no one work will appeal to all people. I hope that people who don’t necessarily resonate with this story themselves understand that’s OK with me. I get it.

I’m most looking forward to the opportunity to speak with readers and to hear about their experiences. And I’m excited to find out where this journey is going!

 

Author photo by Olga Pichkova of IOPhotoStudio

We spoke to Abigail Hing Wen about how her own teenage experiences with a Loveboat-esque program informed her first novel.

Acceptance to an elite university and a bright future beyond—what more could a teenager want? As Ever Wong discovers in Abigail Hing Wen’s debut novel, Loveboat, Taipei, there’s a whole lot more to life than traditional notions of success.

Ever would rather do anything than spend the summer after her senior year of high school studying in Taipei, Taiwan. But when her parents decide it’s time for her to learn about her culture, Ever reluctantly travels across the globe to attend Chien Tan, an academic program for high-achieving students. Prepared for a summer of boredom, Ever is shocked to find that Chien Tan—nicknamed “Loveboat” because of its notoriety for romance and matchmaking—promises anything but.

Thrilled at her first taste of freedom, Ever is swept up into a world of parties, romance and a healthy dose of rebellion. As she learns the ropes of Loveboat, she encounters plenty of obstacles, and her understanding of her own identity begins to develop. Her summer in Taipei brings her deeper knowledge of her culture, recognition of her passions and the chance to build strong and moving relationships. By the time she leaves Taipei, Ever is a more empowered and passionate version of herself, and she’s brought readers along for her journey. 

Heartwarming, honest and at times hilarious, Loveboat, Taipei is a story of learning and growth. Wen has crafted a novel that is not only a warm and fuzzy feel-good read but also a beautiful commentary on identity, self-expression and love. It’s a book readers will be helpless not to fall for.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Abigail Hing Wen.

Acceptance to an elite university and a bright future beyond—what more could a teenager want? As Ever Wong discovers in Abigail Hing Wen’s debut novel, Loveboat, Taipei, there’s a whole lot more to life than traditional notions of success. Ever would rather do anything than spend the summer after her senior year of high school […]

Devon and Ashton are bound together by the stars. When Devon, an aspiring astronomer passionate about the power of the galaxies, meets Ashton, she is sure she has found her soul mate. But after a summer filled with stargazing and blossoming love ends with Ashton’s complete and sudden disappearance from Devon’s life, she is left heartbroken. Though her life ambles on, she finds herself constantly held back by the ghost of her relationship with Ashton. 

Determined to move on, Devon prepares for her senior year at the elite Preston Academy. As one of just a few low-income students of color at Preston Academy, Devon knows she must remain focused on academics in order to prove herself and earn a spot in the astronomy program at her dream university. However, when Devon arrives to her first day of school and discovers that Ashton has enrolled as a student at Preston, her carefully laid plans for her final year turn upside down, and she and Ashton enter into a passionate yet deeply complicated relationship. As she learns that Ashton’s life is far darker than she could have imagined, Devon is forced to make a painful choice: Should she prioritize her own well-being, or that of the boy she loves?

Through Devon’s struggle to recognize the importance of valuing herself within her romantic relationship, debut author Ronni Davis deftly illustrates one of the primary challenges of young love. Davis also eloquently discusses the concept of privilege without centering its narrative around themes of race and class. Deeply moving and thought-provoking, When the Stars Lead to You takes readers on a journey through first love and the turbulence, heartbreak and indispensable lessons that it can bring.

Devon and Ashton are bound together by the stars. When Devon, an aspiring astronomer passionate about the power of the galaxies, meets Ashton, she is sure she has found her soul mate. But after a summer filled with stargazing and blossoming love ends with Ashton’s complete and sudden disappearance from Devon’s life, she is left […]

Young adult author Rafi Mittlefehldt’s sophomore novel, What Makes Us, is a thoughtful portrayal of a teen grappling with a terrible family secret: His father might have been a terrorist. Exploring themes of identity, justice and forgiveness, the book isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions without easy answers. BookPage asked Mittlefehldt to reveal his real-life inspirations, explore some of the choices he made while writing such a weighty story and share the hopes he has for his new book.

