Romancing Reality in YA Fiction: Guest Post by 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.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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6 Responses to Romancing Reality in YA Fiction: Guest Post by Mandy Robbins Taylor

  1. Erin says:

    I agree completely! As a pre-teen, I devoured all the “young love” teen books I could get my hands on (this was before YA was a recognized genre). I swear those books messed me up for relationships for a REALLY long time. “Oh, when will my Prince Charming come and see into my soul and help me release my inner princess?”

    … Um, yeah.

    Personally, I think books that show real people, warts and all, are far more compelling. All those cardboard cut-out “sensitive hot guys” are ultimately too boring and one dimensional to sustain my interest for very long.

  2. abwestrick says:

    Mandy – I LOVE this. Maybe I’m an incurable romantic, but I do believe “real love” exists. I just don’t believe anyone is perfect. To really love someone means being willing to finger each and every one of his warts.

    A compelling line in your post is this: I think we process our own grief over the loss of the fantasy by creating it in our heads. Wow. If I were one of those think-quick-on-the-feet-types, I’d run at the mouth about that line right now. Instead, I’m writing it down. I’m savoring it. I’m mulling it over. You have made me rethink fantasy and romance genres. Thank you!

  3. pamwatts says:

    I agree with you all (and got to see Mandy just now and tell her what a great post this is!)

  4. Gilly says:

    What a fabulous analysis! You make such wonderful points.

    I’ve often wondered if some of this is the reason that boys aren’t more drawn to current YA fiction. The blogosphere bemoans and wonders about this all the time. Athough I love much of the recent popular YA fiction, I can’t help but notice the boys are sort of neutered – perfect and sensitive and idealized. They aren’t gross or rude and don’t think or talk about sex and body parts and things like – God forbid – masturbation. When they do, it’s remarkable, rather just a part of capturing the teen voice well. As your advisor noted, these things may be uncomfortable to write about, but they are a part of the teen experience.

    If I were a boy, would I read books in which there was absolutely nothing on the page that even remotely resembled me or my friends? Probably not.

    Like you, I love romance and get that same thrill reading these types of fantasy romances. But I also think having romances with more plausible boys would be of value to the genre – not instead of the fantasy romances because I like the escape of reading them. Rather, it would be nice to have more accurate representations of boys in addition to the impossible ones. And I wonder – if we did, would we get books that are more appealing to both sexes?

    (By the way, I think one could make this argument about certain forms of entertainment that are directed toward men – like pornography (and people have done so). That is as much a fantasy escape as YA romantic fantasy fiction, albeit directed toward another age and gender, and there are lots of discusions about whether it ruins men for ordinary women because the images presented are so untrue to life and impossible to attain) . . .

  5. pamwatts says:

    That’s really interesting. I had never thought about the similarity between porn and teen romance in that they both present a highly idealized and impossible version of the opposite sex from the primary creator and audience’s fantasy of what they wish that gender was. Very interesting.

  6. Mandy says:

    Wow! Thank you all for the supportive and fascinatingly insightful comments!! I am lecturing on this topic at VCFA this January, and I swear my blog comments (both here and on the Pen and Ink blog) have practically done all the work of outlining the points I need to make. So thanks to all of you fabulous commentators, and thanks Pam for posting my blog! 🙂

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