Special Topics Paper – YA Contemporary Romance: Not Just About Teenagers Falling in Love

We had to write a paper in my Adult Reader’s Advisory class about some component of RA. I chose to focus my paper on why adults should be more open to reading YA literature. Apologies for anything that doesn’t flow quite right, I had to condense the paper for my blog.


Young Adult (YA) literature is one of those genres that many people believe is unimportant once you’re out of high school. As an adult continuing to read YA books, I’ve heard all of the arguments. “Oh…you still read those? Aren’t you too old for that?” “Why would you want to read about high school if you’re not in high school?” and the ever popular “You should start reading some real books”. Critics of the genre fail to understand the appeal and make a blank statement that all YA books are decidedly lowbrow and not capable of being “true literature”. Young Adult Contemporary Romance books cover a wide variety of deeper themes. While there is definitely the element of romance and love, these books are rarely one-note in that way. The themes portrayed in these books are overwhelmingly universal side-effects of the human condition.

One of the main themes that these books deal with is relationships. As would be expected in any romance genre, these books deal with relationships involving significant others. What separates these books from adult romance fiction is that these are often stories of “first love”. Readers experience these feelings with the protagonist perhaps remembering their first loves as well. The emotions are complex and as characters learn about themselves and make discoveries, readers can follow along and maybe learn something about themselves as well.

YA books also do a great job of exploring the relationship that a teenager has with her family. Authors explore good parent/child relationships as well as bad ones caused by absence, addictions, overbearingness, and more. They also explore the dynamic that naturally occurs between siblings whether contentious, friendly, or non-existent. The relationships portrayed in these books are relatable regardless of age, gender, or any other descriptor.

Besides relationships, YA books explore the universal themes of uncertainty in the future and identity. The end of high school is another transitionary period for teens, and authors do a great job of capturing that feeling of uncertainty in the books that they write. While most characters are uncertain about what the end of high school will bring, these feelings are applicable to so many other adult situations. Our protagonists are on the precipice of one of the biggest changes in their lives—you don’t have to be in high school to relate to that feeling. In addition, the characters in these books have to figure out just who they are. As they approach adulthood, our characters usually make several self-discoveries that will affect the person they become in the future. These kinds of revelations do not end after high school—many people struggle with their identity throughout their lives. Once again, YA authors have the opportunity to use younger characters to explore feelings that we all have as humans.

Arguably the queen of YA Contemporary Romance is Sarah Dessen who does a great job exploring relationships and changes. Dessen’s female protagonists, while varied, tend to be smart but somewhat subdued young women. They tend to have some kind of conflict with their families but have a great support system in their friends (new or old). The majority of Dessen’s books take place over the summer where change seems to be even more abundant. Dessen has dealt with heavy topics such as divorced parents (What Happened to Goodbye, Along for the Ride), eating disorders (Just Listen), and abusive relationships (Dreamland, Lock and Key). Our protagonists are more likely than not to find some romance, but it doesn’t overwhelm the overall story. For adults looking to try the YA Contemporary Romance genre for the first time, Sarah Dessen is a great choice.

Recent up-and-coming authors include Morgan Matson, Jenny Han, and Jennifer E. Smith. Similar to Dessen, Matson doesn’t shy away from heavy topics. Loss of a loved one (parent or friend) features heavily in her three novels. Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before duology is notable for featuring diverse characters. These books also feature a fantastic illustration of the relationship that can exist between sisters and their father in the absence of a mother in the home. Jennifer E. Smith combines beautiful writing with female protagonists who are overwhelmingly normal but who happen to experience some extraordinary things. Her characters are relatable and real.

YA Contemporary Romance is not an exclusively female genre. John Green and David Levithan are both notable writers in this genre. John Green’s books primarily feature a male protagonist. His books are a great choice for those who may find themselves feeling impatient with the typical teenage female protagonist. David Levithan often teams up with other authors to write books in this genre. While some of his books feature heterosexual couples, several of Levithan’s books feature LGBT romances (The Realm of Possibilities, Boy Meets Boy, Two Boys Kissing).

Similar to other genres such as romance, YA has been placed in a box and set aside for a very specific group of readers—one that doesn’t include self-respecting adults. Most adult readers let the age of the characters deter them from processing the overall message. What they fail to see, however, is that YA literature can be just as relatable and have as much of an emotional or intellectual impact as other adult novels. The themes that YA protagonists deal with are not exclusive to high school. Instead, they are experiences that are commonly experienced across the human race.

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