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More thoughts on YA romance

July 23, 2007
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{As I don’t read all that much YA romance, if anyone disagrees/knows I’m wrong/can recommend some books, please leave a comment. I know I should read more YA romances before ranting about them, but since ALA boxes #1 and #3 (finally!) arrived, it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. At which point I’ll probably have forgotten everything I wanted to say.}

Yes, there is such a thing as a YA romance. I just don’t read much of it. According to the Romance Writers of America, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” “Emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” is kinda vague, but to me means the folks whose relationship is at the core of the book fell in love and are together at the end, committed to each other and the relationship. So if there’s a YA novel with a central love (or “really like”) story and the couple is together and intends to stay together when the book ends, it’s a YA romance.

I read adult romances and YA novels with a romantic subplot, but not that many YA romances. The ones I’ve read, while cute, just haven’t done much for me. I’ve commented at several other blogs that I thought this is largely because I don’t find them as intriguing or exciting as YA books with a romantic subplot. I still think this is true, but I’ve also come to think that this is just part of a bigger problem, the lack of YA romances for older teens.

Most YA romance series (since most *true* YA genre romances are part of series, like First Kisses) seem to be targeted to middle schoolers. Even books with older protagonists, like the Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies, seem to be written for a younger audience who wants to vicariously live the life of a high schooler.

Where are the YA romances for older teens? A book with a bit of edge and maybe even sex or lustful thoughts? (If it’s appropriate to the story, and it doesn’t have to be graphic.) A book in which the protagonist’s main worry isn’t that he/she has never been kissed or never been in a relationship? When there is romance in a YA book for older teens, it’s often coming of age stories in the romantic-subplot-and-it-even-has-a-happy-ending vein, or the relationship is the focus, but as Liz says, “the break up with the boy is used to illustrate COA.” Or it’s part of a trilogy (or longer) and hence not a romance novel, if it even has a satisfying ending. There are lots of books with romantic subplots, but I haven’t come across anything so far that I would truly call a YA romance for older teens. Maybe Major Crush by Jennifer Echols, but that’s about it. A couple of MTV Books titles are geared for older teens and come pretty close, but ultimately are, in my opinion, more chick lit than romance (The Book of Luke, Adiós to My Old Life). Where are the YA books for older teens that focus on a romantic relationship and have a happy ending?

A number of teens at my library read adult romance novels, and they’re not the only ones. Do publishers think there’s no market for YA romances for older teens, or are they just willing to lose these readers to adult romance or Older Teen/16+ rated romance manga? (Isn’t there some statistic that romance readers read more books overall than the general reading public? I found this and this, but they’re not what I had in mind.)

26 Comments leave one →
  1. teenbookreview permalink
    July 23, 2007 5:35 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I agree that I haven’t seen much YA romance (other than those you named, which, as you said, are more for middle-school aged kids) out there.

    What’s in boxes 1 & 3?

  2. July 23, 2007 10:21 pm

    Ooh, well highlights include:
    Race – Marc Aronson
    My Swordhand Is Singing – Marcus Sedgwick
    Revolution Is Not A Dinner Party – Ying Chang Compestine
    Schooled – Gordon Korman
    A Bridge to the Stars – Henning Mankell
    Primavera – Mary Jane Beaufrand
    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks – E. Lockhart

  3. July 24, 2007 3:57 am

    Where are the YA books for older teens that focus on a romantic relationship and have a happy ending?

    My second book that comes out next month, It’s Not About the Accent probably falls more under what you’re describing, looking for. It’s set during the protag’s first year at college and while the sole focus isn’t on the romantic relationships, they certainly they certainly carry equal weight and serve as catalysts. And it has an HEA.

    When you surface from ALA madness, let me know and I’ll send you a copy. I’d be fascinated by your take. 🙂

  4. July 24, 2007 2:17 pm

    I suspect the answer has to do with a PG vs. R rating. A romance novel pitched at older teens, with teen characters, in order to be credible, would have to be more R than PG. I imagine publishers would be as squeamish about publishing that as I would be about writing it.

  5. July 24, 2007 2:55 pm

    After posting, I did think of a book you could call a YA romance that’s definitely for older teens: The Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes.

    Michael – That could be part of it, but then why is it okay to have mature content in non-romance YA titles, like Doing It or Looking for Alaska?

  6. July 24, 2007 3:39 pm

    Trish:

    I suspect it has to do with literary quality. Perceived quality confers immunity.

