For better or worse, young adult romances shaped my notions of love . I don’t mean books that were exclusively of the romance genre, but books that contained romance. The books spanned genres, from historical to contemporary to fantasy. I got a lot of misleading ideas from all of them.
I often liked romance in YA because I felt it didn’t subsume the narrative, as it did in adult romance genre books; but nor was romantic love sidelined in favor of the deeper, darker issues that I associated with contemporary adult fiction. In this walk down memory lane, I will share my favorite young adult romances, along with my adult assessment of them.
Do not read on if you do not want them spoiled!
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Better to be victim of the elements than hang out in the village and wait to be victim of the Puritans.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a Newberry Award winner, which usually signaled boring to me, but it turns out Witch was totally fun, with tons of romance. Feisty, newly orphaned Kit from Barbados tries to fit in with the extended, Puritan family she now has to make a home with. Over the course of the book, Kit has crushes on two men and then ends up with a third, who she’d mostly been friends with in the course of the book. His name was Nat, and he would turn up once in awhile and make jokes. His humor was transmitted best by his eyes which were constantly described as some sort of iteration of “mocking” and “blue.” Also, he was a sailor, which was awesome.
Young Adult Me: Was pleasantly surprised that the book’s social messages about acceptance and antiprejudice were palatable. ( The “witch” is a fun, older, single woman who Kit befriends and the Puritans despise because they are–wrongly–prejudiced.) I also was intrigued by all of Kit’s love interest, even though Nat was clearly the best fit. Great characterization!
Adult Me: Is a little troubled/disheartened by the fact that Kit never actually was able to assimilate with the Puritans and instead had to become a world-wanderer. In terms of romance, though, I liked how most of Kit’s “drama” was played out with the wrong men, so that part of the reason Nat seemed like a good fit was that there was no more drama.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
I thought Howl’s Moving Castle was the world’s best book for a long time, and I still really enjoy it. It is very well crafted and just feels well-balanced and clean. I read this book in the library when I was nine or ten, and it was out of print, so I was unable to get a copy. And then one day my grandmother took me to a used bookstore in San Francisco, and I found it! This was like magic to me. Since then, it’s come back into print(which a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ books did with the advent of Harry Potter), and there was even a movie made out of it.
In the book, Sophie Hatter, a young girl, has a curse put on her so that she has the appearance of an old woman. Unsure to adapt her new looks to her old life, she takes refuge in the castle of Howl, a goodlooking wizard with a bad reputation.
I only could ever imagine Howl with blond hair.
But, in truth, he’s not all that evil. Sophie sets about reconstituting her life, finding a fair amount of freedom in having all expectations dropped (before the change, she was facing a future of selling hats). There are other plots, and there’s not really much overtly going on between Sophie and Howl, but, by the time, the book is done, the curse is dropped, and they’re together.
Young Adult Me: Thought Howl was a hilarious, sexy character, and it was kind of fun to just get to see him as a whole person instead of a love object through most of the book. It was like an antiromance love story. Sophie had zero love life, and her character was solid, steady, reliable–nothing that really makes her that notable (as she mildly laments), but they were qualities that began to seem more and more golden during the plot twists and when set alongside Howl’s more bombastic qualities, makes it clear they match internally…so it all works out when Sophie finally gets her externals straight!
Adult Me: Sees commonality with Howl’s Moving Castleand The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I feel like they both (more Howl) focused on developing the characters who go into these couples to the point where our realizations of them are so complete that we recognize that they belong together, even though I don’t even think they touch once before the last five pages. Though I do recall some intense gazing, the nontouch touch.
Mel by Liz Berry
Well, and then there’s Mel. I will say that the romances that seem to have lingered in my mind seem to be the “deeper” ones, but there were definitely a lot of books I was reading for more salacious reasons. Melwas probably half and half. The eponymous Mel
Not the cover of the book I read, but definitely indicative of Mel’s personality.
attends one of these mysterious art schools that I was just beginning to recognize that all “cool” people in Britain seemed to be shunted off into. Her mother goes crazy and is in the mental hospital, and Mel decides to redecorate their apartment for her return. In the mean time she has crush on one of her teacher’s, and she’s flirting with this handsome boy who works at an antiques store where she buys stuff for the apartment. And then it turns out the handsome boy is a famous rock star. There’s lots of sexual tension and then Mel seems to exchange her virginity for a desk? Sort of . . .
Young Adult Me: Was pretty into the idea of a cute, rich rock star rescuing me and taking me out to fabulous parties and like all the physical action. I also was charmed by Mel’s interior decoration escapades.
