Friday, July 1, 2011

Romancing Reality In YA Fiction

Mandy Robbins Taylor
I saw a bumper sticker slogan on a Facebook page recently that read: “BOYS IN BOOKS ARE BETTER.” Of course, the comment thread that followed was a long string of female readers' bemoaning agreement. I have to agree as well. But I'll take it one step further and ask—why is that? I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I plan on taking on this topic in my January 2012 graduate lecture at Vermont College
It's probably safe to say that this slogan originated with the YA set as opposed to adult readers—I'm basing this assumption on the use of the word “boys” rather than “men”. Though adult romances certainly don't get a free pass, I'm going to focus on the utter falsehoods about love and romance being perpetuated by most YA novels out there right now—even some of my favorite books are guilty of starring the ideal guy with perfect hair, glistening biceps and the soulful sensitivity of a poet or musician (which he usually is). This boy will, of course, aggressively make all the first moves and pursue our heroine, but when it comes time to be there for her in the midst of her grief/confusion/fear, he's as sensitive and perceptive as her best girl friend who's known her since preschool.

What's not to like? Way better than real life guys, right? As a teen, I would swoon over these 'book boys' and dream about the day when I would find my own and fall madly in love and get married and live happily (and extremely together-ly) ever after. I went through high school, then college, and never found him.

You could criticize me for being fantastically moronic and idealistic to buy into this. You could argue that it's clearly just fiction, a made up story. You might believe I'm singular in my stupidity, but hear me out.

Is there such a thing as “just fiction”? Doesn't good fiction mirror life—at least in the heart of it, in the big questions it asks? Even fantasy novels often bring out the deepest real questions we're all living every day. So why depart so wholly from reality in our depictions of teen romance?

I'm not saying there's no place for a Cinderella story. There are romance tales that are allegorical in their truth, I think Cinderella is one of those. And, okay, sometimes pure escapism is a justifiable guilty pleasure. That's another topic altogether.

But in your average, contemporary, realistic YA novel, why do the boys have to be so much better than real life teen boys? What are we telling our girls to expect?

As I've walked with my closest friends through relationships that turned to engagements that turned to marriage in the last half decade or so, I've seen us all struggle with similar issues. The heart of all of them lies here: love isn't a fairytale. There are (much) harder things about marriage than picking up dirty socks off the floor and snoring. Passion fades—'Edward and Bella' love is pure fantasy. We all have days and weeks when we are certain we will end up divorced. Real people have real, serious, heavy, painful baggage, and sometimes it collides and explodes and we don't know where to go from there. Sorry girls, it's sad but true. There's is no perfect—or even perfect “for you”.

The real question I'm asking is: why are we hiding that part from teenagers? Do we think sheltering them from this reality is doing them any favors? Do we think they don't already see and struggle with it all the time, in their own dating relationships and those of their friends?

Books full of easy, passionate, flawless romance are communicating to them that real love is out there; they just haven't found it yet.

So why do YA authors do this? I have a few theories. The most relevant to this topic: I think we process our own grief over the loss of the fantasy by creating it in our heads. That's to say, we make up what we finally realize we're never going to have in order to move on from the expectation. Is this healthy or functional? I don't know, I'm not a psychologist. It could be. But is it healthy and functional to then publish these fantasy narratives and hand them to kids?

As YA grows ever hotter and the market continues to expand (hooray!), the depth and scope of subject matter has increased greatly. But something that remains the same in most genres of YA (which, it's worth noting, is still primarily written by women) is the fantasy romance. Even books that try to convey some complexity and difficulty take the easy way out—the boy is too beautiful, his hair too perfect, his kiss too melted buttery, to not forgive in the end. Or he has a flaw—but really only one. And it's surmountable, thank goodness.

Boys in books are better because they are fairy tales. They don't exist.

There are some notable exceptions to this phony, fantasy romance epidemic: Sara Zarr's Sweethearts may be the best example I've read in recent years. Jenny Han does interesting things in The Summer I Turned Pretty and its sequels—her teen protagonist's gradual realization that we don't necessarily only love one person at a time is achingly real and bittersweet. With her third book in the series recently hitting the NY Times Bestseller list that should say something to the naysayers who insist girls only want to spend their allowance on the fantasy. And Varian Johnson looks at the complexities of childhood friendships turned adolescent relationships—with a side of grappling with religion—in Saving Maddie. If you haven't read these books, please do.

