We need to talk about romance in YA 😬☕️

Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s talk about my disappointment with romance in YA books lately.

Last year for V Day, I made a post about my favorite book couples (it was like the third post I made on this blog so maybe don’t read it), and I was planning on doing an updated version with my favorite couples from books I’ve read in the past year. Only to look back and realize that…huh, I don’t really have many to add. In the 100+ books I’ve read in the past year, many of which featured romantic subplots, there are only a few that I felt truly invested in.

Having a romance that I’m invested in is certainly not a requirement for YA. But if most of the books I’ve read have an element of romance, I shouldn’t be looking back on most of them a few months later and going “meh” or “oh yeah I completely forgot about that.”

So what’s gone wrong with romance in YA?

The first problem that I see is that romance is considered a requirement in YA novels. Think back to the last ten YA novels you read. Maybe the last twenty. When was the last time you read a YA where the main character doesn’t end up in a relationship or at least is heading in that direction with another character?

Now I’m not here to say that YA shouldn’t feature romance. On the contrary! But the problem comes when romance is expected in YA, so it’s shoehorned in as an afterthought, without proper development.

In some stories, especially in plot-focused genre novels like sci-fi/fantasy, a romantic sideplot just doesn’t make sense. If you’re trying to save the world from invading aliens, isn’t that a little more pressing that figuring out who your boyfriend is? Romantic sideplot can certainly exist in these types of stories, but they shouldn’t distract from the main plot; they should enhance it, show the main character(s)’ development and growth, and actually tie into the story.

A major sign of a shoehorned love story is underdeveloped characters. If the love interests exists only to be a love interest…well, that’s a clear sign that the romantic subplot shouldn’t be there at all. When this happens, the love story feels dull and leaves me rolling my eyes and skimming the pages to get to the better parts.

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Also, it gets a little tiring and predictable when the main POV male character and the main POV female character have to get together. Let’s switch it up sometimes!

I’ve talked before about my intense dislike of insta-love in YA, and I think that’s another symptom of the problem here. Insta-love is what happens when two characters meet and inexplicably fall for each other in 0.2 seconds flat, leaving me going what just happened? Within a few pages, they’re willing to risk their lives for each other, even though they don’t even know each other.

Maybe these characters are plenty fleshed out and developed individually, but when I’m not given a reason to root for them to be together, I’m not going to. Relationships need to develop; they don’t just spark to life through an intense moment of eye contact or one of the characters saving the other’s life. In order to convince me that these characters love each other, I should at least feel like they like each other.

Okay, I’m going to step back and give YA the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Maybe the problem isn’t these books. Maybe it’s me.

I’m 21 years old, which means I’m no longer the target audience for YA. And it’s true that I’m a lot more critical of book relationships than I was when I was under 18. So maybe I’m just getting old and curmudgeonly and I shouldn’t complain about books that are aimed for people younger than me.

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But isn’t it also important for me, as a semi-adult, to be critical of the stories aimed at younger audiences? I may not have much (read: any) experience in the romance department, but even I know that a lot of the romance featured in YA novels just isn’t realistic. Kids learn a lot through the media they consume, and if we tell them that The One™ is the person they fall in love with at age 17 by locking eyes across a crowded room and just knowing, isn’t that a little, uh, harmful?

(And yes, I know that a lot of kids are smarter than that, and plenty of people don’t read fiction for realistic relationships, but let’s not pretend that lots of young girls didn’t grow up reading Twilight and thinking that Edward’s possessiveness of Bella was romantic. Young people learn about the world through the fiction they consume.)

Also, the fact that romance is featured in most YA basically sends the message that all teenagers do and should end up in relationships. I can’t think of any books where that’s explicitly stated, but when stories end with every character paired off, it’s kind of implied. I’ll be real with y’all: I’m 21 and have never been in a relationship. If I were only going by what I see in media, I would probably think there is something fundamentally flawed about me. Luckily, I know that I’m a whole person in or out of a relationship, but not everybody knows that. I realize that this is just a problem across basically all media, not just YA novels, but YA has always been a place to push for change in the stories we want to see. Why can’t it also push to change attitudes toward romance?

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea: I’m not saying that YA can’t have romance. I just want that romance to be well-developed, interesting, and actually add to the story rather than detract from it. When I read a book with a couple that I absolutely love, it kind of feels like falling in love myself, only with a fictional relationship rather than a real person. I love that feeling, and I want more of it.

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(Look at me, managing to fit two B99 gifs into a discussion.)

