Before reading this, check out Part One of this blog series.
“When I started working as a child abuse and neglect family therapist…one quick conclusion I came to was that until we are willing and able to talk openly about sex in this culture—healthy sex and sexual thought—we will never be capable of talking about sex abuse.”Chris Crutcher
What we read changes us. Changes our minds, our hearts, our viewpoints on the world. What we read as young adults impacts how we view other young adults. After all, this is a published book written by an adult who already went through it. Even if the genre is fiction, there must be some shred of truth in it, right? Some great example to follow?
Sure, we’re not all going to have hot vampire boyfriends, but the kind of relationship that develops between a Bella character and an Edward character is realistic right? We can aspire to have relationships similar to Tobias and Tris?
The answer is, not quite.
If we look at the trends of readers, you’ll see a large disparity between what they’re reading and literature that has examples of healthy relationships.
Fantasy alone accounts for 15% of the 577 Best Books for Young Adults Book list since 2000. Yet out of the fifteen books on YALSA’s list of books dealing with healthy relationships or relationship trauma, only one book could be considered Speculative Fiction.
As I recall reading Allegiant, the third book in the Divergent series, I remember scenes with lines like:
“I was so afraid that we would just keep colliding over and over again if we stayed together, and that eventually the impact would break me…I am too strong to break so easily, and I become better, sharper, every time I touch him.”
Right after fighting and worrying about losing each other — not because of their situation but because of their insecurities — the two have sex. What kind of message was that to me as a middle/high schooler? I can tell you that it didn’t teach me about being honest with my partner or asking if they were comfortable with going further physically.
“Adolescent romance in dystopia—or romance in a divided, plural world—is at the crossroads of adult authoritarianism and teenage emotional growth.”Mary Hilton
While young adults reading speculative and fantasy books will know that many of the topics are fictional, they’re still emotionally connecting to the aspects that can relate to them.
And boy, do authors take advantage of that.
How many young adults fantasy books are out there right now that DON’T have a single romantic element? I can guarantee there’s not more than 20. And in a sea of bestselling paranormal romance books, it’s easy to imagine those that don’t have romance getting swallowed whole.
But I’m not saying that fantasy should have less elements of romance or sex.
I’m saying it should have better ones.
If young adults are connecting to the only aspect they can in fantasy — the romance — then we as writers better make sure it’s the best representation of sex and romance we can give.
I’m talking about consent, honest conversations, realistic expectations, protection.
In a world of dragons and magic, these elements might feel as awkward as writing a character going to the bathroom.
But they don’t have to be.
“The first characteristic of romance…is that it contains a ‘definition of society always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform.’ To the emotional awakening which the Young Adult novel generically enacts…responds, in perhaps equal measure, a form of political awakening.”Mary Hilton
If we want to see changes in rape culture and poor middle/high school relationships, we have to examine what messages our YA books are sending. Even if these books do contain emotional manipulation or rape, are we glorifying it? Do we root for it?
This isn’t even about removing those books from our current shelves. For readers and parents of readers, it’s about knowing what’s in the book and talking about it with young adults.
Young adult fantasy novels have the power to change minds. How will they be changed?
In the next part of this mini-series, we’ll look at two books that got it right. Ashfall and Lady Midnight.
Have you read these books before?
Have you read any books with terrible or great examples of relationships? Leave a comment below.
And don’t forget to check out Part One of this blog series!
Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature from Romance to Realism. The American Library Association, 2016.
Cole, Pam B. Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century. McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Hilton, Mary, and Maria Nikolajeva. Contemporary Adolescent Literature and Culture: The Emergent Adult. Ashgate, 2012.
Roth, Veronica. Allegiant. HarperCollins Publishers 2013.
Wetta, Molly. “Booklist: Dating Violence, Consent, and Healthy Relationships in Young Adult Fiction.” American Library Association, 2016, http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2016/01/25/boo klist-dating-violence-consent-and-healthy-relationships-in-young-adult-fiction/. Accessed 15 November, 2018.