Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Little Bit More on Twilight—And How About All That OTHER YA Romance?

Thanks to everyone who read my last post and joined in on the discussion. It’s been great to see the discussion shared around the web, and your comments have been so incredibly insightful and enlightening. You guys are awesome, and you give me all kinds of hope for this crazy world of books and readers.

This week I wanted to share and respond to a comment from a new reader, Reinhardt:
My concern over a larger swath of YA is the emphasis on relationships that can serve to reinforce co-dependence (abusive and otherwise). How many books can you think of that have the main female character pining, needing to be with a guy to feel fulfilled? I think this is a more insidious issue, in that this co-dependence (especially of teenage girls, but not exclusively so) is already normalized, and has been for a very long time. Hey, I'm a dude, and as one of the few who like reading "girl books”… I find the predilection of characters who can only find true personhood inside a romantic relationship as disturbing as Twilight-esque relationships. Really, they are the same, only with different degrees of creepiness.

This is something I discuss a lot with my friends and colleagues, but not something I’ve posted about on here before. Reinhardt pretty well hit the nail on the head.

Experiencing love and heartbreak for the first time is an incredibly meaningful part of growing up and finding oneself, and thus it’s no surprise that it finds its way into so many of our books, whether for teens or adults. And I’m not against love stories—my very favorite book, The Great Gatsby, is a love story (though it is also much more than that), and it almost always moves me to tears with its revelations about the human heart. I’m certainly not against stories that have love in them, although when the romance in a story becomes the subject of all conversations about the book, nine times out of ten I’m going to duck out or show my Team Katniss colors. And, like with the Twilight series, I’d be a fool to write off all the teen romances out there, both because so many intelligent, talented, forward-thinking authors stand behind them, and because it provides a booming marketplace that helps keep the industry and the books I love alive and well.

But, by golly, I wish there were as many YA novels out there that featured female protagonists who don’t wind up in a relationship as ones that feature girls who do.

The Young Adult genre is essentially concerned with coming of age. By their very nature, YA novels take a character from childhood to adulthood, from trying different selves on for size to “finding oneself.” And because of that, these novels are usually structured so that the most exciting and important point in the plot, the climax, is also the moment at which the protagonist completes (or makes the novel’s most major step on) her journey from childhood to adulthood, from indecision to agency.

And because of that, I often feel that the climaxes of Young Adult romances, which always seem to be the moment at which the protagonist finally gets with her or his love interest, inadvertently convey the message that we are not whole—that we cannot find ourselves—until we are with another person.

What is more true is that we cannot be with another person (at least, not in a healthy way) until we have found ourselves. That’s why I always find that I enjoy stories about girls having adventures or living their lives more than I enjoy stories about girls getting the guy. Sure, a lot of the former do include romance; think of Malinda Lo’s Huntress, or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, or, for goodness sake, the Harry Potter series. But in these, like in reality, the developing romance is only one element of the much larger adventure that each character is living is her or his own life. And it is only one element of the story’s climax, or even a part of the falling action—the happy outcome that results from, rather than causes, the protagonist’s growth.

I firmly believe that the culture in which we live—and which we experience, understand, and perpetuate through the media we ingest—has a greater effect than any other factor on how we understand ourselves and the rules of the world around us. So I believe that, as long as such a huge percentage of the books targeted at girls in the YA sections of our bookstores or libraries revolve around the girl-gets-guy scenario, boys and girls alike will continue to internalize the belief that a woman needs a man to become whole and complete.

That’s why the books I want to acquire someday are the ones in which the girl fights the dragon rather than sleeping in the tower. I want to bring as many books as possible into the world that empower women to live independent lives with adventures in which they star. When I find romance woven into those tales, I want it truly to be one thread in a whole tapestry of real, human experience, which is just as meaningful and exciting and full of opportunity for women as it is for men. I want the girls who read the books I edit to be empowered to live whole, fulfilled lives, regardless of their relationship statuses. I want to normalize the diversity of human experience and shed light on the infinite ways in which teen girls—just like teen boys—can find themselves in this world. I want to balance out all the teen romance with all the teen everything-else that makes growth to adulthood so meaningful, so challenging, and so incredibly important.

What about you?

Oh yeah, and I can't resist sharing: Jen Hickman found these totally sweet images that are basically this blog post, but shorter, and illustrated (with R.Patt giving great face):

All praise Tumblr!


  1. Your post overall is fabulous. I especially like this part: "...we cannot be with another person (at least, not in a healthy way) until we have found ourselves." I've been working on the same WIP for years, and the arc emerging for the protagonist is that her romantic fulfillment is something of a surprise while she is busy figuring things out in her own life. And she is only OK committing to a relationship once she, like you say, finds herself -- once she discovers what her goals really are and what she wants her place in the world to be. So, thanks for putting that into words. The incidental romance is more attractive to readers because it is more true.

  2. Wow, what a great post! I LOVE your last paragraph about your vision for YA. I do enjoy reading about romance, but it's so frustrating to read about characters who put their infatuation with someone above everything going on in their lives. Love the idea that romance is just a thread in the tapestry of life, and agree with Raia that the incidental romance is so attractive. Thanks for this post!

  3. Thanks, Raia and Linda. Raia, your WIP sounds great!