I grew up in a library. My mom worked behind the scenes while I sat among stacks of books all day, devouring story after story. The heaviest reading I’ve done in my life was during these days of sunny childhood and nonexistent homework. I grew up on adventure, on dragons and lady knights and magic and courage, mostly in the form of juvenile fiction.
When I eventually made the move to young adult books, I began to find it harder and harder to pull a random book out of the shelves and want to sit down and read it straight through in a night, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized why.
An overwhelming number of YA books revolve around idealized relationships, probably because that’s what sells. Romance has its place, of course - it’s fun to read! This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. The real issue is that these books are not marketed as romances, yet tie their characters’ happiness and fulfillment to these frequently toxic or codependent relationships, not to their own individual growth throughout the story. Their genre is labeled “science fiction” or “fantasy,” not “romance set on the high seas masquerading as an adventure novel.” More often than not, I find books (not marked as romances!) that would be virtually plotless were it not for the relationships they chronicle. You too can be enraged at the system! You can tell when you’ve found a story like this pretty easily - the action will find its resolution when the main character achieves the seemingly secondary goal of defining a relationship with the brooding hottie they embarked on their journey with (bonus points if the main character hated them for the first twenty pages, then realized their eyes sparkled a certain way in the firelight and there will never, ever be another for them). Most of the time, this pervasive “subplot” ends up taking away from the independence of female main characters - on whom most of these hidden romances are centered - by validating them only with the love of another.
This trend is not the fault of any one book or author, but the industry echochamber as a whole. Romance is a hook. But romance is also a genre - a valid one! - that is currently missing quite a few books that I’d argue have been mistaken for more plot-based publications. From where I stand now, it’s obvious that the books I read when I was an unknowing YA reader shaped my perspective on relationships for many years, and I still struggle with unrealistic expectations about what a relationship should mean to me. I was sure that finding the “perfect” relationship would grant me the happiness and self-actualization I’d seen through the eyes of so many of my favorite YA characters. I compromised my self-worth and core values constantly, not realizing that perhaps my understanding of the world was a subconscious reflection of what was probably the biggest deception of my childhood. When I thought I was reading about a girl trying to solve deadly mysteries, I was unknowingly consuming these underlying messages that would stick with me for a long, long time. I am not alone in this. When a society consumes such media to the depth and breadth that our society does, these patterns of idealizing relationships are consistently reflected in our cultural reality.
There is something so valuable about a story that empowers its main characters to succeed, regardless of their relationship status, and that’s why I’ve found myself coming back to J-FIC after all these years - stories that can be dark and fantastic without forcing their heroes into love for the purpose of ratings. I promise I’m not a cynic - I’ve just learned that relationships aren’t everything and, frankly, I think it’s a little tragic it took me 19 years to do it.
Written by Kristen H.