Every active reader and writer of Young Adult varieties can recall the cold age of the sparkling vampire romance years from not so long ago. Remember? When everyone was hyperventilating to Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner’s roles as heartthrob creatures that both vied for one mortal woman (who had no extraordinary personality, traits, talents, or facial expressions due to the portrayal of Kristen Stewart’s painfully blank face)? Now don’t worry, I am no hypocrite; I, too, read the Twilight series but after the movies came out, I immediately shirked my label as a “Twi-hard.” The films completely skewered my liking for the franchise with just the first installment; I had enjoyed the books for the interpersonal thoughts of Bella and her in-depth conversations with the mysterious Edward, which were both completely ripped out due to a director who obviously just wanted to showcase this dire love-triangle that sent every hormonal teenager into heat.
As I grew older, several things about the series bothered me; vampires don’t sparkle (hell I’m okay with the whole ‘the sun cannot burn us’ but sparkly? Really?!), Bella’s lack of any dynamic characteristics yet somehow she manages to attract every guy in the school and dislikes them without any justification, and a bunch of immortal vampires who decide to spend their immortal lives at a freaking high school. Of course, the list goes on, but I will say that through conversations with my English professors through the university years, it can be agreed the books are entertaining but leave little to any scholarly desire. The ultimate lesson/moral of the story is about love and nothing else but love, dying for love, risking it all for love, loving someone despite everyone in your life telling you how it’s not a good idea, blah blah blah.
Not long after the Twilight series took off, every series in the YA section was about love, eternal and immortal heated passion that burned between two adolescents (one of whom is almost always a paranormal creature pained between eating their loved one as brunch or loving them despite the dangers they will inflict upon them). Even the aisle labels above the YA books read: “Paranormal Romance.”
Thank the gods of literature and storytelling the fad has cooled and collected dust, or at least the publishers seem to have grown weary of publishing the same story scheme and needed a little more meat to the inadequate bones of the weak storyline. You can still find romance in popular YA books nowadays but there has to be something much more than two lovesick kids (who obviously have not dated around enough before pledging their life and heart away to the first vampire/werewolf to cross their path).
A rising theme I’ve noticed are books where the characters are bent on overthrowing a government, capitalist society, or kingdom. Usually the protagonist is a wayward underling who gets flung into the rebellion mix through unusual circumstances and becomes the heart center of the rebellious uprising. Yes, there are romantic relationships generally involved; a childhood friend, a surprising ally, perhaps an enemy that is proven misunderstood. However, the trick to making sure your story’s romance factor hasn’t overtaken the heartier pieces of the story’s central theme is to do a simple trick:
Take out the romance and what do you have?
Say The Hunger Games for instance. Yes, there’s a small love triangle (I say small because our heroine, Katniss, makes it clear over and over she’s not truly a romantic because her whole life has been about surviving poverty and hunger while protecting her young sister and mentally displaced mother, not finding a boyfriend) but if you remove said love interests, Peeta and Gale, you still have a healthy and well-founded story (a young woman volunteers to take her sister’s place in a fight-to-the-death reality show).
Now if you remove the love story from a few of the mainstream paranormal romances (I’ll quit picking on Twilight for a moment because the same thing here can be said of literally hundreds of the genre books) you really just have a morose or angsty wayward girl who finds herself on the outskirts of social groups at her (almost always new) school/town. There’s little else to her story besides perhaps cold relationships with parents who seem very absent throughout the stories without good reason or strained relationships for unexplained reasons. I read somewhere (can’t find the proper source, I’m afraid) that Suzanne Collins even meant to name her characters so they could not be “shipped” as easily (if you tried with Katniss and Peeta, you get get either Peenis or Katpiss or an awkward combination of Katta or Peekat).
I’m not saying that love can’t exist or isn’t an important factor for characters or their relationships, however I believe it’s become more of an understanding in today’s young culture that the “traumatic matter” of true love isn’t the only important theme we could be reading about. It can still lead to important matters young adults should be aware of (if you’ve ever read Judy Blume, you know her books always have a love factor but the stories always pertain to a higher issue such as young adults first encountering sexual pressures and safe sex education) but after so long, the sickly sweetness of “I’d die for him” or “In the first moment my eyes laid on her, I knew she’d be mine forever” weighs heavier than a pound of V-Day chocolate in your gut. At first, yes, enticing, but after a few heart-shaped boxes, you’re ready to purge and find something more savory and probably healthier.
But fads do come and go. Right now, the bookshelves are filled with stories of kingdoms rising and falling and mortal women/men are still enticed and enthralled by immortal men/women but at least there’s an overall purpose they work towards (winning a war, saving a race from otherworldly genocide, defeating a common enemy).
My recent fantasy read has been the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas, a brilliant fantasy author. Yes, love is a major theme to this series but one of Maas’ talents is weaving magical worlds filled with dangers that lurk close by wearing false masks and enamoring yet hungry smiles. Love is not the only risk for the characters’ but their survival, along with kingdoms that are threatened by evil and dark forces threatening to wipe out everything good. Wars are waged and fought, blood is shed and lives are won or lost. I’ve read all but the most recently published work, A Court of Frost and Starlight (which is painfully much thinner than its predecessors), and I fell in love with the heroine, Feyre, a fierce and determined woman who finds herself not pulled but thrown into the deadly world of Fae creatures in order to keep her family safe. Maas’ imagery is lively and lush with intoxicating allure that can only be experienced by the reader themselves (though I wasn’t too keen on her repetitive use of “her bowels turned watery” in the first installment, which someone must have mentioned to her because I haven’t seen its use at all in the next two installments…no really, she used it a LOT and I thought “Jeez, the situation is dire but I wish she’d just crap herself and get it over with”). It’s dark and unpredictable, and trust me, without the love aspect of it, it’s still an amazing read.
Do you agree with this stance or not? Trust me, I am open for discussion about the state of YA reading culture of today. Where do you think (as a reader or writer) the culture is headed? After a long time block of fantasy, I feel that the authors on the rise are of the realistic fiction category (i.e. John Green, Angie Thomas, Nicola Yoon, Sherman Alexie, etc.) I could be wrong. During a class lecture with a published author, I had asked her how writers know what will be the next trending theme, in order to write something appealing for the market, and she answered, “You really never will know. That’s why it’s important to write what you love to write and make it amazing, for when your time does come. Even if you feel you missed out, you never know when the genre will circle back to what used to be popular so many years before.”
I agree but…maybe no more sparkly vamps and shirtless Magic Mike-show boy werewolves?