On a Personal Note: Why I Appreciate YA Books Without Romance

Posted November 24, 2014 by Stormy in Books / 35 Comments

personal note

Romance in YA is one of those topics that seems to come up from time to time, and I never know how to put what I feel into understandable words. So, this is going to be a pretty personal post on why I really like it when books don’t have romance in them.

Now, this is not to say I dislike all book romances. I’ve done my fair share of swooning! There are couples in YA books I absolutely love, like Reagan and Matt from Open Road Summer or any of the romances in Kasie West’s books. I’m not completely against romance by any means, and I get annoyed when people make blanket statements about romance in YA–or more, when they look down on it because it’s a “girly” thing and our culture really likes hating what teenage girls dislike. My intention is not to do the same thing. This isn’t a post about why romance in YA is bad–it’s just a post about why I personally like it when I come across a book(especially one with a female narrator) that is completely lacking in romance.

I am not a very romantic person. I’ve never been, really. When my friends all began noticing boys, I began noticing boys too, but not as much as everyone else. I remember puberty and getting to a point where I began noticing people I was attracted to, but yet I was never as interested in relationships as all my friends were. I noticed, but I rarely felt any desire to do anything about it. That’s not to say I was completely uninterested–but whereas my friends often wanted to be in a relationship, I’ve only ever wanted to be in a relationship with a few specific people, and those moments have been rare.

Often, the idea of being romantically attracted to someone is like something I have to remind myself to consider. In 23 years, I can name every crush I’ve ever had–all four of them. I haven’t had anything I would consider a crush since my sophomore year of college, almost four years ago. The last time I had the “maybe-I-have-a-slight-but-not-complete-crush”  was two years ago. And I’m not completely incapable of romantic feeling–I’ve been head-over-heels, crazy-infatuated before. But it’s rare. It’s never on the forefront of my brain. I never really contemplate my relationship status.

Growing up, I would often exaggerate my interest in romance so I could fit in with my friends, because it was a frequent topic of conversation. I would sympathize with them about being perpetually single while internally saying something along the lines of “Why is this even a conversation? Who cares?” This happens even now–like sometimes I’ll remember I’m a 23-year-old person and think “Oh yeah, I’m single. Society and everyone tells me I should feel some way about this. What do 23-year-old single ladies even do? Internet dating? Hang out in bars? Meh, onto the next thing.”

For me, this isn’t even about being single and being “enjoying” it. Often, when I talk to people about this, they think I’ve come to the conclusion that I came to enjoy being single after a process, like the natural default state of being is wanting to be in a romantic relationship. I know that happens to some people, and I’m not trying to deride that at all–but it’s not really accurate to my experience. It’s not a process or anything I did intentionally to get the point I could “be happy being single.” It doesn’t even cross my mind in that way. It’s not something I decided to work towards, it just is. I have to work harder at remembering to consider romantic interest.

In high school I was often insecure about the fact I was less interested in romance than everyone else, because relationships were such a BIG deal to others. I didn’t feel it made me mature or anything–it made me feel like I was different than everyone else, and not in a good way. I didn’t realize this could be normal, too. It wasn’t like I was completely disinterested in romance at the time–after all, one of my four crushes took place in high school. And I was very interested in that potential romance(way more than I’ve ever been interested in any crush that came afterward). But for the most part, it wasn’t really a consideration in my life until I remembered it was a consideration in everyone else’s lives(or seemed to be).

Other than that year, though, I always felt like I was supposed to be as interested in coupling up as much as everyone else seems to be. In high school, I would sometimes bury this under layers of “Well I’m just not dating right now because high school relationships never work out.” Once I got to college, though, I felt I didn’t have that excuse. I went to a Christian college where “ring by spring” was often taken to the extreme, and I was always aware of that fact. In mixed groups, I would often think, “Oh, people. Romantic interest. Is there anyone here I could have a crush on in case my friends ask?” (There hardly ever was.) Eventually, I became more okay with this and just. . . stopped, but for along time I wondered why I seemed to miss the big deal about relationships.