Adult Me: Is embarrassed by my transparent Cinderella fantasies and finds something creepy about the whole book. The one thing that really still seems remarkable to me is how bluntly the book took on certain social issues like welfare, interracial relationships, mental health. I also think Mitch (the rock star) holds up well. He was a nice guy, and he did deliver the desk.
The Unsinkable Molly Malone
The Unsinkable Molly Malone and Mel are entwined in my mind. Girls with first names that begin with M. Girls with artistic aspirations. Molly Malone lives in New York and sells her creations (collages made up of NYC ephemera) outside the Met. The Met was a semiregular field trip for me, so I connected to that and in fact, I can no longer go outside the Met without scrutinizing the artists selling their wares and thinking about Molly. I think Molly’s mother was also a bit of a wild bohemian, and I remember being puzzled by that. Like, she does what? (Gives music lessons and cleans.) And they live in a what? (Apartment?) Anyway Molly starts dating the son of a housekeeper she’s friends with, Ron, and he’s so impressed by her and her art. Also, as with Mel Mel, there’s an older man in the background who has known and supported Molly as a friend for a long time, but who, it seems, has romantic feelings for toward Molly. (In Mel the old man is Kevin or maybe Ken?) In Molly Malone, it’s Leonard. Leonard does the gold or silver moving statue busking trick, which disqualified him immediately in my mind as a love interest. In a shocking twist, Molly, who has several awesome romantic encounters with Ron at cool New York places (I still think of Molly when near the Central Park zoo, too), discovers that Ron is actually the son of the housekeeper’s employers.
Horrible revelation for the budding radical/artist, though I thought it was cool!
Tiny cover, a play on a painting in the Met that Molly loves. Later one of my clients depicted the same painting in her graphic novel!
Young Adult Me: Didn’t see a problem with being lied to if the person who did it was handsome and rich. Never felt I could quite connect to the book because I was used to heroines being from places they wanted to escape and Molly seemed to revel in New York. It was like that commercial on TV I saw for the Miltford Plaza where all the maids and bell hops at a hotel were singing, and dancing instead of walking.
Adult Me: Still embarrassed by the transparent Cinderella fantasies, but heartened by the interest in visual arts. In hindsight, Molly’s emotions and actions seemed more appropriate for a twentysomething artist than a teenager.
The Road To Damietta by Scott O’Dell
The Road to Damietta is the second book on this list that reminds me of Gone With the Wind–while writing about The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I realized there was some overlap there as well. I think there is some archetypal thing where we’re all torn between Ashleys and Rhetts.
I guess in coming up with this list, I tried to keep it eclectic, and stretch the bounds of romance a little. Well, this title definitely does. The Road to Damietta contained none of my usual requirements for a satisfying romance. Most awfully, there is no happy ending in Damietta (same with Wind.)
This cover is sort of like Ricca’s fantasy of what was going on. Francis only ever noticed her if she’d pretend to be on the brink of being saved.
Ricca is a rich girl in love with Francis. They live in medieval Italy. Then Francis turns around and becomes a saint (the future Saint Francis of Assisi). Well, he’s not a saint yet, but he’s doing all these saintly things. Keep in mind Ricca first liked him when he was a total decadent. Ricca is still determined to make him love her and does a lot of embarrassing things. I think one scene you can never quite get out of your mind if you read this book is the scene where Francis makes a big deal of not being associated with his father’s ill-gotten wealth and disrobes in public, and then Ricca takes off her clothes, too. This is one of many steps Ricca takes in her attempt to “seal the deal.” Meanwhile her friend Clare joins up with Francis and becomes a nun, following his spiritual path, and I remember Ricca is constantly implying that this is just Clare doing this to win Francis, #projection. There’s also the Rhett Butler like figure, Ricca’s Arab tutor, who I think offers her some support in her shenanigans mostly so he can be around her. I guess he’s another older, heavily implied better match for the heroine, but this older background man I actually liked and wanted her to end up with. He kept showing her how to work a telescope I recall, and I think he was also heavily involved in Ricca’s awesome calligraphy hobby. I think she tried to spin that into a way to capture Francis, too. I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but I think Ricca was one of a slew of historical fiction heroines who tried to use the Song of Solomon to get some action.
Young Adult Me: Was impressed by Ricca’s boldness and admired, although did not understand, Francis’ intense religion devotion. I was also really into how Ricca got to gallivant across the world in pursuit of Francis and was fascinated by her penchant for calligraphy.
Adult me: I saved this book for last, because I thought we could end on a transcendental note. Francis set the bar high for Ricca and for all of us, and we can’t necessarily follow in his or Clare’s footsteps, but at the very least we can pull a Ricca and have a few, fleeting moments of clarity as we ruthlessly follow our self-interests.