In Defense of YA Romance (And Why I Love It So Much)

As you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader of this column, I tend to focus on one specific type of YA. YA is a pretty broad classification that includes all kinds of books featuring teenage characters–some of those books are mysteries, some of those books involve murders, some of those books are sci-fi or apocalyptic or paranormal. And then some of them are romances, which is what I gravitate towards. Sure, I try to make this column somewhat well-rounded by checking out a variety of books, but the truth is that I’m pulled towards romance the same way I’m pulled towards chocolate chip cookies or a marathon of Property Brothers on HGTV.

I’m a romantic comedy kind of lady, and I appreciate the genre, even when it’s ridiculous or unbelievable. I legitimately don’t care if a romance would never happen in real life. I agree with Mindy Kaling’s take on romcoms: “I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle.” Frankly, if a movie is packed full of romcom clichés, I’m more likely to love it.

As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes people kind of look down on you if you read YA. Not that I care, because as noted philosopher Miley Cyrus once said while wiggling her tongue around, only God can judge you. But if people question the intelligence of an adult woman who reads YA, they really question the intelligence of an adult woman who reads YA romance. Like, sure, read something about alien invasions or kids killing each other for sport, but get invested in a little Peeta-Gale love triangle action? Forget it, are you brain damaged?

Some critics of YA romance say that it’s silly and unrealistic, because who actually finds the love of their life in high school? And anyway, why should YA female characters even be concerned about love at all? Shouldn’t they be saving the world or going on self-discovery road trips or vanquishing any variety of mythical creatures? Who has time for making out with swoonworthy dudes? There are zombies/vampires/werewolves/various personal demons to kill!

It’s not that I don’t agree with that reasoning. I don’t think that girls should feel like finding a boyfriend is their sole purpose in life. I want teenage girls to know that they don’t need another person to complete them and that they can have adventures on their own. I want them to value their friends even more than they value a romantic relationship.

But the thing is, I don’t think that the pursuit of romance is all that vapid or unnecessary—not at 16, and not at any age. Falling in love for the first time is not only a great feeling, but it’s also an exciting one. After all, you’ve never done it before, so you have no idea what it’s going to be like. And then when it happens, it sort of rules! Conventional wisdom compares it to fireworks, but I think we could really compare it to something better. Cheeseburgers! Pizza! Ice cream cones with sprinkles on a really hot day! Other delicious food items!

Personally, I know why I love YA romance so much. I can still remember, viscerally, what it felt like when I first fell head over heels for my first boyfriend when I was a teenager. I’m a happily married woman now, and I’m not saying I’d ever want to even see that dude again (he was sort of stupid, and after we broke up he pierced his own nipples, which really tells you everything you need to know), but our relationship was never really about him. Sometimes first love isn’t about the other person so much as it’s about love itself; it’s about feeling something for the first time ever, and about giving yourself over to it so completely because you don’t even realize there are consequences.

It’s hard to fall in love like that again—when you’ve been there before and had your heart broken, it’s difficult to hand out your emotions so freely. You realize that things could end and that there’s a distinct possibility you’ll be very sad when they do. It’s easy to become jaded and cynical about love. But I’m convinced that many of us wish we could recapture that first love feeling all the time, that reckless excitement, that over-the-top exhilaration.

Maybe some people sky dive or bungee jump to feel that stomach-leaping excitement, but not me. I read YA romances because they remind me of the thrill of falling in love for the first time. Being in love is great, too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nice to read about the fear and risk and adventure of falling from the comfort of my couch.

I like romances (whether they’re YA books, adult books or films) because they’re unabashed in their emotion. They don’t pretend like there’s anything more important than falling in love, and I don’t think they should. Making a human connection isn’t silly or trite; it’s important and special, and I appreciate a book or film that’s honest about that.

We’re all entitled to our opinions, and some people are always going to hate romances, YA or otherwise. But whenever people question their value, I’m always reminded of a scene at the end of the Princess Diaries series (sidenote: I have an English degree, I spent the better part of four years reading Nabokov and Virginia Woolf, and now I’m writing about the Princess Diaries books online…IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, former Lit professors!) where Mia feels stupid because Michael’s a super genius who’s making, like, a robotic arm that will save people’s lives or something and all she’s doing is writing romance novels. He tells her that while his invention is saving someone’s life in the operating room, that person’s scared family member can read one of her romance novels in the waiting room and feel a little better. And, really, how can you hate something like that?

Of course, I can’t end this column without sharing a few of my favorite YA romances. The entire Princess Diaries series is fantastic. Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins are basically perfect. Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill will make you swoon. You’ll fall head over heels for Eleanor & Park. I loved The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith. Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling books introduce us to the wonder that is Marcus Flutie. The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson broke my heart in about a million different ways (JOE FONTAINE!). Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist has music and romance. And that’s just the tip of the super-romantic iceberg.

What about you guys? What are your favorite YA romances? Let me know in the comments…I’m always on the lookout for new books to read! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, send me an email at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

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