For that reason, I get SUPER excited when I read a YA book lacking majorly in romance, especially if it’s narrated by a female main character. There seems to be this idea that all teen girls are interested in romance, when that’s simply not true. Romantic pursuits are a large part of many people’s lives, from teenagers to adults, but to say it’s universal is inaccurate. YA romances are important too, because several teens ARE interested in romance and might be dealing with issues surrounding that for the first time–but not all of them. It lights something in me when I see a female character not care about romance and not be put on a pedestal for it. Sometimes there seems to be this idea that characters who eschew romance are “better” or more “focused” than their relationship-oriented counterparts, and that’s not what I want either. There’s something special to me when I read a relationship-less character who is totally okay with it and it’s just another part of life, instead of something to either a)be looked down upon, or b)praised. Why can’t these characters just exist? Because I do, and that’s my life.


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35 responses to “On a Personal Note: Why I Appreciate YA Books Without Romance

  1. Hey Stormy! I’m a YA Fantasy writer and I just had to add that, after a successful run of comedy I entered the YA fray for this exact reason! I was so discouraged by all the heavy handed, unnecessary, triangle-icky and often bad-egg-jerkoffish romance….not just for me, who has never been a romance fan but for my daughter who begged me…Lol! So glad to see we’re not alone! Epic magical kickbutt awesomers unite!

  2. My main problem with romance is that it’s everywhere, and authors seem to see it as something on a checklist that needs to be there. I’ve read so many books where the romance took away from the plot instead of adding to it. Just my opinion, obviously; the romance might be the very reason others enjoy the book. But yes, let’s see more variation. There is more to life – even hormonal teenage life – than romance.

  3. I don’t have a lot of add to the discussion Stormy as my experiences are just so different to yours. I was one of those who was always part of a couple from about 17 and I know I thrive better personally in that environment. However I thoroughly appreciated your honesty in the post and you have made me a lot more empathic to alternative lifestyles. I am a believer in each to their own in everything and just doing what works for you no matter whatever everyone else is choosing.

    I must say I love books with less of a focus on romance just because they are different, not every book needs a love story and when I find a book that focuses on friendship or family relationships instead then I tend to love them.

  4. Yes, yes, yes and yes! I’m not totally against romance but whenever I come across a YA book where romance is nowhere near a central theme, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

    And I especially sympathise with, “Often, when I talk to people about this, they think I’ve come to the conclusion that I came to enjoy being single after a process…” I once had a friend ask me, “Are you sure you don’t want to get married?” All because I said I was happy not being in a relationship. Marriage hadn’t even factored into my mind. I was 22 then and much more concerned with graduating from uni and doing things I enjoyed.

    This is why I am very partial towards books not overly concerned with romance. They remind people that it is ok not to pursue a relationship with someone, especially in our younger years when we’re still trying to discover ourselves. Even now in my twenties, I figured if someone interesting comes along, he will come along. In the mean time, or rather, even beyond that time, if ever, there are so many other things to do, to to see and so many loved ones to spend time with as well.

    • Stormy

      Exactly! It’s so refreshing.

      Yeah, I find it really difficult to explain to friends what I mean. I’m not anti-romance. If I want to get married someday, that’s fine. I think I’d like to, eventually, but I want to do it much later than most of my friends seem to want to(or have done). Part of it’s cultural–I live in the south US and I went to a Christian college, so it was very common at my college for people to get married young. Since most of my friends are from there, it makes sense that a lot have married already, but it’s just not a priority for me.

      That’s exactly how I feel–if someone comes along, that’s great. But if not, I’ve got tons of other stuff in my life I want to do!

  5. If I were savvy with gifs (and this comment box accepted them), I would send you a gif of a glorious standing ovation.

    The thing that boggles my mind is how YA books today paint this unrealistic portrait of how young adult relationships are. I know that books are an escape, they’re fantasy, and the romance in them reflects that. There are a lot of young women who want to find Prince Charming. But gosh, when every FMC seems to find the love(s) of her life in the first half of the book? No thank you. Not every young woman wants that, myself especially. Luckily, when I was actually a teenager reading YA books (you know, like 10 years ago), YA books heavy on OTP romance wasn’t such a huge trope. I had variety– sometimes they found the love of their life, sometimes they had sloppy and silly teenage relationships, sometimes they had no relationships. But, I really don’t see that today.

