Crowd Pleasers: 11 Performing Arts Titles Perfect for Creative Teens

In this roundup of showstopping YA titles, dance, music, theater, television, and the visual arts are the media through which teens explore identity, cultural heritage, racism, sexuality, familial obligation, and evolving friendships.



In this roundup of titles, dance, music, theater, television, and the visual arts are the media through which teens explore identity, cultural heritage, racism, sexuality, familial obligation, and evolving friendships. In Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe, Moon challenges her mother’s retrograde views on body image and female sexuality, while Elissa Sussman addresses gender discrimination in the #MeToo era in Drawn That Way. Nisha Sharma and Syed M. Masood use dance as a critical lens into South Asian American culture, while David Yoon and Mariko Turk examine how microaggressions can leave a lasting impression on one’s psyche. The books on this list transcend romance, feature flawed protagonists, and weave complex plots that are sure to encourage reflection among readers.



MASOOD, Syed M. Sway with Me. Little Brown. 2021. ISBN 9780316492423.
Gr 9 Up– Arsalan knows that once his beloved grandfather, Nana, dies, he will be all alone. The teen longs for connection and asks Beenish, the matchmaker’s stepdaughter, to help him in his quest for love. Beenish promises to oblige on one condition—Arsalan must be her coconspirator, helping her perform a forbidden dance at her older sister’s wedding. Agreeing to Beenish’s request, Arsalan pushes past his comfort zone and discovers that maybe love is closer than he realized. A sweet romance with a desi twist.

SHARMA, Nisha. Radha and Jai’s Recipe for Romance. Crown. 2021. ISBN 9780553523294.
Gr Up– A devastating revelation leaves famed kathak performer Radha Chopra reeling, and she walks away from a prestigious competition and dancing for good. Radha follows her mother to New Jersey but, longing for a connection with her restaurateur father in Chicago, she takes up cooking heirloom Indian recipes with him via video calls. At the Princeton Academy of the Arts, Radha meets aspiring doctor Jai Patel, who’s also captain of the Bollywood Beats team. Jai hopes to lead the team to a win at the regional dance competition, earning a cash prize that would help pay college tuition. Radha agrees to choreograph a new routine, but Jai knows that the only way they can win is if she dances. With a touch of Bollywood drama, this sweet romance also explores class privilege, complicated family bonds, and intergenerational connection.

TURK, Mariko. The Other Side of Perfect. Little, Brown/Poppy. 2021. ISBN 9780316703406.
Gr 9 Up– After a devastating injury shatters Alina Keeler’s dreams of becoming a professional ballerina, she struggles to move beyond her identity as a dancer. She reluctantly tags along with her friend Margot to the tryouts for the school’s spring production of Singin’ in the Rain and auditions for a role as one of the dancers. Alina struggles with letting new people into her life, including Jude, her charming dance partner in the play, who also happens to be the neighbor she’s ignored for years. In the midst of rediscovering herself, Alina, who is Japanese and white, must also come to terms with some complex and uncomfortable experiences from her ballet past, including being forced to perform a racist version of the Chinese Tea dance from The Nutcracker. An imperfect main character working through trauma makes this realistic novel a must-read.


OH, Axie. XOXO. HarperTeen. 2021. ISBN 9780063024991.
Gr 8 Up– There’s a hint of romance when Korean American cellist Jenny encounters Jaewoo at a cultural festival in Los Angeles, but the connection is curtailed since Jenny is headed to Seoul with her mother. She is surprised to see Jaewoo again, this time at the Seoul Arts Academy, where he’s also a student…and the lead singer of XOXO, a famous K-pop band. Despite their artistic differences, Jenny and Jaewoo bond over similar cultural responsibilities that complicate their ability to pursue their individual dreams. K-drama fans (and nonfans alike) will fall in love with this sweet read.

YOON, David. Super Fake Love Song. Putnam. 2020. ISBN 9781984812230.
Gr 9 Up– Korean American teen Sunny Dae isn’t part of the popular crowd, and that suits him fine. He would rather hang with his best friends, Milo and Jamal, creating elaborate designs for live-action Dungeons and Dragons sessions. But when cosmopolitan Cirrus Soh enters the picture, Sunny feels self-conscious about sharing his unique hobby with her. Instead, Sunny lies to Cirrus, pretending he and his friends are in a rock band. But soon the lie gets ahead of him, and Sunny can’t reconcile what’s real and what’s fake. Much more than a boy-trying-to-get-with-girl story, Yoon’s novel is also about challenging expectations to be true to oneself. Readers will especially love the heartwarming vulnerability Sunny, Milo, and Jamal display with one another, as well as the bond between Sunny and his brother Gray.


