This quarter, I am taking a class with the title “Resources for Digital Age Teens.” Among other things, this class has required me to read more young adult literature in the past couple of weeks than I have in a very long time.
I have to say: a lot of YA literature really focuses on romance.
Romance, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It can be a normal part of life, and is interesting to explore in its infinite variations. But, YA lit seems to focus on romantic relationships in a specific, tropey way that is easily identifiable just from a quick browse of book jacket blurbs. The protagonist of a YA book rarely goes on any kind of adventure – whether it’s one to save the world, unravel a mystery, or discover their identity – without meeting some cute person and falling in love.
This is a trope because it happens so often; and moreover, it is expected to happen in a narrow, prescriptive way. It is the latter part that I find most frustrating, because of how the seeming inevitability of a romantic relationship in YA literature leaves less room for other types of relationships, or the possibility that romantic and sexual attraction may not be on the table at all.
As with several of my articles, I’m writing this from a rather personal place. But, unlike my racial and ethnic identity, which I have had decades to reflect on and learn to articulate, I find it more difficult to discuss my sexuality. It’s not that it’s a secret; I just choose not to talk about it. Yet, I feel that it would be disingenuous not to identify myself as asexual, and to acknowledge that that is a large part of the reason that I picked up on – and quickly became exasperated by – the oversaturation of romance tropes in YA literature.
(For those of you unfamiliar with asexuality, I will redirect you to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) website, which will give better definitions than I ever could, and is just a good resource in general. Also, I will be using the terms “asexual” or “ace” generally; but I want to note that the asexual spectrum contains a multitude of identities, which are woefully underexplored in mainstream media.)
It’s not that I don’t feel any sympathy towards teens who are looking for romance in YA literature. I do, on an uncomfortably visceral level that resonates from my middle school years, when I was always self-conscious and looking for validation. So much of mainstream media prioritizes romantic relationships above all other connections, to the point that it seems like we are all only living our lives in search of our other half, the person who will finally complete our existence. YA literature often sends the same message, where close relationships with friends and family (whether blood or found) are rarely seen as equal to romantic ones.
The implication of this overemphasis on romantic relationships is the unspoken message that if you do not have a romantic connection, you are somehow incomplete. Abnormal. Undesirable. Even more so, if you do not want that romantic connection in the first place, or perhaps do not want it to lead to sex – not because you are not ready or feel uncomfortable, but because there is no motivating attraction to begin with.
This dynamic is further complicated when you also do not see people who look and act like you represented as desirable romantic leads. Part of my confusion around romantic attraction was that I rarely saw Asian people portrayed as desirable, outside of the usual fetishization. It wasn’t just that I didn’t understand romance as it was portrayed in YA; I didn’t even feel like I was part of the conversation. It was difficult to separate being asexual from simply feeling sidelined and invisible, but they are two vastly different things. The first is an identity that one feels within; the other is imposed by external forces.
I write this because the “A” in LGBTQIA+ is often forgotten. Whenever Pride book lists go up, I scan them for ace reads and, more often than not, come up short. It is not necessarily the listmakers’ fault – there is very little literature in general, let alone YA, that focuses on ace protagonists. When the market proves that there is a paying audience that wants to read about dizzying kisses and tense love triangles, there isn’t much room for narratives that step outside of that, or reject it altogether. We like to say that YA has come a long way in the past few years – and in many ways, it has – but in this respect, it still remains surprisingly narrow.
But, I think it is necessary to show teens that there are ways of being important to the other people in your life that do not rely on romantic attraction, and that these relationships are not just placeholders for the superior romantic connection that hangs on the horizon. This type of relationship hierarchy can lead to teens feeling alien and unknowable if they do not conform to it; and overvaluing romantic relationships can come at the cost of other relationships that are just as important to creating a strong support system.
So I’d like to urge any librarians that will work with teens and children in the future: seek out YA literature that depicts the importance of platonic relationships. Look for books that celebrate ace protagonists and decentralize allosexuality. I would suggest two of my favorites: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman and His Quiet Agent by Ada Maria Soto, two rather different books that have the common themes of caring for the ones we love. Other than that, this list is a great place to start, and I hope to see many more in the future.
Two books that helped motivate me to write this article and shaped my thinking are Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen, and All About Love by bell hooks. Neither are categorized as YA and the second book is not specifically about asexuality, but I encourage everyone to read them both.