Friday, September 13, 2013

Relationship History and what I'd like to see more of in YA...

I read an article recently by Holly Bourne, the author of the YA book Soulmates in which she mentioned the prevalence of happily-ever-after endings in YA.  And that got me thinking. And tweeting. And there were a bunch of people who agreed that all the HEA YA endings have been getting a lot of us down. Give us something new and refreshing, damn it!

And not long after that, I read a YA book that I was fairly sure before picking it up that it would end up with the two main characters NOT getting together (which was my main reason for picking it up) ... and then they did end up together. And that just made me upset. WHY?! There's absolutely nothing wrong with there being an element of romance or falling in love within a book, I just don't see why it seems mandatory for two people to end up together at the end.



And people are obsessed by these relationships. Everyone has something to say about their 'book boyfriends' and which couples are their favourites and if there's a triangle, everyone is on a particular Team with strong feelings one way or another. I'm tired of it all. I want less emphasis placed on couples in YA and a bigger spotlight on individuals and how they're forming identities on their own and with friends and family and hobbies and I want it be somewhat distant from the romantic relationships that happen in their lives. Is that so much to ask? But if these relationships are important in shaping who a person is or becomes, then at least make those relationships resemble actual life. 

I'm saying clearly here and now: I want to see more realistic relationships in YA. I want to see teenagers happily single at the end of books. I want teenagers to know that they can have a happily ever ending that has no bearing on their relationship status. In the same way that I'd like to see actual life (with diverse characters and disabilities and varying sexualities and so on) I also want YA to reflect on the fact that not at all teenage relationships work out.

Because they don't. From reading YA, you'd think that MOST teenagers fall  in love with THE ONE by the time they're 18, right (sometimes, but not always, madly and passionately)? That they fall into these life-altering relationships with a few hiccups here and there maybe, but ultimately, THAT'S IT.

And what a let-down that is in reality.  I'm not saying that that doesn't happen - teenage sweethearts that stay together forever. It must do. For, like, a small percentage of the population. But for the rest of us mere mortals? Not so much. 

Take me for example. My First Boyfriend was great. I met him when I was 16. He was the first person to tell me that I was pretty. He took me on my first date, gave me my first kiss. He was the first boy I took home to meet my dad. He was the first boy who held my hand in public and made me feel special. He was my 'first' for a lot of things. It was a magical time period for a lot of reasons. I read YA novels about two characters getting to know each other and starting a relationship and I remember what that felt like. Opening up with somebody, sharing. Being vulnerable.

But you know what? That relationship ended because he cheated on me with someone else. And maybe that's not very hopeful or romantic or whatever. But it is the truth. And yes, I felt pretty low about it at the time. But I picked myself up and out of that situation and realised that I deserved more than the way First Boyfriend treated me.  And I may have been hurt and angry with the way things ended, but that doesn't mean that the things I felt and the things that changed about me during the course of that relationship weren't important or that they didn't happen. They did. And I'd love to see more YA characters go through these things realistically. There was nothing wrong with my second boyfriend. He was funny and kind and we broke up with minimal dramatics because I wasn't ready to jump into a serious relationship after the disaster that was First Boyfriend.



Let me tell you now about my First Love. My First Love nearly broke me. I was going through a rougher-than-usual time when I met FL. And for a long time he and I were just friends. At first, I'd talk with him about unimportant things to distract me from larger problems in my life and then later, as we got closer, I'd tell him other things. Things I'd never told anyone else. He was a wonderful person to speak with, very caring and understanding and funny and I'd love his viewpoint on life. It gave me a new perspective... and as I thought more and more about him I realised that I was falling in love with him. There was something special and meaningful about our friendship but I also realised there was something pretty special about him as a person too. 

