Group Discussion: Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute

Pink cover with tall evergreen trees in the background on the left. A smiling young Black man and woman carrying backpacks are walking closely on the right side of the cover.

We started off the year with a really fun book for our group discussion. HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS AND UNFAIRLY CUTE by Talia Hibbert brought many smiles to our faces. If you’ve read along, please share your thoughts. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, we didn’t reveal any major plot twists, but you may want to skip this post until you read do get to finish reading.

Publisher’s summary: Bradley Graeme is pretty much perfect. He’s a star football player, manages his OCD well (enough), and comes out on top in all his classes . . . except the ones he shares with his ex-best friend, Celine.

Celine Bangura is conspiracy-theory-obsessed. Social media followers eat up her takes on everything from UFOs to holiday overconsumption—yet, she’s still not cool enough for the popular kids’ table. Which is why Brad abandoned her for the in-crowd years ago. (At least, that’s how Celine sees it.)

These days, there’s nothing between them other than petty insults and academic rivalry. So when Celine signs up for a survival course in the woods, she’s surprised to find Brad right beside her.

Forced to work as a team for the chance to win a grand prize, these two teens must trudge through not just mud and dirt but their messy past. And as this adventure brings them closer together, they begin to remember the good bits of their history. But has too much time passed . . . or just enough to spark a whole new kind of relationship?

Crystal: I don’t know about you all, but I have read quite a few of Talia Hibbert’s adult romances and have really enjoyed them so I was very excited to see that she was trying out writing for young adults. There were probably hearts dancing above my head when I saw her name on the cover image. Speaking of the cover, what are your thoughts about the use of illustration and the colors?

Jessica: One of my absolute favorite romance books is ACT YOUR AGE, EVE BROWN, so I was very, very, very much looking forward to reading HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS AND UNFAIRLY CUTE– so yes, same, Crystal. I loved how bold and colorful the cover was! I know there’s some mixed feelings about romance covers increasingly having the same look – bright solid colors, simply illustrated characters – but I felt like this cover managed to be both familiar, signaling that you were picking up a fun YA romance by an author known for Adult Romance, and stand out with its bright pink palette and expressive characters. The best of both worlds! I’m a fan.

Audrey: I haven’t read any of Talia Hibbert’s adult titles before, but I loved HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS AND UNFAIRLY CUTE. I’m also not up to date on the conversation re: illustrated covers, but I can tell you that I was thrilled to have a plus sized Black girl on the cover! I’m glad we’re getting more and more fat rep in YA, especially in romance. The illustrator did a great job on Celine’s and Brad’s expressions and how they’re both sneaking looks at each other. Also, I love the little alien on Celine’s shirt.

K. Imani: I’m also a fan of Talia Hibbert having read and greatly enjoyed TAKE A HINT, DANI BROWN last year and like everyone else was excited to read her take on YA romance. I really like the cover as I feel like it fits her other covers which feature a plus sized Black girl being loved by a cute guy. Like Audrey said, their facial expressions are so cute and so teenagery because if anyone has ever been around teens finding love, it’s all about stealing glances and the cover captured these two perfectly.

Crystal: This is an excellent audio book that I was able to get through as an advance listening copy. The voice actors do a great job. One thing that I wasn’t aware of at first though was that the physical copy has a glossary at the beginning. If you also listened, you can access the glossary by “looking inside” on the publisher page. It would seem like that wouldn’t be a big thing to miss, but even the glossary is amusing. Laughter is something that Hibbert is fantastic at inspiring. Her humor is a gift.

Jessica: I ended up reading the book as an audiobook, ebook, and physical book since I was traveling. And I have to say, if you want your 6 hour flight to go by in a snap, listen to the audiobook. It is truly such a great experience. And I needed that glossary, lol, so it was much appreciated.

K. Imani: I have no comment on the audiobook because I’m strictly a physical book kind of gal, but yes there was a glossary at the beginning and I enjoyed reading it before I started the book. I’ve read a lot of British lit so some of the words I knew, but much of the current slang I didn’t, so it was fun to learn new words.

Audrey: I bought the hardcover, and the glossary cracked me up. It was fun and playful, which wasn’t something I expected, but it really set the tone for me since this was my first book by Hibbert. The glossary was also helpful—while I could and did figure out most of the terms in context, the book is really centered on the modern British schooling system, which I know almost nothing about. I definitely am not up on modern British slang, either.

Crystal: As a person who seeks outdoor experiences like camping, hiking, and rock climbing, the time they spent in nature was a bonus for me. Some contemporary YA romances have outdoorsy scenes, but it’s not extremely common so it seems like something to note especially since there are even fewer such scenes with characters of color.

Jessica: The combination of academic competition for a scholarship with outdoor expedition was so fresh! I’m very much an indoors person and will never voluntarily go camping, so I loved that I got to experience the great outdoors via a wonderful YA book. Speaking of which, this reminded me of one of my favorite influencers online – Alexis Nikole (@ blackforager on instagram!), who posts short videos about foraging and how she relates to the outdoors as a Black person. (You can read a great NPR interview with her here.)

