Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Romance in YA: Too Much?

How Much Romance is Too Much?
(Photo: bored-now)
Bookstores are flooded with YA novels where romance is the key ingredient. As we read yet another book where the love interest is the focal point, the stories start to blur. Sure, romance is marketable, but at what cost? What other aspects of life aren't we exploring in YA novels as a result? Which brings us to the question...

Is romance necessary in YA novels?

Today, to explore that question, I have a guest post from fellow author Jessie Peacock. She's currently working on her debut novel, and has a lot of fantastic short stories published. She blogs over at
A Thousand Words, and seriously folks, if you are a reader or writer of YA, you need to check her blog out!

Without further ado, Jessie:

Hold the Romance

Looking at my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with the posts of YA writers and readers, I get the feeling that I am a misfit, a nonconformist. Well, I already knew that, but how so this time? It’s this: I am a YA writer and reader. And I don’t adore romance. At first glance, it seems like I am alone in that regard.

So much YA entertainment these days hinges on romance as a major element. I don’t have scientific numbers, but the vast majority of YA books I see marketed mention a hot crush—or even two hot crushes. But is that what young audiences crave? My Sociology degree insists that some market research would be helpful. Specifically, does the market demand that there MUST be at least a smidge of romance in every book aimed at teens to be successful? Does there HAVE to be a love interest in every story?

I see the arguments for both sides. The target audience for YA lit is … young adults. These people are, in their real lives, batting hormones, discovering love, figuring out their sexuality, and enjoying (or botching) first kisses. So one could argue that romance is critical because it’s relevant to the reader.

Conversely, one could also argue that young adults experience a heck of a lot more than those things. I think it’s okay not to include romance in every story. Because there is more to life than romance. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think romance is evil or necessarily unhealthy. I chose to fall in love and get married, after all. I even enjoy some fictional romance. But let’s not limit our young readers to one topic when they are so diverse.

Great YA books in which romance is almost nonexistent
(OR in which romance is present but in the background the top of my head):

  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Terrier by Tamora Pierce 
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Sabriel by Garth Nix
  • Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings 
  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
    (though I have my own issues with there being virtually no female characters of note in the whole book)

As a reader, my personal preference is toward books that are light on romance.

What about you? Do you prefer romance? How much or how little is your personal preference?

What are your favorite YA books that are romance-light? 

Examples of books that have done romance well?

Jessie Peacock is still working on publishing Her Big Debut Novel.
She has some short publications and can be found at

(Full disclosure: my as-yet-unpublished YA fantasy does include romance!)


  1. Thanks for this, Carissa and Jessie! I thought I was alone in my views on YA romance too, but the more I explore the online writer community, the more I realize there are a growing number of us who share this opinion. I don't hate romance. I can love it if I think it's handled appropriately and not too heavy-handed. But I also think there's more to life for teens than romance.

    I call it low romance (like low calorie) or high adventure. I've also been hunting books with female MCs that don't have a strong romantic theme throughout the book. They seem to be hard to find. For some reason the combo of Female MC + Romance is a huge seller. If I want low romance (or no romance) I do better reading middle-grade. So, I've gotten the strong impression that YA just doesn't do well in the marketplace if it doesn't have at least a little romance in it. I'd love to find evidence to the contrary.

    I seek out books that don't focus heavily on romance, and books that have very little romance. I'm trying to build a list to recommend to my library patrons as a contrast to most YA. So far the list is short. Some of the books you mentioned are on my TBR list.

    One YA book (with a female MC) that was romance-light was Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. I loved this book so much that I had to review it on my blog. The romance that it did have was done so well that I loved the love interest almost as much as the MC did - so that's a good sign!

    Another book that was very high adventure/magic and virtually no romance (because it wasn't needed) was The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. It's the first in a series about a budding young witch and takes place in Pratchett's Discworld. I can say, after reading this, that I went on to read every other Discworld book I could get my hands on. This author just can't be passed up!