On that note, here are a few of the fictional relationships that I did like in the past year:

  • Evelyn and Celia from The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (not YA but still)
  • Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
  • Ben and Arthur from What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
  • Leah and Abby from Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

And here are some relationships that I either aggressively didn’t care about or actively disliked:

  • Alina and anyone from the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
  • tbh all of the relationships in Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
  • Lazlo and Sarai from Strange the Dreamer/Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor I’m soRRY
  • Laia and Elias from An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir please don’t kill me
  • Evie and that dude whose name I can’t even remember from The Diviners by Libba Bray
  • Zélie and Inan from Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The rest kinda just fall into a “sure, I’m fine with it” or “I’ve already forgotten about it” category.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a few recommendations of YA novels where the main character doesn’t end up in a relationship by the end:

  • Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
  • I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman (seriously, people, just do what Alice Oseman does)
  • Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
  • Sadie by Courtney Summers
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
  • Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

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What are your thoughts on romance in YA? What book couples have made your heart swoon lately? Any recommendations for YA books without romance?

x Margaret 

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26 thoughts on “We need to talk about romance in YA 😬☕️

  1. What a fantastic post!! 💗 I really feel you! I don’t like it at all when the romance overtakes the story or ends up being the typical insta-love … it just has begun to annoy me, as I see it more and more often in YA books! I do like my romance, but it certaintly doesn’t have to be a part of every book. I would love to see more YA books without a romance or without a focus on one, just to mix it up and show teens that they don’t have to end up with someone else!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You hit the nail on the head with this one! If the love interest exists solely as the love interest then they don’t need to be there! I love romance and YA and it seems a lot of what I have been reading lately the love story part is just “meh”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You have some interesting thoughts in this post!

    I agree with you that I am getting increasingly annoyed at the *need* to include romance in YA, and that a lot of times I’m eye-rolling that they’re REALLY going to end up together. But as I’ve been getting annoyed I’ve been moving out of YA and … it’s in adult novels too. Frustratingly so. I wonder if perhaps the industry isn’t catching on to how popular the romance genre is and (either subconsciously or purposefully) including those elements into other genres to sell more books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point about adult books! I read much more YA so I didn’t feel quite qualified to talk much about adult in this post 😉 That’s so frustrating that the trend continues there as well. I think there is a conception that stories won’t sell unless there’s an element of romance, even though that’s completely untrue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think they’re just trying to market to a BIGGER audience. Like, they’re looking for the next Hunger Games, or The Help, or 50 Shades or Outlander. Viral books tend to have romance, and I think that’s just in the back of everyone’s mind. That said, a forced romance is NOT going to go viral, so I don’t think that’s the way to go, but I don’t know that it’s something the industry is necessarily doing on purpose.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You know what, I never thought about it, but I DO feel like Romance is “required” for YA… a lot of books seem to include some kind of love interest. Maybe this is done to make the plot more interesting? While I do like romance in YA, I don’t like Romance GENRE YA books, because in those novels, the romance IS the plot. I prefer my books to be about something more exciting, and to include some romance on the side.

    I have read a few YA novels which don’t inlcude a love interest for the MC, but I’m talking about like, *maybe* two or three books (Radio Silence being one of them, I highly recommend you try it 😉 ). Also, I haven’t actually *swooned* over a book couple in a long time! And that’s kind of sad. It’s so hard to find a good representation of a nice/healthy relationship these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree that I prefer books where romance is on the side. So when I pick up, say, a fantasy book expecting a fantasy story, I don’t want to just be reading a romance! And yes, there DEFINITELY need to be more books that don’t include romance – like Radio Silence! 😍

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. This is something I’ve been thinking about as a writer. For… 3 years now (wow!) I’ve been writing a series about mystery-solving twin reporters in 1920s England. In the first book, there was no romance aside from a goofy crush that a side character had on the MC (spoiler alert: doesn’t go anywhere). In the second, the MC and her brother’s best friend get kinda flirty but nothing comes of it. Now in the third, which I’m currently writing, I plan on having the MC fall for a nerdy side character, who I’m trying to make nothing like the typical swoony YA hero. But I’m trying to make it very clear that they are both whole people without each other, and they’re friends first.

    The way I like to think about this sort of thing is that my books need to have an emotional sub-plot. In the first book, it was grieving a parent’s loss. In the second, it was making friends with a family from a different culture. And now it’s romance. But YA authors tend to gloss over friendship and family as possible emotional sub-plots, skipping right to romance, which can make things seem forced, as you noticed. Anyway, sorry for the super-long comment, but I really appreciated this post because it showed me from a reader’s perspective what I should and shouldn’t do in my own writing. Very well thought-out post, thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for giving it from a writer’s perspective! I think you’re so right that emotional sub-plots too often automatically become romantic sub-plots, when stories about families and friendships are just as powerful. It’s really awesome that you’ve thought about that and made such a conscious effort in your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yeah, romances in YA can feel lazy sometimes, like we’re bypassing all the normal stages of getting to know a person so the author can amp up the steam by getting the characters all emotionally and physically intimate from the start. But I prefer romances where the characters actually know each other for awhile first.

    On a brighter note, I just finished The Waning Age by S. E. Grove–and there’s no romance! It felt so unique and refreshing.

    Liked by 1 person

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