February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tween-Friendly Romance Titles | The Upper Deck

As tweens become teens, and emotionally and physically mature, the exploration and pursuit of romantic relationships play a central role in the formation of personal identity. Talking to teen patrons, one gets a sense of the pervasive myth that “everyone is doing it.” But in reality, according to a Pew research report (Teens, Technology, and Romantic Relationships, 2015), only 35 percent of American teens report having participated in a romantic relationship!

Ideally, depictions of romance in young adult literature should reflect the relative lack of experience among the general population. However, it is often difficult to recommend books that depict budding romantic relationships without crossing the line into overly mature or explicit content. Many young people find it challenging to put their developing awareness of interpersonal relationships into words, and readers’ advisory can provide the opportunity to test and explore emotions and impulses from a safe distance. And the ability to test the waters of young romance without going in too deep can be developmentally beneficial as well as attention-grabbing for even the most reluctant readers.

So where do we find these sorts of books, you ask? It takes a little digging, but there are some truly excellent new novels that fit the bill. The common thread of burgeoning romance runs through everything from realistic fiction to magical realism to fantasy, relying on narrators who give voice to the urgency, confusion, humor, and awkwardness that we experience at the border of childhood and adulthood. Here are three great new novels for tweens and teens that have substance as well as just a bit of sizzle.

For readers of realistic fiction, Melissa de la Cruz’s Something in Between is a nuanced take on a reality facing many young adults in our country—dealing with undocumented citizenship status. The narrator, Jasmine, has lived in California with her family after moving from the Philippines as a young girl. Whatsomething-in-between-645x975 starts as amazing news—that she has won a prestigious presidential full-ride scholarship—turns to nightmare as Jasmine discovers that her parents have kept their undocumented status hidden. Realizing that all her hard work and academic focus might not be enough to achieve her dream of college, Jasmine sees that she has been missing out on life experiences because of her single-minded pursuit of excellence. Enter Royce, the cute boy who asks for her number at the hospital where she volunteers. Although Jasmine’s meet-cute with Royce, and the coincidence that he happens to be the son of the Senate majority leader, might seem a little contrived, their relationship is anything but. De la Cruz has created a funny, irreverent, genuine voice in Jasmine, and the ups and downs of this first love have a rare sense of authenticity that makes the relationship stand out from the droves of clichéd tales of star-crossed teens. Royce is just as fully developed a character as Jasmine, and he transcends the role of teen prince charming by displaying vulnerability and flaws that serve to make the romance all the more believable. This novel depicts teens who transcend their hormones enough to realize that they aren’t ready to be intimate, while avoiding sounding like a PSA or religious propaganda.

In Heidi Heilig’s The Girl from Everywhere, the fantasy genre heightens the experiences of coming of girl-from-everywhereage, forging identity, and crossing the boundaries of friendship and romance. Nixie’s father is the captain of a boat that sails across time, space, and fantasy worlds. As the captain’s navigator, Nixie is relegated to the role of his sidekick in the harrowing search for a map to lead them back to Nixie’s mother. Nixie wants to be captain of her own fate, instead of an instrument in her father’s relentless mission, but she doesn’t yet possess the knowledge to navigate for herself. Kashmir is one of the shipmates who came aboard, and becomes Nixie’s best friend, champion, and protector. The relationship with Kashmir is somewhere beyond simple friendship, but it hovers on the precipice of something more because of a mutual fear of losing what they already have. As the adventurous plot unfolds, Nixie begins to overcome her fear of change and the couple start to acknowledge their feelings for each other. Heilig does a marvelous job of portraying Nixie and Kashmir’s mutual, unspoken affection through actions rather than words.

Finally, in Carol Lynch Williams’s Messenger, Evie Messenger has just turned 15, and her life is suddenly much more complicated. Along with coping with the ordinary concerns of a teenager growing up in small-town Florida, Evie must also contend with her family “gift,” which is set to appear in her 15th year. The casual inclusion of the supernatural is in keeping with the laid-back attitude of the characters. The magical gift that Evie receives is slow to emerge,messenger and when it does, it complicates the burgeoning romance between her and her new neighbor, Buddy. Although Evie’s gift turns out to be seeing dead people, this is far from a scary story. Rather, the supernatural elements seem more like a metaphor for the way that people are forced to confront tragedy and find ways to move on and acknowledge and honor their loss. Those in new relationships must first overcome the experiences of the past, and in this case, the ghost of a former love is quite literally coming between Evie and Buddy, as the specter of Buddy’s first love, Tommie, tries to communicate with Evie and dissuade her from pursuing her relationship. The paranormal elements are deftly integrated; the protagonist’s voice is authentic, and the Southern community—in which ghosts are just a natural part of life—makes the fantastical parts believable. Evie’s reactions are unstudied and genuine, and her ironic sense of humor makes this a funny as well as heartfelt and poignant read.

These novels will appeal to fans of the individual fantasy and realistic fiction genres. Something in Between will be well suited to readers who enjoy Stephanie Perkins, John Green, and Rainbow Rowell. Messenger will appeal especially to fans of supernatural dramas, such as Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, and nuanced portrayals of loss and redemption, such as Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere. And be sure to recommend The Girl From Everywhere to fans of Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Rowell.

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Tara Kron About Tara Kron

Tara Kron has an MLIS from the Pratt Institute. She currently resides in Denver, CO, and works at the Aurora Public Library.

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