Did any recent events affect What Makes Us as you wrote it?
I started plotting and writing What Makes Us in 2015. The election of Donald Trump affected everything, this book included. Some of that is pretty unambiguous—the people in the book wearing MAGA hats who want Eran and his mother to leave town—but some of the effect was more indirect.

Early in the book, Eran, a social justice advocate, leads a small protest in his community over a local policy that would allow police to hand out more speeding tickets. I wrote it to be a minor issue because the protest itself isn’t central to the plot, and I didn’t want it to overshadow what happens next. But the context around protests and social justice has changed dramatically in the last few years, along with people’s appetites for reading about them, and in a very specific light. A protest about something that small feels quaint now, and it won’t surprise me if that affects how people read this book.

"Seeing yourself in stories confirms your own reality—that there are other people like you, and that people like you matter."

More personal to me are the changes I made to subsequent drafts to make What Makes Us more Jewish. I’m both gay and Jewish, but for me at least, my Jewish identity has always been clearly secondary to my gay identity. Post-Trump, that’s shifted a bit. There’s been an enormous increase in anti-Semitism—primarily violence from the far-right but also casual anti-Semitism among progressives—which has made me more focused on and vocal about Jewish issues. That found its way into the story.

The aftermaths of violent attacks have many aspects to think about and examine. Why did you choose to focus on the family of the perpetrator?
There was an article shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 that mentioned in passing the toddler daughter of one of the perpetrators. It was a little disquieting to consider that she was too young to understand what had happened, which then begged the question: When would she find out? And how would she process being connected to a tragedy she had nothing to do with and wouldn’t even know about for years? People rarely think about violent criminals’ family members, who have no involvement in such attacks, whose names are a constant link to and reminder of horrible acts someone else permanently connected to them.

You often describe Eran’s relationships with his friends and peers throughout the novel. How are those relationships important as Eran struggles to understand himself and his family legacy?

As the story goes on, Eran becomes more and more isolated. Most of that comes from external forces, but some is self-inflicted. The people close to him, especially Jade and Declan but also his mother, are really his only means to interface with the world and still feel a part of it. They’re a way for him to be connected when he feels most cut off.

More importantly, they ground him during his increasingly frantic worries about who he actually is. They’re a link to the identity he always thought he had—something tangible to grasp onto when he questions his own sense of self.

What Makes Us features a highly diverse cast of characters of different races, religions and sexual orientations. Is representation a priority for you in writing?
Halfway through drafting my first book, It Looks Like This, I realized I was writing all my characters as white and all my main characters as white men. Even though I’ve always cared about representation and believed in its importance, I was still unthinkingly defaulting to white men. It was pretty humbling but also instructional—a moment that made me understand that writing representation is not a passive activity, but something I have to actively think about each time. Even when you know this, it’s embarrassingly easy to mess it up.

I didn’t see a lot of Jews in books when I was a teen. The two gay characters I can remember encountering were written to be punchlines. As I grew older and more gay characters started popping up, I got my first glimpse at what I’d been missing out on. Seeing yourself in stories confirms your own reality—that there are other people like you, and that people like you matter. Why wouldn’t that also be important to people who don’t share your identity?

Eran and Jade are teenagers passionately fighting for social justice and equality, while simultaneously wrestling with their own identities. Did you borrow any inspiration for their characters from your own teenage years?
I wish I could say a lot. Eran and Jade both embody qualities that I wish I had more of. I wish I had Eran’s self-confidence and drive and daring and maybe even a little of his manic energy. I wish I had more of Jade’s remarkable self-control and problem-solving nature and durability and intelligence.

Maybe I do now, but I especially wish I had, in high school, their awareness of the world around them and what really matters. That didn’t really start to hit me until college, and it was a fairly slow burn from there.

