Book Reviews Books

“21 Questions” uses a tried-and-tested formula for YA and misses the mark

21 Questions is a book about two high school teenagers, Brock and Kendra, who despite their differences form a meaningful relationship with each other and grow as individuals because of their bond. The book explores themes of grief, love, and friendship – all through the lens of the characters themselves. 

The book is set in Laguna Beach in California. This setting is important because Kendra is training to become a professional surfer. Her brother, who died before the book begins, was primed to enter the professional surfing sphere before he died of a drug overdose. Kendra has been experiencing anxiety attacks ever since. Surfing and meditation are what help her get through it.

Brock, on the other hand, could not be more different. His parents run a successful drug-dealing operation and Brock has been roped into the family business. He sells to classmates and friends. When we first meet Brock, it is clear that although he seems to enjoy this life, his first love is music – something he cannot pursue because of his parents’ expectations. When Brock and Kendra meet, they have an undeniable and immediate mutual attraction. The chapters alternate between Brock and Kendra’s points of view, giving the reader more insight into their thoughts and motivations.

I have mixed feelings about the style of language in this book. I admire the switch in the tone of language between Kendra’s and Brock’s points of view. Brock’s chapters are narrated the way he thinks – with a lot of slang and curse words, while Kendra is less angry and shyer. However, the excessive slang and text language make the book hard to read at times.

The novel is full of tropes. The underlying themes of this book are predictable. The bad boy male protagonist charms the straight-as-an-arrow female protagonist. He teaches her to relax and she teaches him to be a better person. It’s a formula that’s been applied many times before. Kendra is Brock’s muse in the sense that she is his motivation to stop selling drugs and play music. This is not to say that such formulae cannot be used – after all, they are so popular because they mostly work. But I personally do not think that was the case for 21 Questions.


Although it was heartening to see the characters learn and grow, I did not feel that inexplicable sympathy a reader needs to root for the characters. Kendra’s thoughts veered towards the ‘I’m not like other girls’ territory, throwing the feminism of the book into question. In fact, all the characters seemed to be one-dimensional. The girls who are not Kendra are overly superficial. Brock and his friends seemed to be obsessed with sex and not much else. Brock’s love for music does add another layer to his personality – but the troubled musician character is not one that I have patience for after reading and watching him so many times.

The story is on the whole predictable but is not without its surprising twists and turns. I would not have much of an issue with the plot if only it was told better. Two teenagers who have past family traumas that they are trying to get over in order to live their own lives. As a reader, I would have liked to root for the main characters a little more. Perhaps if they had more depth this would have been easier. I also felt that the epilogue was entirely unnecessary, but I will concede that I have a personal disinclination towards epilogues.


If you like knowing what the characters are up to in the future, then this book has a comprehensive epilogue that ties up the characters’ journeys nicely, albeit rather self-indulgently. By the end of the book, the characters have grown up. I just wish the same could be said of the book itself.

Want to give this book a try? Buy it on Bookshop or Indiebound and support local bookstores.

Gift Guides Books Pop Culture

6 outstanding diverse YA debut novels by female authors you need to read

YA literature last year has been amazing, diverse, and so important. Many of the most-praised debut novels this year have been by women writers of minority backgrounds. They’re telling stories unique to their perspectives and encouraging empathy in the YA community in a way that is remarkable and so essential. All of the books below are first novels by women of color, about women of color. As you start your reading for the summer, if you haven’t picked up some of these titles, you should give them a try!

1. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyem

Children of Blood and Bone cover
[Image description: cover of Children of Blood and Bone, via Goodreads]
Eleven years after her mother was killed and magic disappeared, Zélie Adebola sets out on an epic quest to fight oppression and bring magic back with the help of a member of the royal family.

The characters, the world, and the magic of this novel are all inspired by West African mythology. Adeyemi deftly tackles issues of class and prejudice while giving her audiences a deliciously long story in a rich world. It’s been one of the most popular YA novels of the year!

Price: $10.99

2. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X cover
[Image description: cover of The Poet X, via Goodreads]
Xiomara Batista is an Afro-Latina protagonist who is up against the world. She struggles against oppressive religious views and sexism as she turns to slam poetry to find her voice.

The Poet X was written partially in response to the lack of books for young Latinx readers, so Xiomara’s experience takes center stage to help change that. Unflinching and powerful, Acevedo’s novel in verse has as much strength and fearlessness as Xiomara herself.

Price: $10.96

3. Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Love, Hate & Other Filters cover
[Image description: cover of Love, Hate & Other Filters, via Goodreads]
Maya Aziz is expected by her parents to stay close to home and fall for a Muslim boy who they’ve already picked out for her, but she’s more interested in moving to New York and pursuing her own path. Amidst a local terror attack, Maya must deal with a burst of Islamophobia and bigotry, and learn how she, as an Indian-American Muslim girl, is going to find her place.

The style of the novel is engaging and bright, and it reads the way your favorite high school film feels: entertaining and relatable, but with some high stakes and lovable characters that make it hard to put down.

Price: $9.73

4. American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda cover
[Image description: cover of American Panda, via Goodreads]
Mei is a Tiawanese-American freshman at MIT who has been great thus far, at following her parents’ rules and guidelines. But now that she’s expected to find and marry a Taiwanese boy, she starts to wonder if she shouldn’t deviate from their path and go after what she wants.

The novel is based largely on Gloria Chao’s own life experience, who has said that she “never felt quite Taiwanese or American enough” growing up. It’s a light, fun story full of real issues, and it will be sure to make you smile.

Price: $9.88

5. Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi

Emergency Contact cover
[Image description: cover of Emergency Contact, via Goodreads]
When Penny Lee meets Sam in a tight spot, they agree to exchange numbers and become one another’s emergency contacts. Before long, they’re texting all day every day, swapping jokes and sharing dreams.

Choi does an amazing job capturing the feeling of existing in a digital or textual space with a person, where it’s easy to keep them at arm’s length and offer only the parts of yourself that you’re willing to let them see. The novel is funny, charming, real, and so easy to fall in love with.

Price: $9.19

6. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After cover
[Image description: cover of The Astonishing Color of After, via Goodreads]
When Leigh Chen Sanders’s mother dies by suicide, she’s certain her mother has turned into a bird. Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time and hopefully find some answers within her family history that will help her process her grief.

The novel raises some captivating questions about culture and heritage, especially after the person who connects us most to that heritage has passed away. Pan’s use of language is so beautiful, and her constant use of color to describe the way Leigh is feeling makes the book feel unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Price: $15.88

Honestly, lady-led YA debuts are what keep me going some days. These are books that are an active force for good in the world: the more attention and praise diverse books receive means more empathy across the board. And the more opportunity there is for women of color to see themselves in the stories they love, the better!