Romance, Young Adult, and “Growing Up”

Posted June 6, 2013 by Stormy in Books / 22 Comments

I’ve been thinking about romance in YA lately. I’ve often wish for a YA to come along that is just completely devoid of romance. Not a hint, nada, not even an inkling, etc. Don’t get me wrong– I LOVE certain YA romances. I’m not opposed to romance IN YA, or even romance-centered stories. I just wish it was possible to have a story without romance, because not every teenager has a romance life at all. Not every teenager even has crushes. Believe it or not, some teenagers really don’t CARE about romance. I know, because I was one of those teenagers. And I may have been rare, but I’m sure I’m not the only person on the planet who was rather “meh” to the romance surrounding the halls of my high school. I liked boys and romance in theory, but then I took a look at my surroundings and returned to my book with the much-better boys.

So I’ve begun to wonder why it seems pretty much every YA book has some romance, even if it’s just a bit. Yes, I know romance sells, etc. But besides the typical reasons people give, I’m wondering if it’s because we(meaning us as a society) associate romance with growing up, and since YA is all about growing up and coming of age, romance is the easiest way to portray a character’s inner change.

If so much of YA is about finding yourself & coming of age, then authors have to actually PORTRAY that. And how many YA books start off with a protagonist(normally a female) who’s never had a boyfriend, just to fall in love by the end of the story?

The protagonist: 

There are so many different ways YA romance can look, but in my experience the most common are the following:

-The insecure girl who’s never dated falling in love with a “bad boy” who is actually a nice guy

-the insecure girl who’s never dated falling in love with the “good guy”(and these guys may or may not actually be jerks, but we’re told that they’re the good guys, no matter what they do).

-the insecure girl who’s never dated falling in love with her best friend who’s always been there

-the girl who HAS dated before but never felt anything until THIS boy

-the girl who HAS dated before and is heartbroken by a jerky boyfriend, who will be comforted by the nice guy.

And for the purpose of this post, I’m limiting it to female protagonist only. It may just be me, but it seems almost every girl in these situations have never dated before, while the guys may have(but it wasn’t serious). I’m not really sure what that signifies, but it’s interesting that the guys seem to get to the romance first in YA. A lot of it just happens “off-screen”, as it were, before the book really began.

And because the book is a story, that character develops(which is a good thing), and ends at point B, along with a new boyfriend(or in rare cases, the other way around).

This isn’t a 100% true, of course, but I would argue that it’s the standard.

I find this problematic, and here’s why:

There’s nothing wrong with having romance in a YA novel, but having these romances in almost EVERY YA contemporary novel is problematic because it’s not a good portrayal of what life and dating is like for all teenagers. And I know romance isn’t the only part of teen life that needs to be explored better, but it’s one of them.

The problem when we equate dating with “growing up” exclusively is that it EXCLUDES a large percent of teenagers. Because while romance is a way to signify that threshold-crossing of YA, it’s not inherent in growing up(whatever we may think). Perhaps you could make a case that romantic feelings, like crushes are inherent(and even then I think I’d be inclined to disagree), but there’s no guarantee of a romance for everyone. Plenty of real teenagers graduate from high school without dating. Some people even graduate from college without dating. Some people have no desire to date, and none of that is a reflection on their status of “growing up” or not.

I see this line of thinking around me a lot in real life, and I just don’t get it. Relationships can teach people things, yes, and in that process people MIGHT mature. It’s a possibility, and a distinctly real one. But being in a relationship or going through a relationship does not automatically equal a growing up on the part of a person. Yet, in YA it’s so often used as one of several thresholds along the protagonist’s journey to becoming more adult. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but sometimes I just want more from YA authors. I don’t want them to do it just because it’s an easy way to show a maturing of a character. So I’m going to continue to hope for some YA books who feature characters crossing those thresholds, finding themselves, and learning a lot in the process without the need for a romantic partner.

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22 responses to “Romance, Young Adult, and “Growing Up”

  1. Alicia Thompson

    My first boyfriend was my now-husband, and we started dating only at the very tail end of high school, so I spent most of my teen years not really immersed in any romance. At the same time, I read a LOT of romance novels growing up (my mom’s Harlequin collection was EXTENSIVE), and I’ve always been drawn to romances. So, for my books, I can honestly just say I write what I like to read. However, one of the reasons I started reading more YA than adult romance is because I liked that there were stories beyond just the romance, so I always like that, when the character has some journey that is part of the bigger picture than just “does he like me back.” I also agree that in some books the romance feels a little off, as when they should be focusing on surviving instead of hooking up. My current favorite book is CODE NAME VERITY, which is all about friendship but not romance at all, and it’s handled so beautifully.

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  3. I totally agree. I have no problem with YA romance except that it’s in EVERY SINGLE BOOK! People in a lot of the situations authors put their characters in situations where normal people wouldn’t be bothered with romance or not have time for it because they’re busy trying to a) survive b) save someone, or c) battle evil monsters, a corrupt government, their overprotective mother, etc.

    I also don’t like when the book description describes it as a thrilling adventure with lots of actions and twists, but in reality it’s ALL romance and maybe one or two scenes where stuff actually happens. Very lame.

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  6. Very true Stormy, I have been trying to think and I can’t think of a single YA book with no romance. There are ones I can think of where the romance is a sideline and not a major part of the story and that’s a refreshing change when it happens. I think books about friendship and life experiences both a major part of YA and I would like to see more of that. Admittedly I enjoy the romances too but totally agree with your points. Great post 🙂

  7. I Read Books and Drink Tea

    Interesting post. I get so annoyed in YA when there’s too much romantic scenes or the MC dwell so much on their romantic relationship when there is clearly some bigger problems that require immediate attention.