Things did not work out between me and my First Love. I loved him and I know he cared about me a great deal. But we were in two very different places in life and we both had different priorities and goals. But his friendship and his presence in my life at a very trying time changed and fixed something inside of me. It didn't matter that we didn't end up together, that change still happened. It was very sad, and I cried a great deal over him, of course, but it wasn't the end of the world either. And what I also don't want to see in YA books is people like First Love being turned into villians or creeps just because we didn't end up together. That annoys me. There doesn't have to be this convoluted reason for us (or any two people) not to be together. And for gods sake, there doesn't have to be a perfect guy in the wings waiting for First Love and I to fall out to step in and be my happily-ever-after. I want YA books to stop telling girls that they need these things for a happy ending.

My point for bringing up these past relationships including First Boyfriend and First Love is just to ask, why are these relationships and these stories discarded within YA? Why do we need happily-ever-after romantic stories?

What do you think? I'd love to hear your relationship histories and your thoughts on Happily-Ever-After and what messages we're reading about in YA.

27 comments:

  1. This is really excellent. I've been thinking about this myself, and it's giving me a push to look back at an idea I was sketching out about just that. You're so right. I fell in love regularly though my teens & twenties. Some relationships were better than others, but they all ended. In the meantime I had good female friends, fun, interests, jobs, even a spirituality! Finally I met someone - but it was only at the point when I realised I didn't need to in order to be fulfilled and happy and that my worth was not to be judged by whether I was in a relationship or not. That's so important. And I want my children to know that. Thanks for reminding me of something I have thought before about, and doing it so persuasively!

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    1. I really feel like that time period of teens and twenties are for trying things out, including relationships, in an attempt at finding out who you are. There's a reason that most of those relationships end and you are so right. I really do worry about the message that's being sent out with these HEA stories. For children, teens, adults..

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  2. I agree, there is something a bit unrealistic and obvious about always having a romantic happy ending...although I do think "market pressures" affect writers a bit too. If you decide to do something unusual there is a risk the publisher, the reviewer or the readers won't like it. (This has been going on for a long time...the Victorian author Anthony Trollope was pestered by readers who wanted his heroine Lily Dale to marry her admirer Johnny Eames instead of deciding to remain single forever.)
    Personally I try to make the resolution of relationships realistic. In my third book, WISH ME DEAD, there is much that is left open at the end between two of the characters - just the same as our own futures are a variety of possible options.

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    1. Oh, I'm sure there are market pressures. Especially as I've heard recently of some uproar that a popular series with a strong romantic relationship that ended ambiguously ... readers hated it and wanted 'closure' or a choice. I'm not a big fan of that. I'd like to see female characters choose themselves over a romantic partner.

      ...I'll be writing a series of posts regarding this topic, including a list of books that don't end up with characters happily coupled up :)

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  3. I'm so glad you've written this Michelle because it's something I feel really strongly about. I can completely understand the pull of having a successful romance at the end of a YA story but it does frustrate me a lot for all the reasons you've listed. If done well, great, but bad romance just comes across as an easy way out and lazy writing.

    I'm still with the person I fell for at 18, although I'm fully aware that this is the exception rather than the rule!

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    1. Thanks Anna! It really, really bugs me when writers write that all of a sudden the guy that the character was with becomes a sex-crazed, psychopathic drug-dealer or something so OF COURSE it's good that the MC broke it off with him and chose Perfect Guy over him. Phew, what a relief. Why????!! Why can't he just be a decent guy and have the couple break up normally?

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  4. Really good post. This is one of the reasons why I tend to avoid romances as a genre and especially for teens. There's so much everywhere that tells us we have to pair up happily in a romantic relationship that I think it's difficult for many teenagers to feel happy and confident if this doesn't happen. But saying that, I do like reading some happy endings. They just don't have to be forever afters.

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    1. Yes. I don't think the problem is one that solely belongs to teenagers. I think the idea that people in general must be happily paired up to be successful is a problem with adults as well. But it bugs me no end how much this idea is marketed to teenagers and young people :(

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  5. Surely the majority of readers will see these novels for what they are - fiction. The same applies to adult romance - it's escapist feel-good reading and there's nothing wrong with it. Maybe it's when readers are solely existing on a diet of HEA and, more importantly, believing in it, that it's a problem.

