Emergency Contact

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Emergency Contact Book Poster Image
Sweet, quirky, college romance has lots of sex talk.

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Kids say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A few insights into daily life and culture of Austin, Texas. A few brief insights into Korean culture and language. A couple of silly phrases in French with translations. Several modern artists mentioned and briefly ranked on their merits.

Positive Messages

People are so fragile that all kinds of love, not just romantic, can be traumatizing, but you have to let them in because that's how love works. Trick to getting through life is to have someone you can trust and rely on. Coping with something by hiding from it never works. A negative example illustrates damage that can happen from having sex without consent. Romance blossoms almost exclusively via text message; both parties mention feeling more comfortable and free to be themselves than they would interacting in real life.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Penny stays on track academically, wants to be a writer, works hard at creative writing assignments. She's frustrated with always being caretaker in relationship with her mother, but overall it's a loving relationship, if not very supportive. Her parents are from Korea, and she points out racism when she hears it, but being Korean American doesn't define her. She learns to talk about feelings and innermost thoughts, to see things from other perspectives. Sam, 21, can't rely on his mother for emotional or financial support. He works in a coffee house, bakes, wants to be a documentary filmmaker. He thinks of himself as in recovery from alcohol abuse, but doesn't belong to a program or attend meetings. Penny and Sam make mistakes but learn from them.


Penny has violent thoughts when she's angry or frustrated, like fantasizing about punching someone or punching through a window, but she never acts on them. She relates a past trauma when someone continued to have sex with her after she said no; there was no struggle or other physical violence aside from the nonconsensual sex. A character tells about getting slapped in the face once. Penny is verbally bullied once. Penny refers to someone she finds creepy as "possibly pedo."


College-age teens and young adults make a lot of sexual references and talk about various issues like periods, condoms, keeping track, UTIs, and more. Some kissing with brief descriptions, including once in bed with clothes on. Penny and Sam sleep in the same bed fully clothed. A pregnancy scare includes a brief discussion of abortion. Lots of flirting. Unwanted sexting includes nude pictures that don't show any genitalia. Mention of a past kiss that Penny walked out on when the boy put her hand on his "junk" while he was wearing what seemed to be bathing-suit bottoms. A 14-year-old brags about "bagging" lots of girls.


"Slut," "whore," "MILF," "bitches," "goddammit," "Jesus" and "Christ" as exclamations, "a--hole," "helluva," "d--k" (name-calling), "d--king around," "damn," "s--t," "GTFO," "a--crack," "underboob," "FML," "puto" (name-calling in Spanish), "penis," "hella," "ballsy," "bulls--t," "boner killer," "jizz," "crap."


Lots of tech, food, car, beverage, pop culture, music, movie, social media, and beverages mentioned, usually to establish character, mood, or location. One mention of Ativan.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Sam is in recovery for alcohol abuse, mentions past incidents of excessive drinking, consequences like hangovers. He tasted his first beer when he was 6, and at 11 hung out with older, heavy drinkers, drinking like them. Mention of a game where you duct-tape malt liquor or wine coolers to your hands. Sam's mother has a drinking problem; lots of drinking at trailer park where she lives. Penny thinks cigarettes are awful but imagines Sam looking cool doing it. She occasionally drinks (champagne at Christmas, sake at a sushi place); she has sparkling wine at a party and talks later about alcohol as an effective social lubricant. Mention that a friend is drunk, high, or both at a party. A character smokes weed. Penny speculates that her mom takes Ativan. Cigarette smoking, vaping.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Mary H.K. Choi's Emergency Contact is a romance between college freshman Penny and 21-year-old Sam. The older teens and young adults make a lot of sexual references and talk about birth control, UTIs, periods, condoms, and more. There's a pregnancy scare, and abortion is briefly discussed. There are a few kisses and making out, and Penny and Sam sleep in the same bed with clothes on. Strong language includes "d--k," "s--t," "bitch," "a--hole," and references to the "F" word in abbreviations such as "GTFO" and "MILF." Sam is in recovery from alcohol abuse, although he doesn't participate in any structured sobriety method. Past excessive drinking is mentioned. Underage Penny drinks a few times, but not to excess. Very little violence except telling about someone who kept going after Penny had said no to sex; other than the nonconsensual act itself, there was no other violence like beating or struggling. Penny's buried feelings about it and her inability to take action at the time could lead to a discussion about the importance of consent. The romance blossoms almost exclusively by text messaging, which could spark another good conversation with teens about why the characters feel freer communicating that way, and what your family's values and guidelines are for interacting via text message.

User Reviews

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Teen, 14 years old Written byMayberry June 17, 2018

Emergency Talk

A book like none other. Definitely should be on your to-read list.

What's the story?

College freshman Penny and 21-year-old barista/filmmaker Sam become each others' EMERGENCY CONTACT after Penny helps Sam while he's having a genuine panic attack on the hot streets of Austin, Texas. As they start communicating by text, they each immediately realize that they "get" each other in ways no one else does, or could. The only problem is that Sam happens to be vaguely related to Penny's roommate Jude, and Jude has asked Penny not to get involved with Sam. But if they're just texting and not getting together in real life ... that doesn't count, does it? Penny and Sam's feelings for each other keep growing, and things get trickier and trickier as they try to keep their secret. Until, of course, the beans get spilled.

Is it any good?

This quirky, sweet romance between a college freshman and a struggling 21-year-old scores best with its engaging, believable characters. Penny and Sam take turns narrating Emergency Contact, so readers not only go inside each character's mind but also get a more rounded view of each one through the other's eyes. The plot's pretty predictable: The thing you know is going to happen sure enough happens. But author Mary H.K. Choi's vividly realized characters make it a journey romance fans will enjoy taking.

Penny and Sam aren't always likable, especially until we get to know them better, but teens will easily relate to them even as they make mistakes along the way. Issues like consent, keeping secrets, long-distance relationships, and falling for someone via text messaging add relevance and food for thought for teens, packaged in an engaging romance that feels real and ends on a satisfying note.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the sexy stuff, especially all the talking about it, in Emergency Contact. Is it realistic? How much is too much in books, movies, video games, and TV?

  • Lots of media for teens mention consumer products by name. In this case, does it help you understand the characters, the time, or the setting? Or does it seem gratuitous? Why?

  • How do you like the structure of alternating chapters from Sam and Penny's points of view? Does it help you understand the characters by getting inside each one's head? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love romance

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