When trying to impress someone you like, one should never lie or pretend to be someone they’re not. It pretty much always blows up in one's face. That lesson of self love and self acceptance is at the core of Reneé Watson’s new young adult (YA) novel Love Is A Revolution.
As a teenager, I was constantly reading books that were not age appropriate, often dealing with adult topics like erotica, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. While I needed this very relatable and hopeful novel 15 years ago, I have to admit that reading Love Is A Revolution during the pandemic has provided a rare form of escapism—one in which COVID-19 could not be accurately worked into its storyline, and Black pain was not a main focal point.
Love Is A Revolution's narrative takes place over the course of a summer in New York precluding the high school senior year of 17-year-old protagonist Nala and her cousin-sister-friend of the same age, Imani. Since Nala’s own mother isn’t great at “mom stuff,” Nala lives with her cousin Imani who looks just like her (hence why she’s a cousin-sister-friend), and her loving aunt and uncle.
Nala’s main goals for the summer are to hang out and watch movies with Imani and her best friend Sadie, find a new hairstyle, and of course, find love. And while the first two of those seem easy enough to accomplish, Nala finds that in her hell-bent search for love, her quest to find herself and who she wants to be in this world is pushed to the wayside.
Also at play in Nala’s (and our) world are the ubiquitous “woke olympics,” represented accurately every time Nala feels judged by Imani’s friends who volunteer at a local youth non-profit called Inspire Harlem. At the beginning of the book, the cousins celebrate Imani’s birthday by attending a talent show fundraiser, where Nala begins to fall for Tye Brown, the show’s emcee. Nala ultimately decides to lie and say she’s a vegetarian who works at her grandmother’s retirement home in order to impress environmentalist Tye, an activist and avid Inspire Harlem volunteer. Indeed, Tye is worth impressing. In this book, it’s not weird at all for the hot guy in high demand to be into Nala’s plus size figure and fun demeanor, so when she lies about her principles and fibs about a job, he’s drawn in even more.
Watson does a good job illustrating our modern world of smartphones and social media, and it doesn’t feel strange at all to have them live on these pages. It’s obviously realistic to have these items but I was happy that while reading, I didn’t feel like the characters were interacting too much with their devices (like in real life). There’s no lengthy text message dialogues or emails included here. Instead, Watson simply focuses on Nala’s perspective: all the messages she types out before deciding against them and then sending something more measured.
But the deeper narrative is the familial one: figuring out the source of tension between Nala and Imani… why does Nala feel they’re not as close as they once were? I related to Imani in this story a lot because I too have lived with a couple cousin-sister-friends. My high school best friend Maya (whose name I’ve changed for this article) lived with my mom, brother and I for a few years in high school because Maya’s mom wasn’t meeting her needs. While I was glad she lived with us, it also felt weird to be sharing my final years of adolescence living with only my tight-knit family unit.
Some of my favorite chapters in Love Is A Revolution's were the most mundane and familiar-seeming moments that turn into juicy conversations. These include a chapter when Sadie, Nala and Imani go down to the beauty supply store to shop for packs of synthetic hair for the new braids Sadie installs in Nala’s hair; the roller skating date with Tye that turns into a non-date; and the dialogue that’s had around the puzzle table and whenever Nala regularly visits her grandmother in the retirement home.
Love Is a Revolution ends up being about finding, accepting and loving yourself as you are, and how vital it is to nurture important familial and friendship bonds—even while trying to save the rest of the world.