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Romance in YA: Take It or Leave It?

2013 May 3
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While I defended romance as a valid and vital part of YA fiction last month, I find myself agreeing with a recent Huffington Post article that takes a critical look at some trends in YA romance. Author Elizabeth Vail says:

…looking at the last couple of years of YA novels, it seems that romance has shifted from being a genre trend to a genre requirement — and the genre has suffered for it.

I’ve since come to treat the YA romantic subplot as the pit in the center of the narrative peach — an awkwardly placed and inevitable annoyance to be endured and avoided while enjoying the otherwise interesting plot.

Hearts on our mantel.

Photo by PV KS

She has a point. Not every romance is a great one, and not every book needs it.

So what makes a good literary romance? Everyone has a different opinion, but for me, it’s gradual development — the slow build. I want to see the roller coaster of emotions play out on the pages as two people fall in love. I also want witty banter and well-developed characters. When both parties in a romance stand on their own as believable individuals, it’s all the more satisfying when they get together.

Vail herself gives some examples of YA fiction with solid romance, and you’ll find more suggestions in article’s comments. Here are some titles that came to my mind while considering Vail’s take on YA romance:

Ah, love … YA with really good romance

gracelingGraceling by Kristin Cashore (2009 Teens’ Top Ten winner, 2009 Best Books for Young Adults selection)
Born with the ability to kill with a mere touch, Katsa has trouble with self-acceptance … but her wall begins to crumble as she forms a friendship with the charismatic Prince Po. Katsa and Po may just be the champions at witty banter, and each is a well-developed character in their own right. Katsa and Po’s gradual love story feels like a natural part of Katsa’s character development and an important part of her journey to self-discovery.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The story of two outsiders who gravitate toward each other over the course of their daily school bus ride is tender without being saccharine. These two definitely have the “slow build” down pat. The development of their romance isn’t shown through wistful gazes or even smoldering kisses, but through tentative hand-holding, and, perhaps best of all, a phone call — a much-anticipated, deliciously lingering phone call where these two can finally have time alone together to talk about everything and nothing.

The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare (Clockwork Angel is a 2011 Teens’ Top Ten winner)
In her article, Vail points out that love triangles are all too common in YA fiction, but I wonder if she’s read this series. Against the backdrop of a steampunk Victorian London, Clare creates a most refreshing love triangle — truly suspenseful, without  an obvious outcome. Tessa is immortal, while her two love interests are not, so even if she “ends up” with one of them, they can’t last forever. The reader can’t help but wonder how it will all be resolved, and it’s hard to decide who to root for because both choices are equally valid, making this love triangle stand out from the crowd.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
American high school senior Anna is on her own for the first time. She’s reluctantly attending a boarding school in Paris, which sounds like a dream come true, but she feels entirely out of her element. Anna’s self-discovery process is the focus of the story, and her relationship with the charming Etienne St. Clair is a vital part of her growing confidence and comfort in her new surroundings. And though Anna and St. Clair reside in the “City of Love,” their romance isn’t perfect. It’s complicated, even a little messy — which is what makes it all the more convincing.

shadow_and_bone_coverShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
In this Russian-inspired fantasy, Alina, who discovers she has unique powers, and Mal, her best friend since childhood, could compete with Graceling‘s Po and Katsa in the witty banter category. Not only does the story build a believable romance, but it evades stereotypes at the same time. There’s a mysterious, brooding figure who takes a special interest in Alina, but Bardugo smartly flouts the stereotype of the oh-so-alluring bad boy. The Darkling is powerful and attractive, but that doesn’t mean he’s a viable candidate for romance. Just because there are two cute boys in a series doesn’t mean there has to be a love triangle.

These are some of my favorite titles for a reader wanting something truly swoonworthy … but, as Vail notes in her article, YA doesn’t always need romance. Here are some titles for those who would rather avoid the swooning:

No thanks! YA with little to no romance

Vail mentions the 2013 Printz Honor book Code Name Verity, which shines as an example of a YA novel that stands strong without romance. To be clear, Code Name Verity actually does have an element of romance, but it’s such a minor part of the book, a reader could easily enjoy the story without it. Here are a few other titles that will suit readers looking for something other than romance:

wicked_just_coverThe Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
Okay, there is a romantic element in this one. But like Code Name Verity, it doesn’t overshadow other elements of the story: the fascinating details of life in 13th century Wales, which is wrapped in brutal conflict as the Welsh tire of English rule. Instead of romance, the story centers around the complicated relationship between two girls, one Welsh, and one English, who hate each other but must find compassion in a time of need.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus (2012 Odyssey Award winner, 2012 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults selection)
Joey’s life plunges into a surreal world of darkness and secrecy when his mother dies and he goes to live with his estranged father — who, as it turns out, is a grave digger. Sure, Joey shows interest in a girl as he adjusts to his new life, but it really can’t go anywhere, what with all the grave-digging and the general wretchedness. There is so much hardship and gore in this book, there’s simply no room for romance. Sometimes heartwarming, often stomach-churning, Rotters is the story of a boy and his father.

When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton
A book about changing times, changing ideals, changing technology, and, above all, the bonds between a father and son. Jimmy has grown up knowing he would follow in his father’s footsteps working on the steam engines — even as his father gruffly warns that steam will soon be replaced by diesel. Vignettes recounting each Halloween from 1943 to 1949 weave together Jimmy’s coming-of-age story and paint a vivid picture of a small West Virginia town in the midst of inexorable change.

monster_calls_coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
John Green may have proven that a “cancer book” can contain believable romance with The Fault in Our Stars, but this is an entirely different book. This is a dark, allegorical fantasy about life and death and human nature. Conor’s mother is sick, and a monster comes to his window and offers him three stories in exchange for the truth — a truth that’s too painful to bear. It is utterly heartbreaking.

What kind of reader are you: do you have to have a romance in there somewhere, or do you prefer to go without?

– Allison Tran, currently reading Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

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2 Responses
  1. Linda W permalink
    May 3, 2013

    I love romance, but don’t have to have romance as the central plot. I think it depends on the book. Some romances seem tacked on, as if the author just threw it in because readers like it. INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher is a book that works without romance.

  2. Annie N permalink
    May 3, 2013

    I like the romance when it’s done well and isn’t there to make up for a flimsy plot. Patrick Ness’s other books, his Chaos Walking trilogy, manage to include romance intertwined with their fantastic and riveting plot, so I definitely loved those. But I with Linda above, as well – many romances seem thrown in to please the lovesick crowd. I hope YA books find some balance again!

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