    I’m trying to think of YA that I’ve read that has zero romance and I can’t come up with anything.

  8. Great post, I feel the same way about the romances sometimes. I do like the romance in Fat Cat by Robin Brande and the Confessions of series by Louize Rozett, because the scenes make the heroines reflect on their romances and choose that while they want a relationship, it’ll be secondary to being who they are – so the focus is self-respect.

    I didn’t realise how used to romances I was until I read Katya’s World by Jonathan L.Howard…the whole time I kept thinking, so is this the guys she’s going to fall in love with..erm this guy, gosh there’s quite an age difference there…erm this guy…oh look it’s the end. No romance, totally refreshing 🙂

  9. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since yesterday, and I can’t even think of a YA book off the top of my head that doesn’t contain hints at romance. There are only one or two that contain romance but end with the relationship not working out, and the heroine isn’t totally devastated. Example: The Book Thief.

    GoodReads lists: http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/35796.YA_Without_Romance and http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/33875.YA_MG_Books_WITHOUT_Romance

    As far as your other point goes, like you and many other commenters, I wasn’t interested in dating as a teenager because there weren’t any guys I wanted to date, simple as that. That’s even more true for me as an adult (booo!). It would be interesting to see this in YA, and I’d love to see a really well-known author rise to the challenge. Yet at the same time, I read YA as an escape, and because the heroine usually does meet a good guy when she needs him, it’s nice to “see how the other half lives,” so to speak.

  10. I was a teenager uninterested in romance, too. Not that I was against romance, but I didn’t know any guys I was interested in, and I was just very focused on things like academics and extracurriculars. Sometimes adults thought it was a good idea to ask me why I didn’t have a boyfriend and I just said, “What would I do with one?” Because when you don’t know a very particular guy that you want as a boyfriend, a boyfriend is just an abstract idea, or, worse, a tool. I could…what? Make one take me to dinner? That didn’t sound fun because there wasn’t a real, particular guy that I wanted to be at dinner with. (Hopefully this makes sense!)

    You make some good points. I’m trying to think of some books where the boyfriend isn’t the girl’s first. There may be a few where the previous boyfriends exist, but aren’t actually in the book. I can’t remember if this is the case for Unearthly.

    There are definitely a few where the guy the girl picks isn’t the first she dates in the book. I don’t want to give titles in case it counts as spoilers. And I can think of some where this is pulled off well. Because it’s also not a good situation where a girl has four guys fawning over her and you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh, please. Like anyone is that popular.” 😉

    OCD, the Dude, and Me is pretty romance-less. The protagonist has a crush, but it goes nowhere. It’s mostly something in her mind. I found it pretty refreshing.

  11. Yes, this, completely! I was also one of those teens who didn’t really care about and did not have any romantic relationships. I feel like there are a lot of books right now that could be SO MUCH MORE than they are if they would focus less on romance and more on the world around the characters.

  12. YES! I’m so glad whenever I find others who have similar thoughts about the over-abundance of romance in YA books. As a teen, I had crushes but no boyfriends and I certainly didn’t let ideas of romance dominate my thoughts. So it is possible! And sometimes it’s nice to read books where I can connect with characters about that.

    Honestly, I think a main reason there’s so much romance in YA is that authors (and their publishers) know that romance sells. And unfortunately I think that’s pretty true. For a non-YA example (and actually a film example), I mean even with the MASSIVE LOTR fanbase, Peter Jackson and the studio must have been at least a little afraid of showing a movie with basically no female characters and no romance. Hence the inclusion of Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship, which was only mentioned by Tolkien in the appendices. I think this same fear is present with books. And I’m sure that many readers would be dissuaded by the lack of romance. But it’s important to represent more experiences of teens than simply those that include romance, I think. So yes. I completely agree with you on this! 🙂

  13. Amanda

    I love this post! I also wish to find a book completely devoid of romance. For example, so many apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic books have a romance, which seems silly to me. Shouldn’t the characters be focused on surviving, as opposed to how nice it would be to kiss that cute guy? Haha.

  14. Love this post! I would also like to see some YA books that don’t have a romance in them. I think that so often in these books, the female protagonist has never dated before because it’s a first love thing. People enjoy writing and reading about falling in love for the first time, because it’s so magical. It’s a first, and YA coming-of-age tales are all about firsts, for the most part.

  15. I don’t think romance in YA is an association with growing up, necessarily. I think it just has a lot to do with what sells. And sex sells. Love sells. Girls grow up believing their prince charming will come, and when we become teenagers, we expect our men to find us soon. And so YA authors write stories that will appeal to love-searching teens. Sure, not everyone is looking for Mr/Mrs. Right when they’re a teenager, my sister included. I know she gets annoyed when she’s reading a perfectly good story and then a love triangle or love story just gets thrown in there to appeal to a larger demographic. But I think romance stories have been happening for so long that I honestly don’t see YA authors stopping that anytime soon. Because teens are still picking the books up. It’s almost guaranteed that if you see a hot boy or hot girl on the cover of a book, the book will be bought because a love story is sure to follow. Doesn’t matter if the world is ending, or if its a dystopian society, or the story focuses on heavier topics like death, depression, illness or abuse…love will always win out. It’s sad, and I wish more stories lacked love, but I don’t see it changing.

  16. Asti (A Bookish Heart)

    Interesting post! I do agree that dating does not equal growing up, and that there really should be more books in the YA market that don’t involve romance in one way or another. I think a lot of times romance can actually hinder growing up just because the MC doesn’t ever learn to cope on their own but instead switches their dependence from their parents to the person they are falling in love with, which isn’t always healthy. As much as I think that romance isn’t common for every YA and that there should be less of it focused in every book, I can’t ever honestly see it happening. ><

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