    Good luck on your debut novel, Jessie! Mine has virtually no romance, but hopefully it'll do well just the same. (And maybe there will be romance in the later books.)

  2. A very interesting discussion. I definitely feel that although romance is fine as one ingredient, I'm disappointed by how often it takes over the entire book - especially in YA. I love the little list of YA books with little to no romance, I will check them all out!

  3. I agree I think there is too much in YA, which is why I think I go for more adult books. For the books I really love, like hunger games or divergent, where there is love interest, I like them in spite of the awkward lovey sections rather than because of them, but at the same time the romance in those books seems natural and doesn't weaken the lead females character. Some books take it too far.

  4. I love romance! I read YA because adult romance is less romance and more sex. I like 13 reasons why, but I felt there was some romance--maybe not romance but the MC had a huge crush on the dead girl and he dealt with his emotions over it throughout the book.

  5. I usually find YA romance to be clunky and weird. I think most writers don't do well building romance in adult books anyway and those do in YA are constrained by their intended audience, the reality of what teen love is, how to relate the complex subject in YA terms, and the uncomfortable situation you put yourself in when you are explaining the sexual desires and actions of a 14 year old. I have read good books in YA that do put romance into them and often it makes me keenly aware that I am reading a book. Unfortunately the Divergent series is doing this to me, I love the story but the romance side-plot keeps pulling me out of the story. I would love romance free YA especially when the main character is female. It seems like an easy thing to do when the character is male, but it seems like our society wants to define women by the men in their lives and not solely on their actions and that bleeds into books as well.

  6. Interesting. I admit I like YA when I read it, but don't usually read it because they all look like romance/chick-lit. However, from my limited experience, I agree with Beth. I like that YA deals with as something more than sex.

    But it does seem like its too much. Especially the guys. Really, the guys have nothing on their minds than the girl? Sure that's somewhat realistic for the age group, but guys are also seeking to define themselves. Figure out what it is to be a man, and both men and women seem to be larger than their romantic prospects.

    So I'll vote with the, let it be in the soup but not the main course.

  7. If the story has a serious plot, I'd rather not have full on romance introduced. You would either have a strong romantic boy meets girl story, or a serious story with a hint of romance that never gets resolved, kind of like Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard.

    I'm not a YA reader, but the kinds of books my daughter enjoys are more along the line of more deeper issues like the death of a friend, or social misfits.

  8. I'd add Hunger Games to the list. The romance in that story seemed secondary to the "reluctant hero" story.

  9. If the story's main theme isn't romance, I'm not interested... for the most part.

  10. I don't read or write YA, but I would go so far as to say that romance in novels today is overdone in general. I don't always mind it, but it needs to be done well. If one character is getting hot and heavy with another character, when the met just a couple hours ago and they're in the middle of a fight for their feels forced to me. Nor do I find that realistic or even interesting.

    If there's going to be romance, it should be a well developed part of the plot. Relationships that truly move into the realm of love (not just lust) take time, and if they're rushed, I won't take it seriously.

    I have written some romance in my latest attempt at a novel (fantasy). That was mostly because I wanted to see how a fully developed romantic relationship would manifest itself through the course of a novel. That, and it made sense based on the characters.

  11. Hmmm I am on the fence about romance. I do agree that in most YA books, even when there is meant to be some sort of oppressive government to worry about, the romance somehow always takes over. Sadly, I do believe that romance is the number 1 drawcard for teens. I've read comments from people who have said they are disappointed if a book doesn't have romance or they won't even pick it up. I enjoy romances when they are done right, but there is way too much insta-love and all consuming love to the detriment of all else in the mix for my liking.

  12. Romance as the main focus of a book bores me. It did as a teenager and it has continued to do so as an adult. Romantic subplots work very nicely for me, but if I'm picking up a book, I'm there for the adventure, not the instalove or love triangles.

    There is so much more to life than finding and being with your first love. The thought of spending my whole life with the boy I dated in school horrifies me! AAAAAAAARGH!

