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Find more Let's Talk about Love
Readers of adult genre romance know what to expect from their books: heroes and heroines they can identify with, emotional and sexual tension, and, perhaps most importantly, a happy ending. But for teens, whose lives are transitional by nature, romance books can look a little different.
Here, we talk to four authors writing love stories for and about teens—A. R. Capetta (The Heartbreak Bakery, 2021), Sandhya Menon (10 Things I Hate about Pinky, 2020), L.C. Rosen (Camp, 2020), and Nicola Yoon (Instructions for Dancing, 2021)—about the key components of a romance, the ways in which the genre has developed, and the things they love about it the most.
REAGAN: Teens characters (and readers) are in huge periods of transitions, and their romances don’t necessarily have “ever afters.” With that in mind, what do you all consider the necessary elements of a teen romance?
Sandhya Menon: Teen girls so often hear that their main mission in life is to fall in love, find Prince Charming, and have a happily ever after. So when writing romance for the teen market, I’m very careful about that not being the only thing that either of my characters is working toward. The main characters have a goal outside of romance that is very important to them. I take that extremely seriously in YA.
Nicola Yoon: I feel strongly that part of falling in love is falling in love with yourself. And so that’s what I really, really want the kids to do. I love stories where the characters start to discover how cool they are. They start to have their minds changed about the world. They start to open up to the world. Your ideal person is going to help you do that.
L.C. Rosen: With my two YA books, one is definitely a romance, and one I would characterize as more of an anti-romance. I wrote that partially because I almost worry about the kids, especially queer kids, I write for expecting to end up with someone they meet when they’re 16. It puts a lot of pressure on those first relationships when there’s already a lot of pressure on first relationships. I think that you want to make sure that the ending feels—if not forever, then—like it has changed the character for the better. You want to let teens know that their first loves are still important.
A.R. Capetta: In The Heartbreak Bakery, I started with the breakup of the main character’s first relationship for that reason. I wanted to show that there’s life and love after that first big relationship, even if it feels impossible at first. I think a romance for teen readers should open up possibilities—for the character, for the reader. And I want a strong sense of discovery and even wonder. Self-discovery, like Nicola mentioned, is so important, and so are those moments with other people, when your life just lights up with new feelings and experiences. And those don’t have to be the traditional “firsts,” either. There are so many moments, big and small, that can spark in that way.
REAGAN: Do you all think that teen romances need happy endings?
Yoon: I think that one of the characteristics of being in love is that you think it’s going to last forever. If you’re in it and think, oh, this is going to end soon, you’re not in love. So, in my mind, all my books have happy endings. They are in love right now and it feels like it’s going to be forever. And that’s all you need. If it ends, then hopefully you were in a good relationship that changed you for the better, for the next relationship.
Menon: YA at its heart is always about the characters finding themselves and growing through the course of the book. The romance is a nice package, a nice vehicle to tell that story. To me, a happily-ever-after ending in a YA is a sense of hope and promise for the future. And I kind of leave it up to the reader. Do they end up together for the next 80 years? I don’t know. Mainly, I’m just going for that sense of hope.
Capetta: I love how committed we all are to giving our characters some chance at happiness and thinking about what that actually means. I get most excited when it feels really specific to the characters, when they’re not following a set path or script to happiness but creating it in their own weird and unique and specific way. Whether or not they’re together at the end of the book, that’s when it feels like a true love story to me.
REAGAN: YA seems to at least be starting to understand the importance of recognizing queer communities in love stories. Have the expectations of the genre limited the stories you want to tell?
Rosen: One thing I love about YA romance is how queer it is. We’re getting more than just boy-meets-boy and more than, speaking frankly, white boy meets white boy. If you follow Dahlia Adler, who runs LGBTQReads, most of the books are romance. It often feels like queer YA is expected to be romance. It can be frustrating, knowing all queer stories are expected to be a particular type of story, but at the same time, what we’re doing to that space is amazing, so I have very mixed feelings about it.
