Did I get your attention?
A tiny, yet powerful, three letter word that can invoke a powerful onslaught of feelings in both adults and young adults. There isn’t a romance book written that doesn’t involve some form of sexual interaction. And I thank those authors everytime I read one. But it’s not just adult romances.; young adult romances is a huge genre all its own. YA romances exploring teenage dating and sexual awakening isn’t a recent trend—Judy Blume published her controversial Forever back in 1975. Forever weaves a magical, yet pragmatic, tale that explores the joys and pitfalls of falling in love for the first time and the sexual awareness that comes with it. I first read Forever when I was 13-14 yrs old. I loved it. Sexually explicit during a time when such books were not being written for my age, Forever allowed me to get answers to questions I didn’t want to ask. Forever follows high school seniors Katherine and Michael from first meeting to break up. We watch them meet, fall in love, begin a sexual relationship, and eventually drift away from each other. It offered me and others (at the time) a realistic look at a teenage sexual relationship without placing any blame or judgement on either party.
Another oldie is Up In Seth’s Room by Norma Fox Mazer. Fifteen year old Finn rebels against her family and friends by dating a much older boy who’s far more sexually experienced then she is. When he starts to pressure her for sex, Finn feels that her parents and friends might be right about him. All he wants is sex from her. As Finn begins to explore the definitions and consequences of sex, she and Sean will have to decide exactly what sex means to each of them and their relationship. Written in 1979, it heavily emphasizes the different standards that boys and girls were held to regarding their sexualty. Good girls stayed virgins till marriage and boys could mess around as much as they wanted to. As Sean frequently points out to Finn, “that’s just how boys are.”
When asked the appeal of such books, I can’t help but think we all remember our first love and and those overwhelming feelings that came with it. That warm fluttery feeling when you see your crush. The excitement when you realize they are crushing on you back. The confusion of wanting something, but not quite able to figure out what it is you want. Your concerns about sex; when to have it, should you have, what to expect, and so on.
My first love was a beautiful senior who was a sports star at my high school. I was thrilled and scared that the boy everyone wanted...wanted me. I was a freshman at the time, only fourteen, and unbelievably naive. Alas, he dumped me after a few months because I wasn’t ready to give up what he wanted. At first, my heart was broken. Imagine the movie Lucas, except the freshman dorky girl doesn’t get the happy ending. I sometimes think back and wonder what would have happened had I not trusted my feelings and did what he wanted. Luckily, I had an amazing older group of friends who went out of their way to reassure me that not wanting to rush into something that important was okay. I recovered from my first love and went on to date, fall in and out love numerous times, and eventually marry. But I never forgot him. To this day I can still recall the feeling of our first kiss.
Sarah Dessen and Jennifer Echols are two well known authors whose YA books deal with matters of consequence to young adults. In each of their stories, the characters worry about their home life, social lives, romances, friendships, life, and death. They tackle heavy subjects such as abuse, bullying, sex, drugs, and suicide. They live and respond to situations with a realistic adolescent intensity. The appeal is that they are ordinary people who live through situations that are familiar to us. The dialogue and development of the characters is enticing because we recognize a part of ourselves in them.
Sexual awakening is a wide encompassing genre that many YA authors address with reality and dignity. In Charlotte Stein’s Sheltered, we get the classic trope of good girl meets bad boy. Evie is a sheltered young lady being abused by her father. When she meets bad boy Van, she finds solace and eventually love in the arms of her complete opposite. Ms. Stein does a wonderful job of awakening Evie’s sexuality and showing her that life is so much more than fear and pain. Van, her hero, is an enticing mix of boldness and vulnerability. A lovely HEA left me wanting to read more about their life and what happens next.
“What can I give you? I—“
”You give me everything.”
Simone Elkele’s Perfect Chemistry trilogy also follows the good girl, bad boy trope. Each book follows one of three brothers who each struggle with dating their social opposite as they fight against social prejudices and family obligations. Issues of sex, drugs, and gangs are addressed. Well written with engaging characters and realistic situations, these characters appeal to you in the sense that sexual congress does not make having a relationship easier and the path to love and forgiveness often requires sacrifice on all our parts.
Kody Keplinger takes an amusing approach to teen romance and sex with Shut Out. A modern Lysistrata, our heroine Lissa and her girlfriends decide to teach their boyfriends a lesson when the school football/soccer rivalry reaches epic proportions. Enacting a “Hook Up” strike, sex becomes a bartering tool that forces Lissa and her girl friends to explore their sexuality, the pressures to have sex, and their own prejudices against those who choose to have sex and those who don’t.
“...I felt like I had nothing. Nothing but my body. It’s the one thing I can control. For me, sex is my way of taking control of my body. I’m in charge.”
Good Girls Gone Bad by Laura Ruby tells the story of a “good girl” who is caught on camera in a compromising sexual position with a fellow student and the picture goes viral. As Audrey’s reputation is shredded, she has to make the decision to either accept her new bad girl rep or show her friends and family that she’s the same girl, but is choosing her own path. Ms. Rudy does a wonderful job of breaking through the social stereotyping of good girls, bad girls and examining the consequences of your decisions. Audrey’s voice and thoughts are dead on as she deals with the gossip and condemnation from her friends and family.
“Our moon is the same moon, our sun is the same sun, and the stars will sparkle for us no matter who or where or what we are— not sluts, not players, just people.”
Sexual awakening and teen love in YA isn’t just available from the female POV. I Know It’s Over by C.K. Kelly Martin is from a young man’s POV as he struggles to understand and cope with his feelings for a pregnant ex-girlfriend, his parent’s divorce, and his own sexuality. Heartbreaking in its revelations, we are given an intimate view to the realities of sex and teen pregnancy. Another exceptional book told from a male POV is The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Written in the form of letters to an unknown person, our protagonist Charlie explores and agonizes over dating, sex, drugs, and finding the perfect song. A wonderful coming of age story that is both uplifting and devastating.
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
I have barely scratched the surface of what is available in teen romance—which authors do you think handle teen dating and sexual awakening the best?