  13. I am an absolute sucker for a romance done well in any genre, but "done well" is the operative term. For me, that has three ingredients. First, an actual relationship needs to develop -- i.e., the attraction has moved beyond he's hot/she's hot, we should kiss. Second, the relationship must be presented in a way that's not sexist or trite -- i.e., both boy and girl have depth and like each other for reasons other than hotness, girl is not presented as being completed/saved/swept away by boy. And third (this is just my personal preference), you need to add a huge heaping of delayed gratification a la Tris and Four in Divergent.

  14. I'm sort of in between on the romance issue. Personally I think it all comes down to what type of book it is that you're going for. Is the book a romance novel? Well then okay, I understand there being lots of romance because that's the genre and probably the reason people picked up the book in the first place.
    However, I don't read dystopian books for the romance. Or paranormal books (unless it's a paranormal romance). If your book is something like that, then your romance, should you choose to have one, should be a SUBPLOT. It should not take over the entire book.
    I have no problem with romance I just don't want it becoming the entire point of a series unless that series actually is a romance. Don't promise me epic fantasy with kick-ass heroine and then give me minimal fantasy world-building, heroine who only sometimes kicks ass, but mostly she's choosing between two hot guys.
    I think the key is balance: you can have romance. Just don't let it take over your whole series/book. Be sure to have plot, character, and so on as well.

  15. What an interesting discussion. Personally, I don't mind either way--there are some really fantastic books without a mention of romance (or with only very light romance) and there are other novels that I enjoy as much as I do partially because of the romance. As long as it's done well and the romance is there for more than just the sake of adding a subplot, I don't really have much of a preference.

    That being said, I do read a lot more YA with romance in it than I do without, but that's largely because YA is usually pretty romance-heavy. Not that I mind.

  16. I'm not sure that I agree with 13 Reasons Why having romance almost non-existent. One of the key driving forces was why this boy, this boy who liked this girl, sent this tape? He admits early on he had feelings for her, and from the sounds of it, there were a lot of feelings there, not just because of her death.

    Either way, I think romance is a huge part of being a young adult...when I was 15-16-17-18 it kind of ruled my world, so while I like exploring other topics, if there's not at least a love INTEREST then it doesn't feel genuine to me.

  17. A great topic for discussion!

    I wish romance didn't have to be the all-consuming trope in YA literature, but it just is. I think readers of this grade of fiction aren't budging on the need for some form of romance, no matter how small. It's not like it must be in there or it will be "wrong," but it won't likely sell as well.

    Whether or not it should be in any YA book depends on the author's goal for the book they're writing. Do you want to express yourself in your own unique way, no matter the consequences, or do you want to sell vast numbers of books? Neither is right or wrong, but a personal decision. ;)

  18. This. Thank you.

    It's not that I have a problem with romance by itself (though plots where nothing happens except kissing and lingering stares bore me). My main issue is that it often seems to be a case of romance first, story and characters second. I've picked up so many books where the author exists solely for the purpose of being a love interest. He's gorgeous, broody, and incredibly dull.

    I much prefer stories where characters are characters, and if they happen to fall in love along the way, so be it. But all too often, the romance feels forced, and leaves me with nothing to care to about.

  19. Great post! I personally feel "over-romanced" these days and am always searching for a more friendship-oriented book to read.

  20. Is romance necessary in YA novels? To me no. In fact it feels refreshing when I encounter ya book without it.
    But I think that most of the targeted audience expects it. I recently read wonderful ya adventure 'Emilie and the Hollow World' by Martha Wells and most of the reviews complained about the lack of romance or how the book is not ya. I got the feeling that romance is a MUST for ya novel...

    What are your favorite YA books that are romance-light? The Cadet of Tildor, Ready Player One, Little Brother, ...

    Examples of books that have done romance well? The Host, Lola and the Boy Next Door, Seraphina, The Body Finder, ...

  21. I agree with what Yael said. I have no problem with a book if the romance is well-developed but sometimes there's romance way too early...before the reader has a reason to care about the characters falling in love.

