Last Thursday's Vault question asked which books we wished were around when we were younger, and my answer probably surprised absolutely no one. Teen Jess wanted MOAR ROMANCE. Yup, I'm a sucker for a kissing book, or even a book that takes a break from its action and adventure to fit in a little swoon.
The funny thing is, Adult Jess has never read a traditional romance novel. Because, for whatever reason, I have no desire to pick one up. Adults and their problems don't interest me, counts and countesses and historical settings don't really interest me, and, honestly, even the smut of 50 Shades of Grey doesn't really interest me. The magical thing about YA romance, and the thing that keeps me seeking it out, and trying to write it, is the firsts. First crush, first love, first touch, first kiss. The feeling of being brand new and omgthisfeelingiseverything. This is something adult novels can't really capture, and it's what keeps me seeking out all those awesome kissing YA books.
I'll tell you guys a secret...Teen Jess struggled in the romance department. A lot.
No one wanted to kiss Teen Jess. I wonder why.
I was very much a late bloomer, all arms and legs and bad bangs and worse lipstick. My cuter, more together friends were getting boyfriends and kissing boys and I wasn't, but OH MAN did I want to. I wanted to know all about what they were experiencing, but them telling me about it didn't really fit the bill. They never gave me the kind of details I really wanted to hear, and I didn't know how to ask them for what I wanted to know. I would have given anything to read about characters who seemed like me and experience these firsts along with them. I think it would have made me feel a lot less alone as I navigated this difficult time. Sort of like having that cool older friend or sister who explains why it's so funny when someone calls you a "cunning linguist" so you don't look stupid at the lunch table.
Not everyone loves YA romance. A complaint I often hear is about the "insta-love" in YA novels. How characters take one look at each other and are suddenly in love and that person is the one and nothing else matters. While I can understand those complaints, that this is unrealistic and unhealthy, I also understand why it appeals to some readers and why it keeps showing up in books. Teen Jess tended to get really, REALLY obsessed with the boys I had crushes on. Sorta creepily so. (And I wondered why none of them responded to my advances...) So while Adult Jess knows that the relationships that last are the ones where your partner is your best friend first and foremost, Teen Jess was in love with that all-consuming feeling of obsession with a boy. Sometimes that's just how it feels. Sometimes your feelings are unhealthy because they are SO INTENSE. Maybe what you are feeling sure feels like love, even though you just met. It's easy when you're outside of a situation (or a book) to say..."ugh, another insta-love. *eyeroll*" But when it's you, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. Your feelings are your feelings, logic be damned.
And that's why I am drawn to YA romance, and why I love to read it. It captures the intensity of those firsts so perfectly, in so many different ways, and helps you capture them over and over, even if you haven't had your own firsts yet. You only get your own firsts once, but through YA romance stories, you can experience the firsts of many different characters, so you can either look back on them, or you can know what you have to look forward to.
And I know this is what so many of my students are looking for. This is how our conversations in class go:
Them: Can you recommend a book for me?
Me: Sure! What do you like?
Them: Something with romance.
Me: Okay, so do you like realistic stories? Or fantasy or futuristic or...
Them: I don't care. I just want romance.
And as soon as I pick out a good romance for them, they gobble the book up and come back to me asking for "something else like that one."
A good romance will also help people figure out their own relationships. After reading Forever by Judy Blume, one of my students said to me, "I had been wondering about taking my relationship with my boyfriend to the next level, but after reading this book I really realized I'm not ready to handle that." Isn't this the best part about books? That they let us try out situations through another character without actually trying them out? So, yeah, I get it when parents are all "OMG I don't want my innocent child reading about the sex!", but at the same time, I look at girls like this one I mentioned and think about how reading about the sex kept her from doing something she wasn't ready for. And that's powerful.
I know not every teen wants to read about romance, but there are lots of readers out there like Teen Jess who need a clue about navigating this strange world, and lots of readers like my student, who use romance in YA as a way to test their own boundaries safely.
What are your thoughts on YA romance?