I was skeptical when I first picked up Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the first volume about Lara Jean Song Covey, a Korean American girl living in the suburbs of Virginia with a single dad and two sisters. I don’t usually read young adult fiction, but when I saw that the novel was about a biracial girl, I decided to give it a go. It’s not everyday when Asian American girls are stars of YA novels, and as a scholar of Asian American Studies and literature, I knew I had to give the world of YA a shot.
Lara Jean is a dreamy-eyed baker, scrapbooker, middle child, and high school junior. Dreamy-eyed because instead of running around chasing boys, she writes a heartfelt letter to every boy she has ever loved and stows it away in her hatbox. She is a master at the art of scrapbooking, claiming: “A good scrapbook has texture. It’s thick and chunky and doesn’t close all the way.” She looks up to her older sister, Margot, and cares for her younger sister, Kitty, completely devoid of the middle child syndrome that plagued me during my teen years. She is kind, creative, intelligent, prone to accidents, and gets a little too lost in her head sometimes, but other than that, she is a charming, well-rounded character.
Of course, drama ensues in Lara Jean’s life when her letters are secretly mailed out to every boy she has ever written to. Chaos and a messy love-triangle/love-square of sorts occurs. However, that isn’t the only thing that centers the story. Family is a huge part of Lara Jean’s life and despite the misfortunes coming her way, she is determined to fulfill her role as the matriarch of the family with her older sister away at college and a deceased mother. She bakes treats for her little sister, remembers to go grocery shopping for her father, and overall, balances her responsibilities with romance’s perils to the point where I thought, wow, this sixteen-year-old girl has got it together more than me.
Another thing I appreciated about Jenny Han’s series are the subtle moments where issues of race/ethnicity come to light. In the story, Halloween rolls around and Lara Jean decides to dress up as Cho Chang from Harry Potter, stating: “There are very limited options for Asian girls on Halloween. Like one year I went as Velma from Scooby-Doo, but people just asked me if I was a manga character. I even wore a wig! So now I’m committed to dressing up as Asian characters exclusively.” If I had been reading this novel when I was a teenager, I’m pretty sure I would have whooped and hollered because hearing my struggle with the perpetual foreigner stereotype being expressed in a novel is a very validating feeling, letting me know that I am not alone as an Asian American girl. In the second novel, P.S. I Still Love You, Lara Jean and her sisters even discuss their need to reconnect with their Korean roots. Although this series still takes place in a typical middle-class suburban setting and is invested in heteronormative patterns, the diverse characters and myriad life experiences still make it a worthwhile read.
P.S. I Still Love You also tackles deep issues, particularly sex. Lara Jean is not in a rush to become sexually active, and Han perfectly captures the curiosity and anxiety teenagers have about sex, as well as the double standards teen girls face when they look to exploring their sexualities. Han critiques slut shaming, the virgin/whore binary, and a platitude of other issues showing that for girls, sex is so much more complicated than finding the courage to bare yourself to a person. Originally, Lara Jean Song Covey’s story was to conclude in two volumes, but Jenny Han has confirmed that there will be a third volume released next spring. I am proud to say I will definitely purchase it, my 24-year-old self be damned. I only wish this series could have been released when I was younger (I sure would’ve needed it), but nevertheless, I am glad that teen girls have the chance to identify with a range of YA characters, other than just white boys.
Maria T. Vallarta is a Ph.D. student of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Her research is centered on Filipinx diasporic literature, Filipinx feminisms, queer theory, and visual cultures. Her work has appeared in TAYO Literary Magazine and Pinay.com. See her ruminate on sampaguitagirl.tumblr.com.