Author B.R. Myers Discusses Love in Young Adult Literature

At my latest “Young Adult only” adult book club meeting, we were discussing our favourite novels that we’d read over this past year. We got on the topic of how we’d like to see stronger friendships for the main character to develop in addition to the love interest. “There’s romance, of course,” someone had said, “but you can’t escape that in YA.”

Everyone nodded and then the conversation progressed to the next novel on the list. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that one particular comment. It wasn’t said with a negative intonation, but it wasn’t a compliment, either.

“You can’t escape romance in YA.”

It’s easy, as adults, to forget how differently our brains worked as teenagers. I remember my entire happiness riding on the simplest decision of what to wear. And don’t get me started on bad hair! A whole day could be ruined by a wayward curl. That is, until the guy you’ve secretly been crushing on for two months finally smiles at you in history class and lets you borrow his pen.

In high school, I was terribly average in every way. I wasn’t fashionable, athletic, or an outstanding student. Reading was my escape. It was a place where I could be the smart, stylish girl who was brilliant on the soccer field.

YA was limited back then—not the cornucopia of selection today. Thank goodness for Judy Blume or I would have been stuck reading Sweet Valley High over and over again. I discovered Lois Duncan and then branched off into Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

And even in these genres of horror and mystery, there was still romance. The protagonist always had someone they were in love with or were falling in love with—there was someone worth fighting for.
“You can’t escape romance in YA.”

You can’t escape mystery, humour, horror, fantasy, or science fiction in YA either.

But why is the romantic element viewed differently?

Would The Fault in Our Stars be more compelling if Hazel hadn’t fallen in love with Augustus? Um… no way! A female protagonist motivated by love isn’t weak or boring; she’s genuine and compassionate.

One of my favourite books is The Republic of Love by Canadian author and Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields. It’s told from the viewpoints of both Fay, a folklorist whose passion for mermaids has kept her from focusing on any one man, and Tom, a popular radio talk-show host who has been divorced three times. When they finally meet at the mid-point of the book they fall in love at first sight.

But Fay noticed something she’s never noticed before. That love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It’s not respected. It’s the one thing in the world everyone wants—she’s convinced of that—but for some reason people are obligated to pretend that love is trifling and foolish. 

“You can’t escape romance in YA.”

What about Romeo and Juliet? Do you think anyone took Shakespeare aside and told him Juliet seemed weak because she was consumed by her love for Romeo? So far in the last four hundred years, no one’s mentioned that romance ruined that story.

In my latest novel, Medallion of Murder, the relationship between protagonist Terry and Zach is a strong element that influences her decisions and therefore plays a major role in how the plot evolves. As the mystery deepens, so does her connection with Zach, strengthening the connection to the reader and raising the stakes.

A few years ago Alice Munro (another Canadian author) won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the presentation speech, Professor Peter Englund said, “Over the years, numerous prominent scientists have received their well deserved awards in this auditorium for having solved some of the greatest enigmas of the universe or our material of existence. But you, dear Alice Munro, like few others, have come close to solving the greatest mystery of all; the human heart and its caprices.”

“You can’t escape romance in YA.”

Here, here, I say!

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What’s your favourite young adult romance novel? Why do you find it so compelling?