What I’d love to see more of is historical queer YA. I think that [Abdi Nazemian’s] Like a Love Story did it really well. I want to see more queer stuff that isn’t two white boys. And alt-history stuff—like where’s my gay Bridgerton where they’re not in the closet because everyone’s out? That’s what I want.
Capetta: I have found queering romance to be such a joyful act. I can be a little defiant in places, but even that is a joyful defiance. There are just so many exciting things to do as a queer and nonbinary storyteller right now, in terms of not just representation but also craft. I want to tell stories about queer people, and I also want to queer story, as a verb.
My next book is my first with an agender character—possibly the first?—in traditionally published YA. And it’s been so much fun to take rom-coms, which can be this sort of ultra-gendered experience, even when they’re taking it on with some awareness or examining it on purpose, and explore that from an agender point of view. I’ve always loved rom-coms as a genre, but I’ve also felt like I was outside looking in at something. I couldn’t imagine writing one until recently, when I felt like I could be more playful with the storytelling but also more honest about my own way of seeing things. We’re still opening up possibilities right now, and we need stories that explore love from all different perspectives.
Yoon: My husband and I started a new imprint at Random House Children’s Books called Joy Revolution, and their entire mission is to publish more big, swoony love stories by people of color, about people of color. Because I don’t think there are enough of them. And there are so many people writing these things, and I feel like there’s such a demand for them. We’re actually publishing a YA Bridgerton but with brown girls in it, called Queen Bee.
I just want more big, swoony love stories that are not just issue-oriented books with people of color. The issue-oriented books are important, but so are the ones that are not. These are the places where you get to just relax and be aspirational and read a kissing scene that goes on for 10 pages.
Menon: I am so here for that. Right now in YA, there are still identities that are underrepresented, especially disabled characters, but I feel like we’re doing a good job overall.
Whatever your identity is, if you’re writing main characters about that, you can still have a very diverse cast. I think YA is the perfect place to be inclusive in that way. So I think a lot more people are starting to catch on, and that’s what readers want. They want to see the real world as it is, in their books and their stories that they’re reading.
REAGAN: There’s an ongoing conversation around teen love stories about “clean” content. In an adult romance, sex is expected; in teen romance, it’s debated because, like with sex itself, some readers are more ready for it than others. What are your thoughts about how much is too much to include?
Yoon: It’s a matter of perspective, I guess. Kids are having sex. I don’t know if everybody knows this, but they absolutely are.
One of the things I always say about YA is that the kids are going through the same things that adults are; they’re just doing it for the first time. So therefore it’s harder. And so isn’t it better for us as adults who are writing in this space to talk about the way it should be? If you’re having sex for the first time, it shouldn’t hurt, it shouldn’t be awful. You should be treated well. Isn’t it better for us to be saying those things out loud instead of pretending it’s not happening?
Capetta: And as adults writing in this space I think we get this incredible chance to write what we didn’t have when we were younger. As someone who didn’t see any queer sex on the page until I was well into college, I feel pretty adamant about having it out there. At the same time, I want to write sex positivity, whatever that looks like for each character, which includes letting teen characters be ready for it in their own time and affirming characters on the ace spectrum. I write a big range, and it all depends on what’s right for the story.
I’m slightly allergic to the “clean”-content debate. I’ve found it can conflate the idea that some teenagers aren’t ready for or interested in reading about sex—which is totally valid—with giving adults a chance to say what teens should be ready for or have access to. And when I started in publishing, the clean-content debate still very much included some peoples’ gatekeeping opinions about queer content.
Rosen: I 100% agree with August. It so often becomes a gatekeeping thing, and it so often says clean isn’t queer, which is just homophobic, plain and simple. But I think kids know what they’re ready for. Trust teens. If they don’t want to read the sexy bits, they’ll skip over them. With Camp, when it came time to write the sex scene, there were several reasons I did not fade to black, and my editors pushed back a bit.