A large part of What Makes Us is told from the point of view of Jade, a friend of Eran’s, as she grapples with her own family’s history. Why did you decide to focus on Jade as a character? What does her story bring to the novel?
Part of that is logistical: Since Eran is sequestered in his house for a good chunk of the story, Jade is a way to see what’s happening on the outside—but through a voice that provides a calming break from Eran’s frenzied internal dialogue.

But Jade also has her own story that in many ways parallels Eran’s. The similarities between them help her better process her struggles with identity and cope with a long-withheld family secret coming to light, and they give her a frame of reference to help Eran.

Another significant character in the novel is Mr. Riskin, one of Eran’s teachers, who comes under fire after the protest for his willingness to facilitate controversial conversations. What is the importance of education in the novel, specifically as it pertains to social justice and equality?
I love Mr. Riskin because he’s able to play devil’s advocate to Eran so well. The points he brings up in class discussions aren’t necessarily his own views; he just believes strongly in exploring every corner of an issue thoughtfully but dispassionately. Eran is all about jumping headfirst into action, but Mr. Riskin always wants to stop and talk about nuance. It’s an annoying but important lesson to learn, particularly in the context of social justice, and especially as social media becomes a more dominant form of expression and protest.

Eran begins to understand this—even if he doesn’t articulate it or connect it to Mr. Riskin’s discussions—when he confides in Jade about the performative side of Twitter. On some level, he’s starting to understand that lots of people use activism as a way to increase their social status. Even though what they say sounds right and ticks all the boxes, it’s not social justice, it’s self-serving.

You include frequent interludes from Eran’s mother’s perspective. What do you hope readers take away from her side of the story?
I’m very interested to see what readers make of her. I see her as someone who makes a major sacrifice, but in a frankly stupid way. I find stories about parents’ hidden sacrifices fascinating—things that, to the child, look selfish or thoughtless but in reality were done in the child’s best interest. Sometimes the sacrifice parents make is that their actions, even if they do what’s best for their children, destroy the relationship between them.

Then again, sometimes parents think what they’re doing is right, but they’re way off. Maybe their intent was good, but all they ended up doing was harming their children, and they sacrificed that relationship for nothing. And in that case, how much does intent matter? Does it make a terrible impact forgivable?

Eema’s interludes are meant to show what happened through her eyes, so the reader can, at the very least, fully understand her intent. Then the reader can decide what her impact was, and how wrong or right she was.

Though often not as drastic as Eran’s situation, many young people struggle to accept their parents’ actions and beliefs when they differ from their own. What message do you hope What Makes Us sends to readers in these situations?
This ties in to the question above. Parents often do things that seem wrong to their kids but are actually right. Since parents are also human, they’re also constantly making their own mistakes. It can be extremely difficult for a teen to differentiate between the two, especially when they’re emotionally invested, and especially because of the deferential relationships most kids have with their parents.

A good rule of thumb is to think about harm versus good. When a parent’s actions hurt, it’s easy to be preoccupied with that harm. But at least give them the courtesy of considering their reasons and why they think it’s good for you. Does the good outweigh the bad?

If it doesn’t, consider their intent, too. If their reasoning is flawed or even totally wrong, is it at least coming from a good place? Are they genuinely trying to do the right thing but messing up? How would you want someone else judging your actions, especially when you make a mistake—by your intent or by your impact?

That doesn’t mean what they’ve done is forgivable, necessarily. For some people and in some circumstances, the distinction between impact and intent is meaningless. But it might make a parent’s actions more understandable, as long as they are actually putting their child first.

 

This interview was conducted by BookPage and sponsored by Candlewick. All editorial views are those of BookPage alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

Young adult author Rafi Mittlefehldt’s sophomore novel, What Makes Us, is a thoughtful portrayal of a teen grappling with a terrible family secret: His father might have been a terrorist. Exploring themes of identity, justice and forgiveness, the book isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions without easy answers. BookPage asked Mittlefehldt to reveal his real-life […]

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