This article was sponsored by Holiday House. All opinions are of the writer’s and not representative of Holiday House.
If you’ve ever walked into a STEM classroom and immediately felt like an outlier, Alexene Farol Follmuth’s latest release is for you. Follmuth is a first-generation Asian American who, under her pen name Olivie Blake, has written a number of adult science fiction and fantasy projects, including “The Atlas Six.” Her debut YA novel, “My Mechanical Romance,” follows high school senior Bel as she falls in love — with robotics of course! And for those who love a good YA romance, there’s a little bit of that kind of love in there as well.
Set in an elite Los Angeles preparatory school, Bel is the new girl, transferred from her old life after her parents’ divorce. She turns heads with her funky fashion and her quick wit, completing assignments in the moments right before the bell rings. Her problem: Unlike certain Asian Americans who have been helicopter-parented into certain career paths, Bel doesn’t know what’s next for her in life.
College applications are around the corner and everyone seems completely set in their future. There’s Lora, one of Bel’s new friends, who has her sights set on USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And then there’s Mateo “Teo” Luna, the dreamboat soccer and robotics team captain, who is great at basically everything he tries and already knows his future is at MIT. Luckily, one of Bel’s teachers sees a future for her and pushes her to transfer not only to an AP Physics class but to also join the robotics team.
It’s not all fiction; after completing a short story about two college-age engineers falling in love because nerds deserve romance too, Follmuth found the response from readers to be overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “It sparked this conversation between women who were in STEM fields, who have been, you know, subjected to all these different microaggressions because they were such a minority,” Follmuth said. “These women had to take themselves so seriously in order to be taken seriously and to be valued for their competency in comparison to their male peers. To them, this was the first time that their story was sexy, and being an engineer could be part of the romance.”
It is a truth too well known by women of color wanting to join the boys’ club that is STEM. As a child, I fancied myself a chemist and geologist with my love for rocks and mixtures. Even before entering a classroom, I was discouraged from collecting and inspecting rocks I found fascinating instead of being encouraged along a path that would inspire a love of science.
These days, women make up 60% of college students and 47% of the total workforce. But the numbers from the National Science Foundation found women only make up 28% of the current science and engineering workforce, and of that percentage, women of color comprise about 5% of the population.
Follmuth herself shared that at so many points in her educational journey, people were showing her the exit signs in STEM classrooms. While outright sexism is not necessarily a thing of our time, and girls are “welcome” to take science classes, girls are often still left behind in the classroom because they don’t get the attention they need to fully understand the concepts presented. (Think using common sports for physics problems — and while there are girls who love football, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand the physics of a football much less the sport!) For girls of color, that’s doubly hard when many are discounted from the beginning due to factors outside of their control.
For Bel, her sudden infatuation with robotics causes friction with Neelam, her robotics teammate and the only other girl of color on the team. Not only that but the physics teacher himself seems to disregard anyone but Teo and his friends. Things start to change for Bel after Teo recognizes her skill in engineering, but is that all there is to it?
“My Mechanical Romance” tells both Teo’s and Bel’s perspectives, switching between the two because a one-sided romance is never truly believable, claims Follmuth. (And at Mochi, we are all for consent!) But beyond romance, the novel is a celebration of the wanderers and of a potluck of cultures, which Follmuth captures in the little details such as the way Bel’s mother addresses her as anak or how Kai’s kimchi is the hottest lunchtime swap or how Emmett’s parents want him to date a nice Chinese girl or Neelam.
Follmuth recalls, “I had to see myself in the details because I was a detail. When I was a teenager, I was just sort of the add-on to the story and never the central focus. So, for me, those details are really important, because I was the kind of reader who was looking for them.”
Whether or not you have an interest in any of the sciences, the novel’s witty incorporation of cultural details, the realistic characters and plot, and the fun will-they-or-won’t-they love story create a page-turning read that teens will enjoy. “My Mechanical Romance” is a must-read for young girls both interested in or aspiring to pursue a STEM field, as it realistically highlights the challenges girls and women face in this field, while also reminding readers that it is totally okay to not know your path and to try new things. After all, you never know what — or who — you will fall in love with!
Connect with author Alexene Farol Follmuth on Twitter and Instagram at @afarolfollmuth and publisher Holiday House on social media at @HolidayHouseBooks. “My Mechanical Romance” is available wherever books are sold. Pick up a copy for yourself or any young readers in your life, and remember to support your local BIPOC-owned bookstore. (272 pp. Holiday House. $18.99)
Last modified: May 31, 2022