    I can only imagine if I were a teenager growing up with today’s books. I would feel overwhelmed and pressured. Like you, I may have noticed a few boys throughout high school, but nothing much beyond that. I mean, there was this one boy who was totally cute, and I would stare at him from across the lunch room, dreaming about the day when I had the courage to talk to him. But…other than that, dating wasn’t really my thing. I was more interested in having guys as friends than love interests. I had more important things to be doing, like building web pages, dreaming I was a rockstar, and studying for AP tests. Where are those stories? They are equally as important and interesting.

    • Stormy

      Thank you! That’s a high compliment.

      You make a good point that the OTP romance leaning is a newer thing. I didn’t read a *ton* of YA when I was a teenager, but the thing I remember most about the few teen books I read in high school was how the romance was normally more about first love and experiences. The characters had strong emotions and probably some devotion, but the narrative definitely made it clear that at least some of these weren’t forever.

  6. I was very much the same, although I had a few crushes but no relationships (people tended to avoid me) and even now, I’m the same. But I do tend to like romance in YA because I’m kind of a hopeless romantic. I love it, but I also hate it at the same time. I’ll be reading a really sweet, sappy scene and going awwwww then at the same time going “ugh gross man this makes me sick” lol I’m so weird. Anyway, yeah, there are certain types of romance I prefer though, i don’t like the obsessive, “you are my life now” type. I prefer…subtle, gradual increase of friendship to love, kind of thing? If that makes sense. And I like books that start off with a strong female lead, and maybe is caught unawares half way through first book or in a series, and finds love, but it’s not necessarily the main plot. Side lines, style. Wow, I’m rambling. But most of your post was pretty similar to how I always felt. Not like I was attractive enough to really have a chance with anyone, but even still, I didn’t go around thinking “I must have a boyfriend!” because a) it wasn’t going to happen and b) boys suck. 😛 Just kidding. For the most part.

    • Stormy

      Yeah I think I had 1, maybe 2 crushes in high school? I can’t remember if my first real crush happened late in Jr high or early in high school. And I only started crushing on one of them after we became friends.

      Oh man, I totally know what you mean about the sappy scenes and going between aww and gross! Sometimes I LOVE romance stories, but I love variety in one I read. And I definitely have a low tolerance for sap.

  7. I agree, I want more books with emphasis on friendships and character development that a main character who gets the guy at the end of the novel/series. Two of my favourite books, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire (both by Elizabeth Wein) have such a strong emphasis on friendships and I want more of these kinds of books, particularly in contemporary YA. At the moment I really want to read Morgan Matson’s Since you’ve Been Gone as there is a strong emphasis on the two main character’s friendship with the romance as a sub-plot.

    • Stormy

      Yes, those are great examples! I liked Code Name Verity less than most people did, but I DID like that the focus was on friendship. Like you, I’d really like to see more of that in contemporary YA(also fantasy! I’d like to see a sprawling fantasy series that was focused more on friends/family that romantic relationships).

  8. I am with you on this. I like romance in books, it’s part of life so it does often make sense to have a relationship between characters. However I will sometimes read a book and wonder why every book has to have some kind of romantic element to it- sometimes people just get on with their lives without worrying about getting together with someone. I’d love to read more books without it. Sometimes MG books can be a nice break from the typical YA-love-triangle reads!

    • Stormy

      Exactly! Some people have lots of romantic relationships before they marry/settle down/decide it’s not for them. Some people marry the first person they date. Some people don’t date until their thirties. There’s so much variety in the amount and intensity of relationships that people have–it make sense to have that vary in books.

  9. Inge @ Bookshelf Reflections

    I absolutely feel you on this one. I’m 22 myself and have never been in a relationship. So, okay, if the right guy came along, then I wouldn’t be against it. But if I look around right now? I’d rather be single, thanks.