Reality TV

FUJIMURA, Sara. Faking Reality. Tor Teen. 2021. ISBN 9781250204103.
Gr 9 Up– Reluctant reality star Dakota McDonald’s life has always been an open book. Her parents are home renovation celebrities who revealed their pregnancy with Dakota on national television. Now they want to turn her 16th birthday into a plot point, which is somewhat worrisome for the teen. Dakota longs for privacy, especially as she pines for her childhood friend Leo Matsuda, who shares a similar bicultural background (both have Japanese heritage). Further elevating the novel is Fujimura’s careful balancing of contemporary romance with historical narratives related to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during and after World War II.


ALBERTALLI, Becky. Kate in Waiting. Balzer + Bray. 2021. ISBN 9780062643834.
Gr 9 Up– Besties Kate Garfield and Anderson Walker have a lot in common, including a love of theater and a crush on the same boy. They both meet Matt Olsson at theater camp and fall head over heels for him. It’s a fun summer thing to bond over, until they discover Matt is a new student at their school. Kate and Anderson must figure out how to preserve their own deep relationship while contending with the strong romantic feelings they each have for Matt. But since all’s fair in love and theater, things get more complicated than everyone bargained for. Highly recommended for fans of quirky banter and heartwarming friendship stories.

DAVIS, Dana L. Roman and Jewel. Inkyard. 2021. ISBN 9781335070623.
Gr 9 Up– Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s oeuvre will appreciate this story about a teen trying to make it on Broadway. Ambitious 16-year-old Jerzie Jhames is certain that she’s going to land the lead role of Jewel inRoman and Jewel, a hip-hopera retelling of Romeo and Juliet—but celebrity Cinny is cast as Jewel, with Jerzie as her understudy. Things look up a bit when Jerzie meets leading man Zeppelin, but Cinny is interested in him, too. The boundaries between the stage and real life blur in this fun contemporary YA romance with a classic twist.

MATSON, Morgan. Take Me Home Tonight. S. & S. 2021. ISBN 9781481498982.
Gr 8 Up– When best friends Kat and Stevie scheme to spend the night out in New York City to see a show, they hardly expect the worst. But, with best laid plans…well, anything can happen. This novel in the vein of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist sees Kat and Stevie grappling with drama including broken phones, a run-in with a Pomeranian, getting separated, celebrity sightings, cute boys, and obnoxious taxi drivers. But underneath all the chaos is a moving exploration of the ebbs and flows of friendship, which makes this story relatable on multiple levels.

Visual Arts

GILLILAND, Raquel Vasquez. How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe. S. & S. 2021. ISBN 9781534448667.
Gr 10 Up– Moon Fuentez, 17, is an artist who secretly wants to design a special tarot deck and attend Tulane. But none of this matters to her abusive mother or her purity-obsessed twin, Star, who happens to be a social influencer. When Star is invited to a summer charity tour for social media influencers, Moon must also attend as her designated photographer and chaperone. Moon hopes to earn money for tuition by working as a tour merch girl, a task she’ll be sharing with the brooding Santiago Philips, who also happens to be a gorgeous gourmet chef. Initially the two clash, but it soon becomes apparent that those are actually sparks flying. Stunning moments of magic and thoughtful exploration of complicated family dynamics, as well as frank and sex-positive dialogue, make this a must-read.

SUSSMAN, Elissa. Drawn That Way. S. & S. 2021. ISBN 9781534492974.
Gr 9 Up– When Hayley Saffitz earns a coveted internship with famed animation director Bryan Beckett, she is determined to make the most of the experience. Beckett announces that there will be an opportunity for a select few interns to direct their own short animated film, and Hayley is sure her idea will be picked. Instead, all of the coveted positions go to boys, one of whom is Beckett’s own son, Bear. Making matters worse is Bear’s lack of enthusiasm about the project. Hayley soon realizes she’s misjudged Bear, and the two have undeniable chemistry. Still, Hayley can’t get over being rejected by Beckett, and she teams up with the other girls in the program to make their own film. This is a feminist romance that will resonate with a wide audience.

Lalitha Nataraj (she/her) is the Social Sciences Librarian at California State University, San Marcos. She also spent several years as a public librarian championing adult and early literacy resources and programs, as well as advocating for the inclusion of diverse materials in children’s and teen library collections.

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