    My writing partner and I were pressured back in the day by a packager we were working with to go more explicit in some YA series we were writing. We brushed up against an “R” in one series, then thought better of it and moved back to PG territory. Neither of us is a prude, but writing sex into what are by definition “fun” as opposed to “serious” books gave us the willies. It felt as if we were trivializing something (sex) that should have some weight to it, not just be treated as a plot device in an entertaining book. But I could see other writers reasonably coming to different conclusions.

  7. July 24, 2007 3:54 pm

    I should also mention that I don’t think an older teen romance needs sex or an R rating. What’s more important are older characters who act their age or demonstrate that they’ve experienced more in life than a 13-year old, unless there’s a good reason, and a narration that reflects this. If that makes sense. I mean, in general, there are other factors distinguishing YA books for older and younger teens, right? So it’s not just sex, but also tone, conflict, etc.

  8. July 24, 2007 4:41 pm

    Trisha:

    Try writing a romance for two sixteen or seventeen year old characters where sex is not at very least under discussion. Can’t be done with any plausability. And once it’s on the table how do you resolve the question? If no one talks sex it’s implausible and you lose the audience. If they do talk sex then, well, you’re talking about sex and what are still children.

    Can you deal with sex and teens in a serious novel? Sure. In a wish-fulfilllment romance? Nope. I have skirted the issue when writing 16 year old characters for middle-readers, but if you’re writing for later teens they know better and they’ll blow you off if you avoid topic A. You’ll come off as “too young.”

    It’s an uncomfortable place to be which is why writers avoid it and publishers won’t touch it.

  9. July 24, 2007 7:36 pm

    Michael – Thanks for the insight. I see where you’re coming from. But I suppose feel that if there are YA books with romantic elements for older teens, and characters in these books can have sex or something close to it, then why can’t there also be actual YA romance novels for this audience? Though if more of a focus on romance and happy endings makes a book less “serious” or “literary,” what you’re saying makes sense.

  10. July 25, 2007 11:02 am

    What did you all think of Twilight by Stephanie Meyers? Basically I thought it was a romance novel for YA, with a vampire thrown in. I liked it. But that’s what it was. The relationship was clearly the focus. Since I write romance, but am now moving into the YA market, I’d say it’s a difficult place to be. But since young girls (and lots of them) are reading adult romance novels, there is a market. There are readers.

    I, for one, was glad to see the Rita wins. The books were all over the place in terms of romance, etc.

    When I decided to go back to work, I discussed this issue with several people. It was a big topic. It’s going to be a bigger part of the market to come.

  11. July 25, 2007 12:58 pm

    Maude – I agree that the relationship in Twilight was the focus of the novel, and so could be considered a romance, but I hesitate to call it such because it’s part of a series and the series isn’t over yet. There’s another series that really, REALLY upset me when I got to the last novel and found no HEA after everything the couple went through.

  12. July 25, 2007 4:13 pm

    I just came from Liz’s site, where I posted some of this in condensed format. But wanted to say here also that Michael Cart, in From Romance to Realism, says that YA lit/junior novels as a distinct market started in the 1930s-1950s with a lot of romances. The 60s and 70s saw the rise of problem novels and then realism. The 80s had a pendulum swing, and romance returned. Teen readers were tired of reality and wanted some escape. (He lists some 1980s series that are now out of print.) He says horror was the big thing in the 90s, and I also made a note that publishers found a new target: the 12-14 age group.

    If publishers were turning to a younger audience, that may partly answer the question about where the the romances for older teens are. But it also raises some questions:

    What book might you recommend as a contemporary follow-up to Michael Cart’s history of YA lit (copyright 1996)?

    Is publishing for teens different post-9/11? (I’ve read some articles citing the rise in fantasy since then.) Somehow I feel publishing is less idealistic (?) now than in the 1980s and that even chick-lit has more of the depth that teen readers seek than a true romance might. But I’m really just thinking “aloud” here.

    In general (not just romances), do you think we see more books published for the 12-15 crowd than the 16-18? Or is it just that libraries spend their money in the “safer” younger zone and maybe also that we serve more young teens than older teens at our library? (which isn’t to say that’s our goal–just that we tend to buy things for the population we see more often)

    I should have posted to my own blog perhaps! Thanks for hanging in there for this long comment!

  13. July 25, 2007 4:54 pm

    Julie – The 3rd ed. of Best Books for Young Adults hasn’t been published yet, but judging from what was presented in the Trends in Teens Literature panel at ALA, it sounds like this would fit the bill as a followup to the Cart book.

