Dear Miss No-Nonsense,
I am an avid young adult reader – but, recently, the young adult section of my local bookstore just doesn't hold the same attraction to me as it once did. Once, I loved scanning through the shelves in search of new titles and potential stories to devour and love. Now, though, I glance at the pretty, shiny covers with trepidation in my heart. Call me cynical if you want, but I am someone who, once burned, cannot just so easily walk back to the stove. YA books have burned me again and again with their promises of reluctant love, winsome characters, and consuming stories. . .but YA has broken many of its promises to me. And, quite honestly, too many broken promises are usually the first sign that I should get out of the relationship.
Sometimes, I read YA and feel as though it's trying to be The Bachelor/The Bachelorette version of the book world, advocating true love but failing so horribly at depicting it. The set-up of these couples and the aftermath of these relationships. . .well, frankly, it worries me, Miss No-Nonsense. I just don't understand where these books are coming from, and I'm so sick of smoldering eyes, sparkling/glowing skin, and strange behavior somehow morphing into the perfect kind of attraction. It makes me feel as if I'm in the wrong for not believing that love should be depicted this way!
I've tried again and again to reconcile myself with the majority of romance in YA – but it's just not working. It's as if we now have different goals and standards. I want something more, something deeper – but YA is only willing to give me shallow imitations of what I want. I'm left to clutch the books I do love and hope that YA will get its act together. I keep hoping, but each new book blurb just makes my hopes plummet.
I really don't want to give up on YA. I want to try and make it work. Do you have any advice? Or suggestions of the good still to be found in this floundering genre? If you could do anything to help, I would really appreciate it.
Hapless and Hopeless in Bookville
Dear Hapless and Hopeless in Bookville,
I understand your pain, Hapless. The majority of young adult books just aren't cutting it these days, are they?
As a long-time YA reader, your frustration is understandable. Why shouldn't you want the genre you know and love to grow and flourish? Instead, it's keeping to its old ways, never changing, and that's making you feel as if your desires are being ignored. You just want a great story, one that captivates you and keeps you reading – and part of your doubt in YA comes from the romantic aspects present in many of the books.
I think part of the problem is the goal of most young adult romances. They focus so much on attraction that they lose sight of the other aspects of a healthy relationship such as chemistry, development, and relationship maintenance. You want the chemistry of two characters beginning to like each other for who they are before they jump into confessions of love or throw themselves at each other in a full-blown make-out session. You want slow and realistic development of a romantic relationship. You want to see the work the characters need to put into making their relationship last for more than just a passing phase. Instead, you're getting just the bare minimum: you're looking at the shallow end of the pool when, really, you want to dive deep and search for the treasure beneath the waves. YA, however, is not allowing you to do so. It's raising its walls and limiting its potential.
Let's tackle the first issue: chemistry. Now, while this word sounds as if it's the same as attraction, it isn't. Young adult literature, however, often manages to confuse the two (as seen with the prevalent lust-love syndrome), and that leads to disappointment on your part because you're expecting the real deal and not just a pale imitation of real love. Chemistry can apply to many areas, so here are some questions to keep in mind when regarding your YA: How do the two characters act around each other? Do they share common interests, morals, beliefs, and/or opinions? Do they converse well with each other? Is one more dominant or submissive than the other? Is there mutual respect between them? Is the relationship one where the two characters grow to be better because of it, or do they only seem to hurt and bring each other down? Not all good YA couples have positive answers for these questions, but perfection isn't key to the formula for a good YA couple. The point is that the ideal YA couples should have more going for them than not.
One such ideal YA couple is Mia and Adam of Gayle Forman's If I Stay. Though Mia and Adam have awkward points in their relationship, the two have a flourishing relationship that builds on their attraction to one another and their mutual love of music. Their relationship is one that is give and take on a mutual basis. While they have their flaws and they make their mistakes, there is a beauty and vulnerability to the love they share with each other. They never hold each other back but instead are willing to let go of each other so that the other has the chance of growing even more as a person. Their relationship is not one to envy or scorn but one for YA to emulate.
The next issue pertaining to YA romance is that of development. Sadly, YA seems to have a tendency to throw characters straight at each other and say, “Love each other whether you like it or not.” YA should not be such a tyrant! Good relationships are not built that way! Where is the growth of trust, respect, affection, and all those things that should lead up to love? While attraction may be an easy way out instead of slow and careful development, astute readers like Hapless will not be fooled. Development may be a tricky business, but it will be much more fulfilling to both YA writer and reader. Why it is becoming more the minority and not the majority is something I will always fail to understand.
Now, let it be known that absence of initial attraction can actually be a good thing. I say this because there are a few instances in YA where a relationship can grow even when attraction is the farthest thing from the characters' minds when they first meet. Such is true in Kelley Armstrong's The Darkest Powers trilogy in the case of Chloe Saunders and Derek Souza. They don't meet under the best circumstances, and then they make unfair judgments of each other. Chloe believes Derek to be a sociopath while Derek assumes Chloe is basically an idiot girl. However, as the story progresses, mutual need and dire circumstances cause the two to depend on each other quite a lot, and they slowly gain a mutual respect that develops into reliance and friendship. It takes quite a bit of time – much more than typical YA where 'love' is present right in the first book – but the wait is worth it because it means the relationship thus built is much stronger and more capable of withstanding adversity. After all, a strong foundation is much better than a flimsy one.
Another common problem in YA romance is something I refer to as the absence of relationship maintenance. A relationship should never stay stagnant – just as, ideally, it should never regress. Relationships should be ever growing and expanding, moving towards a hopefully happy future. What does this mean for the characters involved? Understanding. Patience. Compromise. Sadly, however, there seems to be a lack of understanding, patience, and compromise in most established relationships in YA, and what a shame! If these characters have strove to be together, then why should the little squabbles and misunderstandings tear them apart when, really, such things should be mall and insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Most commonly, though, YA likes stagnancy – and that means no growth for the characters or the relationship. That too can lead to relationship problems, sometimes far more serious than those caused by misunderstandings.
Relationship maintenance can occur even when a couple is not actually 'an item'. . .but both parties are obviously interested in each other only to let prejudices, old wounds, and lack of communication get in the way of a potential relationship. One such example is present in Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road in which Taylor Markham and Jonah Griggs pretend for much of the novel that they have no history together – when the reader eventually learns that they do share a bit of a past involving one day that changed quite a number of things for them both. The attraction is there! The potential is there! Why aren't they getting together? Stubbornness. Past hurts. Loyalties to more than just themselves and their own desires. Eventually, they work past these obstacles of themselves and outside influences – but it's not easy. The end result is much better than the future that might have been if they hadn't found each other. Such a thing should be the norm for YA couples and not just a seldom pleasure a reader finds by accident in an obscure book.
Hapless, I know you are not alone in your desires for the romance in YA to be more realistic and more meaningful. There are so many readers who slog through book upon book, hoping to recapture sweetness and bitterness wrapped into one tumultuous story of love and loss. But that's a hard thing to find. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, but it just means that it should be all the more special when you do find it.
Don't give up on YA. Maybe it's just struggling at the moment. Maybe it's gearing up for grander things. Maybe you can expect to see more fulfilling stories and engaging romance in upcoming books. For your sake and other readers like you, I really hope that future YA will hold more joy than disappointment, more substance than fluff, and more greatness than shallowness. Never forget that great books have a way of finding the readers that will love and treat them best.
With all hope for your future reading endeavors,