Note: A version of this post appeared on Swoon Reads in March 2015.
When I was a little girl, my grandparents’ room was filled with Harlequin romances. My grandma devoured them. There were stacks of them against the walls, thin paperbacks with titles like Raging Passion, A Rogue and a Pirate, and—much to my excitement—The Demetrious Line.
I never had any interest in them, even when I was a teenager. I had my own obsessions: Anne Frank, Shakespeare, Oprah’s Book Club. Of the women in my family, I’m the only one who hasn’t read an adult romance. Ever. In my life. This is especially strange since I was named after the protagonist in Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower.
I recently bought the book and it’s sitting on my TBR pile. Every time I go to read it, my eye will catch something else, say, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily (gorgeous YA) or the next installment of the Lunar Chronicles. When the subject of romance novels comes up, so many of my friends talk about how they used to sneak their mom’s romances and read them. I suddenly realized there was this whole rite of passage that I’d missed out on. To say I read up as a teen would be an understatement. I was desperate to read the classics, to read “smart” books, to grow up. I was horrified to learn I’d been named after a character in a romance novel. Why couldn’t I have been named Jo or Rilla or Juliet? The closest I got to reading romance was Gone With The Wind (I still have a thing for Rhett Butler types). When I was a teen, we didn’t have as much YA as there is today and I often wonder what I would have chosen to read in high school. Would I have loved Stephanie Perkins as much as I do now? Would I be declaring which “team” I am after reading the Throne of Glass books? (Please don’t make me choose between any of Sarah J. Maas’ boys). I remember reading a few books for teens when I was an actual young adult, but I pretty much went from Nancy Drew to One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.
It wasn’t until I was out of college that I read what would be described as my first YA romance (and my first paranormal): Twilight. Oh. My. God. I’d had NO IDEA you could read something that made your heart race like that (haters, take a seat). Don’t get me wrong — I’d always described myself as a romantic and had been swooning over boys in books for years: Heathcliff, Laurie, Rhett, and, of course, Gilbert Blythe. But those old school romances were nothing like this sexy sexiness. So many kissing scenes! And naughtiness! It was like someone had gone and took all the parts I secretly loved best about books and then made a book where I didn’t have to wait for the romance because it was on nearly every page. I was hooked. I shouldn’t have been surprised that I’d dig romance or love triangles or cliff-hangers or breathless pacing. To this day, I can only fall asleep by telling myself a romantic story. I have various scenarios, some of which have been revised night after night since I was in elementary school. No lie. Now, I realized I could actually read these stories, not just get a few snippets of them as I fell asleep. Being me, I took it one step further—I didn’t just have an opportunity to read swoony books…I could write them, too. So began the joy of writing boys like Patrick Sheldon from Something Real and Josh Mitchell from I’ll Meet You There. They became my first real book boyfriends. I soon learned that the only thing better than reading YA romance is writing it. Addictive is an understatement.
The thing about YA romance that is so special to me is that it’s dramatic in a way that feels totally real. When you’re a teenager, things are intense and there are so many barriers to being with the girl or guy you love: rules, the lack of privacy, weird social hierarchies. I’d much rather read a book where two people struggle in deciding whether or not to be together because he’s a jock and she’s an artist (Agh! Why We Broke Up — another fave) or he’s a vampire and she’s not than a book where he’s married and she’s married (because that’s just sad). For teen characters, this whole romance thing is brand new. To them, everything to do with a relationship — from the getting together to the getting it on — is a rite of passage. It’s exciting to see characters experience their firsts. Each step is a huge choice for teen characters, and their encounters are often fraught with uncertainty or giddiness. There are no Fabios here.
A romance also gets top points for pacing and the tension it creates. The other day I was watching House of Cards and two characters who barely knew each other decided after a bit of flirtation to just start sleeping with each other. It wasn’t the least bit sexy. I just felt bad for them because (a) I’m a romantic and that scenario offends all principles of romanticism—dude, at least buy her dinner and (b) there’s no build-up! In YA, it’s such a slow burn as the characters work up the guts to approach one another. When a boy asks a girl (or another boy) out in YA, he’s onstage for the entire community of kids at their school. It is a Big. Freaking. Deal. The drama is inherent, the scenes deliciously tense with high stakes that feel real because they are. The agony — we’ve all felt it, right?
I suppose what draws me to YA romance is what ultimately draws me to YA: it wears its heart on its sleeve. Even if there’s bodice-ripping or if, like Eleanor and Park, the absolute sexiest part is when two kids hold hands on a school bus, there’s something love-affirming and hopeful in it. Even in books where the ending isn’t happy, or books that make us sob, YA romance has the capacity to satisfy readers’ craving for an emotional, cathartic roller coaster ride because its characters go for broke when gambling with their hearts.
These days, my room is starting to look more like my grandma’s, with stacks of books filled with kissing and declarations of love. I doubt my mom knew that the little girl she was naming after a character in a romance novel would one day become a writer herself. I like to think that the love stories in my novels are my way of carrying the torch for the romantics in my family. Don’t worry: if I ever have a daughter myself, I won’t name her Bella or Scarlet. Anna, Lola, or Isla, though, would be excellent choices.