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    1. I'm not saying anything is wrong with it! I'm asking for a wider representation of teenage relationships! And I do worry that readers believe in HEA...

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  6. Hmm, I'm not sure that many teen romances are "Happy Ever After" - they are more "Happy For Now". The stories end before any of the couples can decide that actually they're not quite right for each other and move on, keeping the happy memories... ;)

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    1. P.S. Great post! I now want to recommend a certain book to you, but I can't in this context without spoiling it! I'll have to sneakily recommend it another way. ~~You will now forget this comment...~~ :)

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    2. No, I can definitely see that there are plenty of Happy For Now endings. I'm mostly talking about (and maybe I could have been clearer in my post) those romances that contain soul mates or great loves over time stories. The overblown ones where I feel as though the choice is removed. Do you know what I mean?

      ...Dying to know what your recommendation is :)

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    3. Oh yes, I absolutely see what you mean! :)

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  7. I completely know what you mean! Almost all YA features romance in some form, even when it contributes absolutely nothing to the plot. Many writers seem to just throw in a romance for the sake of it and I find it sooo annoying! I love it when books focus on friendship, Code Name Verity for example. I agree with you that YA needs more realistic relationship, but I think it also sometimes needs less relationships altogether. Brilliant post, Clover!

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    1. Yes, I would definitely agree with that too, Maya! Less relationships would be fantastic. I don't think I can think of a single YA book I've read recently that didn't contain romance..

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  8. I agree with so much of what you said! I'd actually love more books following teens moving on from that first big break up. I certainly think that would be more beneficial to them than expecting a happy ever after first time around. I really loved Holly's artical as well. I'll never understand why every YA book requires a huge soulmate style romance. A YA book recommendation I have is Other Words For Love by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal which not only captures the whirlwind of your first love but also the devastation of that first break up too. It remains one of my favourite books.

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    1. I've heard good things about Other Words For Love, I'll have to check it out. THanks Jess :)

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  9. Amazing post, Michelle! I completely agree with you; I've often been exasperated with the endings of books I'd loved so far as they turn into a HEA. I want YA relationships where you finish, smile and think 'Well, I know how that feels...' In fact, I wrote one like that for my dissertation!

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    1. YES! And I think we could all relate to being single at the end or dealing with heartbreak.

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  10. This post is wonderful! The only thing that annoys me is that I have to wait over a week to share it in my next bookish Monday Amusements post! I agree completely and although I love reading YA romance, it does seem a bit odd that so many fictional teens talk so much about true love and soulmates and destiny. I want more variety and it would be great to see more characters dealing with breakups, or long periods of being single!

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    1. I think part of my problem with the soulmates/forever love storylines is that characters believe that there is no choice involved. That upsets me.

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    2. Me too. Often I want to read into the book and shake a character and tell her 'you don't have to stay with this guy, you're sixteen, you don't have to stick with them no matter what!'/

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  11. Wow, this is so interesting to read. I couldn't agree more with many of these comments. I've written two YA books, coming out next year, and deliberately avoided having a conventional romance for the very reasons you've described above. I mean, what are the chances you're going to meet the love of your life when you're a teenager? Okay, it does happen to a tiny minority of people, but reading most YA fiction you'd think it was standard.

    I do think there is a lot of pressure on YA writers to include a romance element. It adds an extra plot strand, and I've been told that teen readers expect it. So it's great to hear that this isn't necessarily the case at all, and that there is a demand for books with heroines where it's not all about the boy.

    So thank you for such a thoughtful post!

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    1. You're very welcome, Emma. Please do continue to write unconventionally! I appreciate it.

      I get that there is pressure to add romance, but I'd just like for there to be a shift away from the love stories always ending happily.

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  12. There are very few YA books out there without the seemingly necessary happy endings. While I love a good romance, I certainly didn't meet the love of my life as a teenager and I think YA books are putting out the wrong message at times. While it would be lovely for things like that to happen, it just isn't realistic.

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    1. Yes, that is definitely how I feel as well.

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