Rika Rakuyama loves Little Tokyo, from its ramen shops and beautiful old trees to the neon signs that cast “a wild rainbow glow” upon the street. Her appreciation for her Los Angeles neighborhood, which is marvelously rendered in Sarah Kuhn’s From Little Tokyo, With Love, is deep and abiding—even though Rika often feels unwelcome there.
Community elders critique her hair (reddish and wavy), her face (freckled) and her parentage (her dad wasn’t Japanese). A classmate sneeringly calls her “half-breed,” while neighbors say she’s a “mistake” because her mother had her at 15 before dying in childbirth. Judo training helps Rika channel her understandable anger, and she’s looking forward to participating in a martial arts demonstration at the Nikkei Week festival. Her enthusiasm for fighting earns eye rolls from her cousins: Belle, the reigning Nikkei Week Queen, and Aurora, a junior princess. Though her cousins are enchanted by fairy tales, Rika is certain that happy endings aren’t real.
Everything changes in a chaotic moment when the parade’s grand marshal, a movie star named Grace Kimura, locks eyes with Rika during the festivities, leaps out of her parade vehicle, runs toward the convertible Rika’s driving, whispers Rika’s name and then disappears into the crowd. In the aftermath, Rika discovers a photo of young Grace that points to a shocking secret. Grace’s co-star Henry offers to help track Grace down, and together he and Rika embark on an epic and entertaining quest across LA, falling for each other along the way. Could Rika have her own happy ending after all?
The concept of fairy tales swirls through Kuhn’s novel like a refrain. Initially, it’s a taunt other characters aim at Rika, a reminder of everything she can’t have, but it becomes a quiet song of possibility that underlies her journey to self-acceptance. Her emotional maturation is realistic and moving, while her forays into romance are charming and often funny. (Henry’s biceps are apparently quite distracting.)
From Little Tokyo, With Love is a hopeful testament to all we can gain by opening ourselves to people outside our immediate circle. We can find kindred spirits, learn to stand up for ourselves and create our own fairy tales—no princesses required.