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?
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.