Crystal: Thanks for that awesome interview Jessica! I also searched and found some of her videos. Fell down a rabbit hole for a bit. 😉

Audrey: I actually went to England and Scotland last fall, so while I was reading, I had fun imagining Celine and Brad hiking through some of the outdoors areas I visited. I didn’t do anything nearly so hardcore as what the Breakspeare Enrichment Program was, of course, but I enjoyed the (very small) connection. It was nice to have such long segments in the outdoors, too, because a lot of contemporary YA romance ends up being physically centered around a high school building, and the two Breakspere segments broke that up in a good way.

K. Imani: As one who goes camping with her students twice a year I loved it. I feel like taking both characters out of their comfort zones allowed them to open themselves up to each other and to others. Celine definitely grew at each of the camping weeks and Brad learned he was much more of a leader than he thought he was. I also liked that it opened up Celine and Brad’s world as they were away from their friends and had to be on their best behavior as they developed new friendships. I feel like this allowed them to also get to know each other as who they are now rather than who they were when their friendship ended.

Crystal: In her author’s note, Hibbert explains that the “story involves parental abandonment and a portrayal of living with obsessive compulsive disorder.” I don’t know how that portrayal would seem to someone with OCD, but I appreciated how she made the characters seem whole and complete people. A recurring theme with both main characters was that individuals can be the boss of their brain. Since it is written through both perspectives we get to really see how thoughts are rumbling through and what’s affecting their actions.

Jessica: I’ll take this opportunity to shout out the acknowledgements, where Hibbert talks about how OCD runs in her family, how she reacted to being diagnosed, and how “writing him inspired me to take better care of myself.” I love that so much – the idea that both the act of reading and the act of writing can help you as a person. And I love that, in all her books, Hibbert portrays characters in their full humanity – like Brad being bisexual (and having a crush on John Boyega, which, relatable), a high school football star, and someone working on managing his OCD. And Celine being an overachiever, TikTok influencer, and someone grappling with how her father abandoned her family. They’re such rich characters, and they make the story that much more compelling.

Audrey: That bit that Jessica quoted in the acknowledgments also hit me hard. A lot of time on our blog we talk about how important it is for teen readers to see themselves represented—and it is!—but it was also a good reminder that it can be just as important for the authors writing these books. Hibbert did a wonderful job of exploring Brad and Celine’s inner worlds compassionately, and I appreciated that even when the two were more on the “enemies” side of “enemies-to-lovers,” they still had moments of understanding toward each other.

Crystal: My audiobook didn’t include the acknowledgments so I’m glad that you all mentioned them. When I was a teen, I never did read such things, but now I usually do. I finially got my physical copy last night and was glad to get a chance to read the acknowledgements and see a bit of Hibbert’s own story.

K. Imani: Like Jessica, Hibbert’s comment about learning to take care of herself while writing about Brad touched me too. I don’t know much about OCD but I liked the way Hibbert wrote Brad and how he dealt with his brain. In fact, much like Crystal, I really enjoyed the inner lives of both Celine and Brad and how their mental and emotional challenges and growth influence their decisions. They both felt like fully realized characters, which made me really connect with them.

Crystal: One time, I think Brad says that being with Celine is like falling into bed after a long day. That’s what this book is like for me. It’s comfy and wraps me in a hug. Yes, characters have bad things happen to them or they make poor choices, but rom-coms are safe and reliable because we know *spoiler alert* they will muddle their way through and it will all work out in the end. I love that they were friends in the past and so that made them good enemies. Their verbal sparring is too cute. Also, Hibbert was great at writing descriptions that would stick in my head like when Brad describes Celine popping up like a meerkat in one particularly adorable scene. Was there anything specific that had y’all smiling?

Jessica: The banter was *chef’s kiss* – I was grinning the whole flight as I was listening. Well, alternating between smiling and tearing up at the emotional scenes.

Audrey: I agree, the banter was great! That was the big sign for me that these characters would eventually be on the same page about each other and that I would end up rooting for them to be. One scene that cracked me up was the mud fight between Brad and Celine. Not only was it hilarious, but it was also a great segue into a tipping point in their relationship.

K. Imani: I feel like the scenes that had me smiling, especially when they were in their “enemies” stage, was the love that was still there between them. You could tell they still mourned their friendship and when Brad comes over to Celine’s house after she breaks her wrist, my heart just melted because it was clear how close they were and how much they really missed their friend. The parallel visit at the end of the novel was a perfect payoff as well.

Crystal: Are there any other rom-coms you’re looking forward to this spring? I was excited to finally start reading Maurene Goo’s THROWBACK that comes out in April.

Jessica: HER GOOD SIDE by Rebekah Weatherspoon! Another exciting YA by an Adult Romance author. It comes out May 30th.

Audrey: I think CHLOE AND THE KAISHAO BOYS by Mae Coyiuto sounds like fun! It came out just yesterday.

K. Imani: I’m looking forward to WHILE YOU WERE DREAMING by Alisha Rai who is another Adult Romance author whose writing I love. I’m also looking forward to Rhythm and Muse by India Hill Brown as it seems like a swoon worthy story.

If you have any spring release rom-coms to recommend, let us know in the comments. Happy reading!