  22. I tent to gravitate to the books with romance playing a huge part, but how much I like these books really depends on how the romance is developed. For instance, what I loved so much about the romance in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater was how naturally it came about, and how it was built on the two characters' mutual respect for each other. I feel like we need more of those sorts of romances in YA.

  23. I love romance in my YA, but I think it's more of the first-love kind of romance. I hate it when the romance seems like it's moving way too fast, maybe because I can't relate to it looking back at my own young adult experiences? Maybe kids are just older these days, but if it's too graphic or too much "WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT ONE ANOTHER!" I have a really hard time finding it believable. I love a book like For Darkness Shows the Stars, where it's a large SWOOPING romance, rather than insta-love. It just makes it more special, you know?

    Awesome post! :)

  24. @Donelle Lacy

    Thanks for your input! I ADORED Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl (a book that I thought protrayed YA romance well, in fact) so I'll definitely add your suggestion to my TBR queue.

  25. @wordslikemagic

    Agreed. I certainly am not on a crusade against all YA romance! Your description is key: I like it more as ONE INGREDIENT. Thanks!

  26. @Desira

    Yes, I loved Hunger Games and Divergent, too. Seems to be a common theme: romance is fine, but not too much.

  27. @Beth

    Yeah, I decided to include Thirteen Reasons Why because although there were feelings between the MC and the girl, I thought the book hinged more on bullying, mistreatment, and suicide. Thanks for your perspective!

  28. @Jake

    Your last sentence hits home for me. Very interesting.

  29. @J.S. Clark

    Great perspective. In our desire not to objectify females, are we going too far in the opposite direction and objectifying males? Thanks for your input!

  30. @Diane Carlisle

    I'm guessing your daughter is the target audience? That's great to hear what she likes. Thanks for sharing!

  31. @Bryan Durkin

    Ah, the challenge of believability. Taking time to develop real love... I agree that most of the books with romance that I love do exactly that. Thanks for your comment!

  32. @Lan

    Lan, that is very interesting that you've seen readers complaining about lack of romance in some books. I wish I knew how to do some market research on a budget. :)

  33. @Miss Cole

    You made me laugh! Yes, I'm glad I didn't end up with my first love interest, too!

  34. @Monica Tesler

    Great formula for a successful romance. Thanks for your thoughts!

  35. I think it depends on the reader's preference. For me, I have to have a little romance. Nothing big. In fact, I don't like it when it's the only thing going on or when there's too much physical descriptions. Yuck. Sorry, but I love the feeling of first love and the excitement behind even a small touch.

    Like others, I loved Goose Girl. I can't think of others right now, but there are a lot of great books that have it in there, but it's not the main point of the book.

  36. Thanks! This is something I really needed to hear. I was beginning to think that unless you had romance in a novel for young readers that you might as well toss it in the bin.

    I've written two YA books with strong female teen characters, and neither of them is obsessed with a boy. I feel a lot better about that now.

  37. I love reading about love and romance. When I was a young adult - despite not dating or having a romantic relationship of my own - romance is something I loved to read about. It gives that sense of if it can happen to characters then there's hope for anyone.

    That said, I despite books when the romantic relationship is the character's whole world = above friendships, above family and above themselves and their own interests as a person. I think it's sending a wrong message.

    I don't need romance in a novel to satisfy me.

  38. Great topic. Personally, I prefer books to be light on the romance. I don't mind it in YA novels but I think sometimes it's overkill- plus, the love triangle theme gets old after awhile.

  39. I don't mind romance, especially high school love. I loved high school love and it's fun to relive that through YA novels. But I don't think it should be the focus of all stories. As a reader and writer I love a good adventure. The romance needs to be secondary or have some purpose other than to satisfy the teen's raging hormones.

  40. It's up to the writer whether to include romance or not. If you want to, put it in. If not, don't.
    I don't know if you can call either Ender's Game or LOTR YA. Ender was more MG age, and I never considered the hobbits teens (how do they age, anyway?).
    Fun post! :-)



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