If at this point you're tempted to write me off as a hopeless non-romantic, please don't. That couldn't be farther from the truth—I think the fact that I love romance as much as I do is the reason I'm even grappling with this topic to begin with. As I write this I'm listening to Taylor Swift's Love Story on my iPod for the 847th time—pure fantasy. But I can't help it, I just love, love, love it. There is no drug that can beat the feeling (or illusion) of a fairy tale romance come true. But I have to say this... isn't there room for something more? Can't we dare to put our emotional realities out there a little more often, as opposed to our emotional fantasies?

Alan Cumyn, an advisor of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, engaged in extensive dialogue with me about writing from our core and dealing with our emotional realities. It isn't easy. I think there are as many reasons for avoiding it as there are people.

For example, Alan said recently about his upcoming YA novel, Tilt (Groundwood, August 2011): “Sex happens in this novel -- you might say it's the centerpiece. Stan's relationship [...] has its own complications, but eventually it represents a safe harbor for Stan. He doesn't have to manage the whole world alone, and he doesn't have to repeat his father's mistakes either.

“The intimacy is handled with some sensitivity, I believe. There is a moment of excruciating embarrassment -- there would have to be in an adolescent novel involving sex. In this case it's over premature ejaculation, a disaster that my lovers get through. But there’s also real tenderness and I hope a strong nod to the poignancy and power of first sexual experiences.”

Embarrassing stuff, right? When you're dealing with realistic relationships, complete with missteps, humiliations, complications, awkwardness, actions you can't undo and words you can't take back, I think it's bound to become more autobiographical, at least in spirit, than most writers are comfortable with. You'll get muddled, you'll get sentimental. You’ll get stuck at an emotional moment that hits so close to home it makes you freeze up. Yeah, vampire and archangel love will sound like a pretty novel idea at that point.

But I hope that one of these days, you'll take a deep breath, sit down, give yourself the “Nobody will EVER read this!” pep talk, and try to write your truth anyway. I hope you'll push yourself, make yourself cry, break your own heart again and rub salt in your wounds.

I hope you'll do it, and that despite your pep talk, you do let others, especially kids, read it someday. Because if you don't nobody will.

And I firmly, passionately believe (as my January VCFA workshop members who saw me start crying over it can attest) that these kids, our readers, deserve the truth about love—and all the garbage that comes with it.

Mandy Robbins Taylor will graduate from Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program in January 2012, though she would truly rather not. Ever. She loves writing realistic young adult, funny fantasy middle grade, and goofy picture books. She occasionally teaches workshops for teen writers, passing on some of that hard-earned MFA knowledge and staying connected with her audience. You can find her this October teaching the teen portion of the inter-generational Pacific Coast Childrens Writers Workshop...Feel free to email her at MandyRobbins7@aol(dot)com with any questions about this post, her writing, or Vermont College of Fine Arts.


  1. "...ideal guy with perfect hair, glistening biceps and the soulful sensitivity of a poet or musician..."

    Hey, that's me. Sure, I'm short with a pot belly and the muscle tone of a donut, but otherwise I'm the ideal guy. I cry at rocket launchings.

    Happily Ever Unrequited

  2. Mandy, this is a super post. I'd love to see some more romantic leads out there who are attractive and lovable precisely because they ARE flawed and quirky and human. I guess there's a place for "perfect" men in literature, but honestly, glistening biceps creep me out, and they did even when I was a teen! Plus, boring is never attractive, and a lot of these fairy-tale guys are awfully boring. My favorite literary romances are the ones in which both members of the couple are three-dimensional, compelling, and interesting as individuals, not just as sex objects or as one half of a couple.

  3. Thanks for sharing such valuable insights from your experience in the VCFA MFA program, Mandy. It takes guts to write with emotional honesty, and readers can sniff it out when we don't.

    I'm really looking forward to featuring five more fabulous VCFA articles --Tuesdays in August on my blog, On Beyond Words & Pictures

  4. Wow. Thank you. That was very heartfelt. I agree that, if you set out to write realism, then the heroes and heroines should have flaws. Happy ever after is something you have to work at every day. We all come with baggage.
    But I read to see the dream. The true love forever. And if the book is a fantasy, then I want the fantasy lover.
    Both should be available as reading choices.