    One of the trends mentioned is books for older teens. From what I gather, for most of the ’90s, they didn’t exist because publishers focused on the fourteen and younger crowd. As far as I can tell, there are still more books for ages 12-15 (or 12+ and 14+) than 16 and up. In my library, the only reason I have so many middle schoolers in the YA section is that’s where the manga is. I would say that significantly more high school students than middle borrow from the, well, regular collection, and my collection development reflects this. But I also seem to recall hearing at ALA that with the rise of the teen population and Borders/B&N, libraries are not the primary market for YA publishers anymore, so I don’t think we can say that there are fewer older YA books because we, as libraries, don’t purchase enough of them.

    Still pondering what role idealism may play in this.

  14. July 25, 2007 5:23 pm

    Well, I think most of Meg Cabots books are pretty much romance novels. A few even touch on sex in a resonable way, like the sequel to American Girl (Ready or Not).

    Another author I think falls in the romance category is Sharon Shinns – hers have an element of self-discovery as well, but romance is always central.

    Quite a few of the Once Upon A Time series books are pretty much fairy tale romances, some better written than others.

  15. July 26, 2007 2:58 am

    When I was a teen (in the early 90s), I read & enjoyed adult romance novels, but the YA romances I read (and there were a ton of them in my library at that point, although I don’t remember the authors’ names) were much less fun for me to read and actually ended up making me feel bad – in those romances (mostly written in the 80s, I’d guess?) every single high school girl had a serious boyfriend (unlike most of the high school girls I knew & was friends with), and so they always left me with a feeling of major insecurity and unworthiness for being so lame as not to have a “normal”, serious relationship yet…whereas reading adult romance novels felt fine, because those were all about adults meeting their perfect partners AS adults, which I could look forward to. (And in fact, that’s what happened – like lots of geeky girls, I only started seriously dating in college.)

    Remembering how I felt as a teen, and how bad those teen YA romances made me feel, I would actually feel a little guilty writing a straight romance for the YA crowd. Most girls (especially nerdy, book-loving girls) just aren’t going to have that kind of experience, and will be feeling bad enough about that already because of external social pressures without the added pressure of the books they read showing them that “normal” girls have boyfriends by their age…and so, while it’s fine to have romances as side-plots, I just feel personally uncomfortable with those mainstream teen romances.

    (And I know people could make the same kinds of arguments against adult romances, which I continue to enjoy and support, so I do understand this isn’t really a tenable argument on logical grounds – but it’s the strong emotional factor that keeps me from ever wanting to write a great love story for teens.)

  16. July 26, 2007 10:20 am

    I’m checking in from the middle of nowhere and using dial-up so I can’t check on the authors’ names (there re two of them), but I reviewed “Dream Factory” in the current issue of Eclectica Magazine and loved it. Not really any sex – the point was the two of them deciding they should be a couple and getting to that point. There are quite a few teen romances in my piece in this issue (called “A Teenager’s Romance” of course!). Go to eclectica.org and in the current issue, scroll down to reviews and you’ll see it. (Sorry I can’t link direct – I’m in internet hell!!!!)

  17. July 26, 2007 10:51 am

    Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and Devid Levithan is definitely a romance for older teens. It even has a hot almost-sex scene in it.

    I don’t know where to find statistics that readers of romance read more than readers of other genres, but this page does mention that “seventy-one percent (71%) of romance readers say they read their first romance at age 16 or younger.” http://www.storyforu.com/stats.htm

  18. Jolene permalink*
    July 26, 2007 1:28 pm

    What about historical fiction romance for teens? I remember reading Cynthia Voigt’s “On Fortune’s Wheel,” and liking it because of the love story.

    Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a great book, but I didn’t automatically think romance when I read it. Although it was a theme in the book, it seemed more like realistic fiction to me.

  19. July 26, 2007 3:20 pm

    Thanks, Trisha–I’ll look for Best Books for Young Adults (3rd ed.) when it’s released late in August. I might also try Aronson’s Exploding the Myths from 2001. It’s one I meant to read and then forgot about. I’m making a note! (Thanks also for hosting a great discussion here.)

  20. July 26, 2007 4:05 pm

    Cassie – I didn’t include Ready or Not because it’s part of a series. Ditto Missing You, which is, I think, her most mature YA book yet (in terms of appropriate audience, not style or anything). Although I suppose maybe I should count the All-American Girl books, because it is only two books, and you don’t have to wait for the payoff. I totally had to peek at the end of Missing You before I actually committed myself to reading it. As for Sharon Shinn, I think I’ve read three of her YA books, but would consider them fantasy first.