Queer sex is not covered in sex ed in the the U.S., even in super liberal, private high schools. I wrote out the whole sex scene to show the connection between the characters but also to hopefully illustrate a healthy, queer, first-time sex scene so that kids could look at that and be like, oh, lube, condoms. All these other things that you do to warm up beforehand, which are the things, hilariously, that I think my editors and a lot of readers think are really dirty.
I didn’t want the scene to be smutty, but I did want it to be two teenagers having a good, healthy, fun time. I don’t worry about turning on teenagers, but I do wonder about adults reading this book and being turned on. And that creeps me out and I don’t know quite how to negotiate it. That’s the tough part.
Menon: In When Dimple Met Rishi, I have a fade-to-black scene, but I got a lot of pushback about it because I think people are not used to seeing Indian American kids having sex or talking about sex. My editor and I both fought to keep it in because there were conversations about safe sex and consent and things like that in the scene. Teens specifically in the South Asian community emailed me to say thank you, because there’s so much repression in the South Asian community. A lot of South Asian teenagers are not talked to about sex. Generally, it’s like, you’re not going to have sex until you’re married. Certainly that’s the message I heard. And like Nicola said, teens are having sex whether we want to think that or not. In my adult book, there’s the very graphic sex scene because I just want to put that out there that yeah, even South Asian people actually do have sex. That’s why there are billions of us.
REAGAN: Tell me about some of your favorite rom-com tropes and why you love them.
Yoon: I have a hard time choosing between Enemies to Lovers and Friends to Lovers because Enemies to Lovers can be so witty. But there’s something so sweet about Friends to Lovers, too. Those are probably my two favorites, and then if you take either of those and put them into something else, like Forced Proximity or Fake Dating, then it’s just better and better.
REAGAN: Have you experienced any of them? You are talking about this with real authority, and I am excited.
Yoon: Yes, actually, my husband and I were best friends for two years before we got together. And it’s going to be our 19-year anniversary.
Menon: I guess mine would also be Enemies to Lovers, but I also am a huge sucker for Fake Dating and There’s Only One Bed. I love that.
Yoon: They always stare at the bed, and it’s like . . .
Menon: So much drama!
Yoon: You know what’s going to happen, but it’s still the best.
Capetta: I did live through a Fake Dating situation as a teenager, which is wild to think about now. I was close friends with one person in the fake relationship, and I had feelings for the other. And when some actual romantic things happened later, they came with drama attached because the fake relationship was never, well, debunked? The funny thing is, I love Fake Dating stories. And as someone who has not historically been the most in touch with their own romantic feelings, I love a good “they’re the last ones to realize they’re in love with each other.”
Rosen: I, being, a chaotic queer person, am into anything where there is a misunderstanding. I especially love it if the two people in the relationship are extremely confused about what’s actually going on, but they don’t know they’re confused, and they think they understand what’s going on. And obviously I don’t mean something like they’re having sex with someone who they think is someone else. That’s bad. It’d be like, when they’re first getting to know each other or they’re first falling in love, the idea that there is an innocent accidental, misunderstanding, confusion—anything like that. I love silly identities. Camp was inspired by those ‘60s Doris Day, Rock Hudson things, though they are deeply problematic in many ways. I still love the disguises. I like chaos. Chaos is what I live for.
REAGAN: True or false: love conquers all.
Yoon: True. True. Absolutely categorically undeniably true. Lev is laughing.
Menon: I’m going to go with true also, just because I am also a hopeless romantic like Nicola.
Capetta: Oh, no. I’m going to be the person who says no. I want love to have help overcoming certain kinds of obstacles. I know how powerful love is, but I guess I’m also feeling a little protective of it.
Rosen: I’d like to say it’s true. It conquers anything that’s relevant, and it makes anything else feel irrelevant. It conquers all internally, but politically, as a queer person, I think we all have to call our reps.
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