  5. There are people who would be FLOORED to hear me say it, but I disagree that it's unhealthy. I think when you're the target age of YA fiction or superhero comic books - 12 to 16 - a little fairy tale fantasy is healthy and natural. How can we expect kids to learn to be real heroes and heroines if we don't let them embrace the sweetest pretend life? But if you're still writing love poems to Dulcinea by the age of 20, then it starts to become unhealthy, and if you keep it up into your 40s or beyond, you start to look very, very, very silly.

    (Please note, writing YA fiction - or even reading it - is NOT the same thing as writing love letters to Dulcinea.)

  6. Mandy-- What a superlative point. It is a conundrum. The Romance novel has always been the sacred place for women to fantasize freely. Are we doing ourselves a disservice? Hard to say, but maybe there's room for both camps in the genre? Thanks for sharing your thoughts with everyone here at P&I.

  7. Heck, I don't need a novel to fantasize about women. Ummm...was that inappropriate?
    Senor Appropriate

  8. To clarify: I am NOT saying fantasy or fairy tale is bad!! Heck, I was the girls awake at 4 am with my heart pounding, shivering in cold bath water as Bella raced across the plaza in Italy to save Edward! Like I said, I get sucked in as much as the next girl (or husband may or may not have read the Twilight series more times than I have!). Yes, I definitely think there is room for both. This piece is exclusively referring to contemporary YA books.

  9. I think all characters ride the edges of unreality, if that's even a word.

  10. Such interesting comments here. The only thing I would add is that I question the idea that the dreamy, fairy-tale fantasy guy should be perfect in every way. I've done my fair share of fantasizing about hot literary boys... but one of the steamiest YA novels I've read recently is Margaret Mahy's CHANGEOVER, in which the love interest is this messed-up, awfully creepy guy who, over the course of the novel, becomes sympathetic and intriguing and downright sexy. I don't know, maybe that says more about my taste than anything else! But it's something to think about.

  11. "...messed-up, awfully creepy guy..."
    Hey, that's me!

    Literary Sex Symbol

  12. Jane Austen tackles this same concept in Northanger Abbey, as you probably already know. She pokes fun at her naive little protagonist who expects everything to happen just like in the popular romances of her time, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle Otranto. (I think I spelled those right.)
    So this question has been around for a long time.
    I think the reason we women and girls like to have the guys so fantastic and perfect in novels is much the same as why filmmakers and advertisers use only "pretty people" for everything. We love the escapism and the fantasy. Ugly, uncharming people are reality -- who wants to read about that for a romance? No, we see those people every day. Most of us ARE those people, but we don't like to admit that. So, in a book or a movie, we want to identify with the beautiful people. :)

  13. These comments are giving me lots of fodder for my lecture...thanks all! :) I was afraid I'd have nothing more to say about this, but I can see that won't be a problem.

    I guess I would challenge those of you who think women/girls want these fantasy relationships in their books because they make them "feel good" to really think about how YOU feel after finishing one of those books (I mean, a REALLY GOOD one!). Me? I often feel depressed, listless, and trapped in my life. Judging from the phenomenon of psych therapy/rehab for many diehard Twilight fans, I'm not alone in that...and teens can experience those negative feelings even more dramatically. It really is like a good while you're in it, but when the book ends and you have to face reality again, the come down can be tough. ESPECIALLY for teen readers, which is why I think this topic is especially relevant to them.

    On the other hand, when I read great love stories about REAL people (not ugly, uncharming people... my real friends are quite attractive and hilarious ;), I am left feeling: moved. Not alone. More satisfied because I believe those people exist, in some incarnation...heck, some of them are me. Sara Zarr's SWEETHEARTS had me bawling like a baby, it so moved my being real.

    Maybe you react differently...tell me about it. You guys are totally helping me bring this to another level! :) I'm excited to see how I'll organize this...

  14. I am an obsessive romance reader - YA and otherwise. I don't believe I ever leave a book feeling depressed with my own life. I don't compare the two. I also re read obsessively. I love to revisit my favorite books. I don't expect my life to resemble the book. Why would a satisfying ending in a book make someone unhappy with there own life? Unless one is into feeling jealous of other people's lives. I guess it could happen then.

  15. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as
    long as I provide credit and sources back to your site?

    My blog is in the very same area of interest as yours and my visitors would definitely benefit from a lot of the
    information you provide here. Please let me know
    if this okay with you. Thanks a lot!

    Feel free to surf to my web page :: Ceola Falzon


We love hearing from you.