    That’s why it bugs me when every YA book I pick up deals with romance one way or another, even if it wasn’t a romance to begin with. It could just be a mystery or fantasy or whatever, and then all of a sudden, the main character needs a love interest in order to have a happily ever after.

    • Stormy

      Yup, that’s exactly how I feel! I’m not opposed to romance. I’m not spreading black roses or stringing up black hearts on Valentines Day, but it’s just not something I really think about. If that changes in the future because I met someone, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too!

  10. Even though I am married to my high school sweetheart, I understand what you’re saying. I actually had zero intention of dating in high school. I liked guys, sure, but I saw what everyone was doing and thought it was just a big mess. Uh, no thanks. Long story short, with my husband, it was one of those rare moments where I was young and I actually knew for real that he was the one. We dated five years and got married. Only person ever that I dated, and I honestly didn’t even crush big time over him before we started dating. We were friends and then there was a lightbulb moment.

    I like romance when it’s cute and sweet, but I think so many YA stories have such crazy intense romances that seem really unrealistic! But there are plenty of high school students who don’t really date and where’s their story? I can’t even think of a YA without romance at the present (other than maybe book one and sometimes two of a trilogy but it pops up in book three). But seriously, there are girls and guys out there who are very content with singleness, and I agree it’s nice to see that reflected from time to time, as cute as romances can be.

    • Stormy

      Yes, it’s those intense romances that totally don’t often jive with how high school actually is! And I understand sometimes that’s wish fulfillment, which is fine. That’s why romantic comedies continue to make money & such. I have no problems with those kinds of books existing(and sometimes like them), but when there’s so little else is when I think it starts to be a problem. I think the way you were talking about how you realized you liked your husband–that lightbulb moment–is more often realistic.

  11. Maraia

    This post really got me thinking, and I went through my entire Goodreads list to find books without romance. I did not have much luck, honestly.

    Here’s what I managed to come up with:

    – Clariel (I know this is already on your TBR list. I did not enjoy it, despite loving Sabriel, etc. as an early teen. However, Clariel is exactly the kind of female lead you’re looking for!)

    – Wise Child by Monica Furlong (this is a older book, so it’s not as plot-driven or fast-paced as modern fantasies, but it’s definitely worth reading.)

    – The Enchanted by Rene Denfield (magical realism, according to Goodreads. I don’t really know how to describe this book, but I loved it. And no romance!)

    Other books that aren’t completely romance-free but have less of a focus on it:

    – The Cuckoo’s Calling (old-school British murder mystery style – fantastic!)

    – The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch + sequels (romance is definitely there, but it’s neither the focus nor the swoony type)

    – The Distant Hours by Kate Morton (I read this a while ago, so maybe I’ve forgotten, but I don’t remember romance dominating the plot.)

    – Furies of Calderon by Jim Butler + sequels (about the same level as Locke Lamora)

    I hope that helps!

    Do you have a list of books with female protagonists who aren’t interested in romance?

    • Stormy

      Ooh, thanks for the list. Even though I’ve heard mixed things about Clariel, that actually makes me more interested in picking it up now(my interest had been waning a bit). The Enchanted is definitely going on my TBR now, since I’ve been wanting to read more magical realism & the no romance is just a bonus. And I’ve been meaning to check out most of the books you say have less of a romance focus, so some of those are getting bumped up the list.

      You know, I scoured my Goodreads shelves for female MCs without romance and it was really difficult. I only found a handful:

      -Tell the Wolves I’m Home
      -Torn Away
      -Code Name Verity
      -If You Find Me(I don’t remember if this one has a romance or not, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t)
      -The Book Thief(there’s definitely some emotions & such, but I’d still consider it pretty romance-less. Maybe not in the interest level of the characters but at least in terms of plot and what happens).
      I also put This Song Will Save Your Life on my list, because while there is a romance, it’s played out pretty realistically and is not an intense, “we’ll-be-together-forever” sort of thing. Other than that, though, that’s pretty much it that I could think of.

