Half-Japanese, half-white Rika Rakuyama has been surrounded by romance her entire life—and with her family’s obsession with princesses, rom-coms, and happily-ever-afters, it would make sense if she wanted to be a princess, too. But since Rika knows that a wild, short-tempered hafu can’t be a princess, she focuses on the things she can do: She helps out at her aunts’ katsu restaurant, goes to the dojo for judo training, and dreams about becoming the nure-onna, her favorite monster from Japanese folklore.
That is, until Rika attends Little Tokyo’s Nikkei Week parade and learns that Hollywood’s leading lady, Grace Kimura, is her long-lost mother.
In the midst of the chaos, Grace goes off the grid completely, making it hard for anyone to find her. But with the help of new acquaintance (and young actor) Henry Chen, Rika follows the clues that Grace leaves all around LA, with each piece bringing her closer to solving the mystery of why her mother left in the first place. And along the way, she learns to accept herself for who she is, with a little help from her friends.
The magic in every place and person
From Little Tokyo, With Love is a story of self-discovery, and Kuhn takes Rika and her new friend Henry on an adventure through a city she clearly loves. Kuhn’s affection for LA as a whole, and Little Tokyo in particular, shines through in charming, evocative descriptions, as well as the pieces of history shared along the way.
Kuhn’s lush, descriptive writing style brings not only locations to life, but also the characters. Rika is surrounded by good, vibrant people, especially her family: her lovingly married aunts, Auntie Suzy and Auntie Och; and her #TeamPrincess cousins, Belle and Rory. But the story shines the spotlight most on a new addition to Rika’s life: Chinese-Filipino dancer, actor, and teen heartthrob Henry Chen.
The magic in young love
Charming, outgoing, and laugh-out-loud funny, Henry is the perfect foil to a protagonist with a kaiju-sized temper. But there’s more to this up-and-coming actor than meets the eye, and as Rika learns more about Henry’s experiences in an entertainment industry stacked against people like them, she learns to like, respect, and even like-like him.
Henry and Rika have chemistry, and Rika’s unabashed appreciation of everything Henry is, feels very teen and very relatable. Their interactions throughout the novel show their development from a pair of new friends to something more in a fun way. Kuhn also gets extra points for giving judo the flirty YA romance treatment; this novel is definitely the first time I’ve ever seen book characters turn judo sparring into something spicier.
The magic in courage
But From Little Tokyo, With Love isn’t just about young romance and lost family. Rika—whose mixed appearance stands out in the predominantly pure-Japanese Little Tokyo community—goes through the novel facing demons in the form of bullies, young and old, Asian and otherwise.
And that’s not all. Kuhn doesn’t shy away from tackling homophobia, racism, and other issues, seen in how Rika’s family is looked down upon by the tradition-blinded Japanese-American community for being different. Through other characters, Kuhn also touches upon mental health and anxiety, and the importance of friends in making sure they can be tackled properly.
Some spells that didn’t do the trick
Though the book is both light and enlightening, bits and pieces don’t work for me. For example, though her world is compelling, Rika herself isn’t always likable; her temper, tendency towards drama, and fixation on the nure-onna make her seem childish and petty, even for a seventeen-year-old.
I also have personal reservations about how fast Rika and Henry’s relationship develops. The entire story takes place in one week, but their physical relationship escalates quickly not just for a YA novel, but in general. If anything, though, it’s a relief to know that Rika feels in control and cared for as she falls deeper in love.
An enchanting ride with a hopeful ending
With fairytales, family mysteries, and a sprinkling of judo action, From Little Tokyo, With Love is a love letter to people who want to believe in the best of the world—with a special place in its heart for Asian and mixed-race teens and adults, who face the challenges that Rika and her family go through every single day.
If you’re looking for a teen read that’s primarily realistic and angst-filled, maybe From Little Tokyo isn’t what you should read. But if you’re looking for an emotional and hopeful story of discovery, young love, and magic, this is exactly what to slip into your library—next to your favorite happily-ever-after.