Can a YA romance on Valentine’s Day really compete with a lusty swashbuckly bodice ripper? Yes! Let me share this secret with the shrinking percentage of the adult population who have not yet discovered these great romantic reads.
Less Sex (Generally)
This might seem a strange way to lure you to my side, but hear me out.
Twilight was my introduction to YA as an adult reader, and I remember plowing through the novels at a breakneck pace. At one point I contacted my friend who’d recommended the series and asked, “When do they finally have sex?!” By this point I felt as frustrated about the situation as Bella.
“It’s young adult,” she said. “Remember?”
For my money, the good YA authors focus on the kissing—and everything that leads up to the kissing. Because if you remember high school love at all (or are currently in high school), a lot can happen right there at the mouth area. In fact, great kissing can be a thousand times more intimate than having sex. Face to face, mouth to mouth, sharing the same breath—a kiss can be a moment of raw emotional vulnerability.
Do you see me? I see you.
There is so much that goes into the buildup for that first kiss. By the time the characters reach that point, you are humming inside with tension and screaming, Kiss her already!
What kind of kiss will it be?
Is he shy? Is it a closed-mouth, sweet, soft kiss that barely brushes against her lips?
Have they come to a moment of intensity where he sweeps her into his arms and plies her with deep, impassioned kisses that include tongue and hands roaming through her hair? Is she shaken to her core? Does she open herself and surrender to him, or does she still too vulnerable and holding things back?
Is it a moment of unbridled passion where he presses her against the car and devours her with his mouth? They can’t get enough of each other.
Do you remember your first kissing experiences in high school? I’m not talking about the awkward, figure-out-what-I’m-doing ones, but the great kissing. The kissing that you never wanted to end. The kissing where time and space disappeared. The kissing that went on and on and on… Do you remember how that felt? I know you do.
This brings me to my next point:
First Love is Visceral
Falling in love is a deeply human experience that takes trust, courage, and honesty. Everyone is wired to seek connections to other through relationship, and the first true love is a particularly poignant experience that leaves a visceral memories. You can probably think of your first love right now. You can immediately think of kissing that person, how you felt about that person, and a dozen other details. You can also remember the heartbreak and loss of that relationship.
YA romance on Valentine’s Day can evoke the sensations of first love because it taps into all those memories—perhaps bad ones as well as good depending on how your relationships went. When you read a story about a girl falling in love with the boy next door, perhaps you remember your own neighborhood boy. When you read about awkward first telephone conversations like in Eleanor and Park, perhaps you remember your own, and it’s the sweetest memory because that person was once so dear to you.
An endorphin surge pulses through your veins at the thought of those long calls. And it’s been decades.
Okay, so for today’s teens, maybe it looks more like this:
(At this point, your own teenager may give you one of those looks that suggest you put down their books and return to your own adult genre. Eleanor and Park may be set in the 80s, but that just means it’s retro.)
Not Just about Love
The young characters in YA romance are growing as people. They’re still trying to figure out who they are and coming of age, so there is an added depth and complexity in the relationships that doesn’t exist in adult romantic fiction. In Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, Maddy is in the process of learning that everything she believed about herself was a lie; her romantic involvement with the boy next door is the vehicle that transports her into the world and the truth. In The Fault of Our Stars by John Green, Hazel Grace is transformed as a result of love and loss. The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is about grief and loss—and also love.
YA romance has a tender element to it. Sure, sometimes the characters are “too perfect” to be true, but more often I’ve encountered the lovely, awkward young people who aren’t sure about themselves. They’re shy and tentative. They’re surprisingly honest and steal your heart in the nicest ways. Even in YA books that aren’t strictly romance but there is some type of romantic interest. In Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, the romantic interest isn’t the main thread of the story, but that sweet relationship gives everything another dimension.
As we approach this holiday, I am thinking about all the candy hearts and red carnations I did not receive because I never had an “official boyfriend” in high school. I confess: I was a nerd. In Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, I find a story about a character who received all the flowers but wishes she had a second chance to be kinder to those she overlooked. I find a story about unexpected love between flawed characters—and kissing. There’s definitely some excellent kissing.
I hope I’ve convinced you that you don’t need to be swept away by a rakish pirate to fall in love. It can happen with the boy next door, as in My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. Or someone you’re not expecting, as in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.
You might discover that YA romance on Valentine’s Day can feel much more significant than adult romantic fiction and evoke some old memories and new thrills.