    Colleen – Thanks for reminding me about your column. I’ll have to try Anything But Ordinary. Ooh, and it’s on the shortish side, too. (Not enough time these days!)

    Sheryl – I totally forgot about Nick and Norah until I saw it mentioned on Liz’s blog. And thanks for the stat that you did find.

    Steph – Oh, now that’s an excellent point. I never thought of that, even though, in high school, most of my friends and I definitely were in the book-loving and no boyfriend category. I almost never read romances as a teen. I can only remember reading a couple of them, and then it was only when I had nothing else to read. Plus, this was mostly during my middle school years, before I moved on to adult books. I know teens are smart enough to separate fiction from reality and blah blah blah, but it does tend to be harder when it comes to reading about boyfriends and social lives, no?

    Jolene – I love On Fortune’s Wheel (which is actually fantasy), but I first read it in 7th grade, so I don’t consider it a romance for older teens. Wow, that sounds really self-centered, doesn’t it? Just because it’s when I read it. Anyway…

  21. July 27, 2007 1:46 pm

    Admittedly, teen romances have changed a lot since the days I devotedly collected all the Janet Lambert, Betty Cavanna and Lenora Mattingly Weber books in the early 70s (and some of them were not new then). However, I think there are good books in this genre being published now. Among those I have enjoyed recently are:

    Two books by an Australian author, Jaclyn Moriarty, Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments. I got these from the library but liked them so much I ordered them later.
    Everything by Sarah Dessen. My favorite is The Truth About Forever but Dreamland is noteworthy because the gorgeous boyfriend turns out to be abusive.
    Sloppy Firsts – this is the best of Megan McCafferty’s four novels about Jessica Darling
    Long May She Reign (this long awaited follow up to Ellen Emerson White’s Meg Powers series focuses on her recovery from being kidnapped but addresses the issue of how someone in that situation becomes comfortable with intimacy when Meg meets a cute college freshman from CA)
    China Garden by Liz Berry is a couple years old but worth seeking out
    Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman is a cute story about (surprise) a teenage boy whose father is in the Mob while he is in love with the daughter of the FBI agent assigned to stalk his father
    Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern (girl committed to an institution finds romance unexpectedly)

    I did not like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff but I guess I was in the minority there. Among other things, the lack of punctuation was irksome.

  22. July 28, 2007 5:51 pm

    Any of the ANGUS THONGS? PRINCESS DIARIES? As a Simon Pulse Ro Com author, it seems to me the issue is your definition of the term “romance novel.” If you’re looking for a proper genre novel, it’s going to seem somewhat formulaic and overly simplified. If you’re looking for something older/more complex, there’s going to be a lot going on that isn’t romance. Which means that by definition, most older YA isn’t going to fall into the “romance” category. But if you look at the more commercial successes today, most have a strong romantic element. What would you say about the TWILIGHT series, or Cynthia Leitich Smith’s TANTALIZE? Paranormal romance, no doubt, right?

  23. July 28, 2007 5:51 pm

    Ooh–and almost any Sarah Dessen ever written, ever.

  24. July 28, 2007 5:55 pm

    And BOY MEETS BOY? Unconventional, but a romance, through and through. Levithan himself calls it a romantic comedy.

    I’d also argue that most publishers don’t take issue with mature sexual content in a book intended for older teens as long as it’s organic to the plot and not gratuitous.

  25. July 29, 2007 5:37 pm

    Constance – I picked up an ARC for Long May She Reign at ALA, but have been holding off reading it since I found out it was part of a series. Do I need to read the previous books first?

    Micol – Thanks for the Boy Meets Boy reminder. It’s been a while since I read it, so I couldn’t remember if it was a romance or not. As for Twilight, while I’m pretty sure the series will ultimately have a happy ending, I hesitate to include series that haven’t finished yet simply because we don’t know how for sure how it’ll turn out.

    If you’re looking for a proper genre novel, it’s going to seem somewhat formulaic and overly simplified.

    I realize that all genres have their limitations, but I still wonder why it’s harder to find YA romances for older teens. There are adult romances, YA romances for younger teens, books with romantic elements for all three groups, yet not many for older teens. Is there something about the age that makes it harder to write and/or sell romances for this audience? Besides how comfortable authors or publishers may be with including sex, that is.

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