      • Maraia

        Thanks for the recs!

        I also just finished Seraphina, which was fantastic. The romance was very much secondary to the plot, and other forms of love were equally important in the book.

  12. I’ve come to the point where I accept that most YAs will feature a romance of some sort, but I completely agree with your point here. I think by having all these romances (even love triangles) makes it seem like this is a universal experience you need to make you teen life story complete, when teen girls do have other things on their minds.

    I think this might be one of the reasons The Hunger Games does so well. Everyone is trying to push Katniss to be in love and marry Peeta when she is just trying to survive.

    • Stormy

      I definitely think the default for YA is romance, which is too bad. I’ve loved some books that feature heavy romances, but it’s far from a universal experiences.

      I really like your point about The Hunger Games! It’s clear that Katniss cares for both Peeta and Gale(though perhaps not in the same way they do for her), but her focus is always survival. Even though she’s in the middle it doesn’t play out in a typical love triangle fashion, I think.

  13. I appreciate YA without romance because sometimes it’s just about so much more than liking a guy. Sometimes people’s lives are at risk, or they are going through a tough time and the answer to those issues always isn’t some forced relationship. I get the feeling that authors feel like there HAS to be a romance in the book no matter what…. and I just don’t agree. Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, for instance… there’s not much romance at all in that one and it’s definitely not needed.

    • Stormy

      Ah yes, agreed about that one. I can totally see some people in say, a Dystopia world falling in love–but I also think for some it’s going to be the furthest thing from their mind.

  14. I’m kind of with you. While I enjoy a good relationship in a book when it makes sense, sometimes a book without one is so much better because we focus on the plot development and action rather than drama.

    • Stormy

      Yes, exactly! Good romances are great, but when they just feel thrown in I have to wonder what the point even was. Perhaps because romance is suppose to sell? I’m guessing that’s most likely, but it would still be nice to see a good story being told without a romance.

  15. I think that’s so cool that you can accept your experience and point of view without apology or recrimination. I was just talking to some friends the other week about the societal ideas we have about how life is supposed to progress – getting married and having kids and this idea that it all happens on this one timeline. But it doesn’t. Some people aren’t interested in that stuff and some people decide they are later than expected. And I think it’s cool to see that in books, where you have a main character that’s more in line with you’re perspective. That’s part of what makes books so awesome 🙂

    • Stormy

      It hasn’t always been that way, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept that(at least part of my life). I think the timeline you talk about is a huge part of it–it’s what we see most often in all sorts of narratives, but it’s important to know it’s not the only one.

  16. I love the romance in books, whether they are YA or adult. And I do absolutely get so frustrated with the way some people talk – about how people just love to hate and make fun of what young girls like. That kind of stuff just makes me so mad. Like when people bash Twilight – listen I’m not a huge Twilight fan. I’ve never been. But still, i respect everyone else’s right to like and enjoy it. And it annoys me too when people are like “What is Twilight teaching young girls?” No one says that about the books boys read. Ugh!

    But, that said, I think it’s important to have YA books without romance, too, because there are many people who don’t care much for the romance. And I don’t like it when the romance feels forced – like the publisher said to the author to add more romance.

    Publishers, I think, sometimes forget that what people want are great books! They don’t have to be what the trend is, they just need to be amazing.

    • Stormy

      Yes, exactly! It’s hard for me personally to talk about this topic I think because sometimes I want to scream “Not all teen girls are interested in romance!”, but I also don’t want to go about it in a way that judges romance-heavy books for being lesser because girls like them. Twilight is such a great example of that because it’s just such a classic example of that annoying phenomenon.

      And yes to great books! Romance or not.

  17. I do like romance in books, but I still appreciate ones without it. There are some YA books that not only have romance, but they have the dreaded love triangle. I would just rather have a book without any of it because it can detract from the plot.

    • Stormy

      Yes, sometimes romances just seem tacked on for the sake of selling(especially love triangles). There are some great romances in books, but if the author doesn’t go all in with it I think I’d rather them just skip it.

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