I had a unique experience this past September 2014 during Labor Day weekend when I attended Atlanta’s DragonCon, the largest science fiction/fantasy convention on the East Coast, to participate in an author panel. The panel was called “Kissing Optional: Does YA Need Romance?” My views on this question going into the panel did a 180 degree turn after concluding the event.
When you think of the most prominent YA series in the past decade—Twilight, Divergent, The Hunger Games—one cannot imagine these stories without their romantic plot-points. Given that these books are directed at an age group where romance is a budding sensation, replacing the childhood “ew, cooties” view that most have prior to middle and high school, my belief going into this panel was, “if you write a YA novel without romance in it, good luck getting anyone to read it.”
On the one hand, it’s been said that every story is, or has elements of, a love story. It’s almost unavoidable especially if you have both male and female characters of similar ages as protagonists. But as I sat on the author panel aside Delilah S. Dawson (author of the Blud series), Shaun Hutchinson (author of The Deathday Letter and The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley), and DragonCon moderators Lil Watson and Alexa Donne, the audience proved to not only have a different standing on the topic, but they guided me to a different outlook on YA romance.
For one, while most YA books have a touch of the romantic, many stories have it as a background element while there is a greater conflict at the center of the plot. This is particularly true of “genre” novels (i.e. science fiction, paranormal, dystopian, etc.) where the protagonists have an action-driven plot as opposed to a “slice-of-life” story (teenagers in a realistic setting that deal more with exploring their emotions than saving the world). So while romance may be present, it doesn’t have to be what sets the story in motion or drives the plot.
But are there popular YA novels where romance is absent entirely? Again, you may have to dig around in the “genre” category to find them, but novels such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Protectors of the Small series by Tamora Pierce, and The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott were all mentioned by the audience, all wildly popular books that don’t need romance to captivate young readers.
Then the audience took the discussion into a completely other area entirely: the presence of homosexual, asexual, and pansexual relationships in YA. The question, ultimately, is why these orientations aren’t more widely represented in young adult fiction, as these orientations are increasingly becoming accepted by society. I hated to point out the marketing reasons most likely responsible for its under-representation—while there is a reading audience for it, as the people at my panel clearly proved, it is simply a smaller group than what publishers prefer to mass-market to demographically—but it did raise an interesting point and time will tell if there will be more sexual-orientation diversity in YA books in the future.
Yes, young adult fiction can be popular, even award worthy, without romance. There is no need for authors to follow a formula to mimic what made other YA books hit the bestsellers list, but it still must speak to young readers and provide characters and obstacles with which they can identify. It will be up to readers as well as authors and publishers what trends persist and what bold new risks are taken with YA books, both in terms of romance and the treatment of character genders/sexual orientation overall.