My daughter made her own valentines this year. I offered to buy her a box of valentines for her class, the kind she’s distributed ever since she was in preschool, but she refused.
“I’m going to write, “To Whoever, Happy Valentine’s Day, From Me”, she stated, cutting out a passable heart shape from her stash of construction paper. Apparently I am a hopeless helicopter parent, because I was unable to resist making helpful suggestions, like, “Don’t you want to put, like, a car sticker on it, and write something funny like, “VROOM! Be My Valentine?”
“NO.” She shot me a disgusted look. “THAT’S why I don’t want the box ones, because they ALL say things like that. And I don’t want to give valentines to the BOYS that say BE MY VALENTINE and anything funny. I just want to say HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY and that’s IT.”
Ahh, right. The boys. Heaven forefend she should give them the idea she actually likes them. For now, the opposite sex pretty much has cooties for her and her classmates, and she blows off the idea of love and romance—for herself, anyway. “I’m not going to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend,” she’s been known to declare.
Whether or not my own daughter changes her mind about that, chances are that in the next six or seven years, most of her classmates will. And the books in the Teen sections of libraries and bookstores will have books aplenty to reflect their interests. When I was a teenager, “Young Adult Fiction” pretty much meant formulaic romance novels of one kind or another—blissful romance, or problematic romance. These days, the selection is much more varied, but are still plenty of stories of first love. Many of them, though, are anything but formulaic.
Take Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr. In elementary school, Cameron was Jennifer’s best friend—actually, he was her only friend. They were picked-on outsiders together. And they shared a secret about Cameron’s family that shamed them both. Then Cameron disappeared, and never wrote. Certain he’d died, Jennifer grieved alone, and then reinvented herself: by the time she was sixteen, she’d become popular, successful, cheerful Jenna. And that’s when Cameron came back. Sweethearts is a love story, but not a romance; I read it in one sitting last week and it has stayed with me, just under my skin, for days.
A few more first-love tales that turn teen romance convention on its ear:
I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell. Taut, suspenseful noir meets
coming-of-age story in a rundown Palm
Debbie Harry Sings in French, by Meagan Brothers. Sometimes people are complicated, and not so easily labeled. Johnny’s not sure what it means that he seems to want to dress like Debbie Harry, but it doesn’t seem to bother his new girlfriend.
Paper Towns, by John Green. Can one person ever really know another? Quentin has adored Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were kids. But her disappearance sets him off on a quest rife with derring-do, mishap, and uncomfortable revelations.
None of these titles are for young kids. But they’re all thoughtful, layered explorations of the complex feelings behind that phenomenon we call romantic love. I hope that when my daughter’s old enough to experience some of those complex feelings first-hand (and probably not telling me about it, if I know my kid), she’ll have literary companions like the ones in these books, and in these other young adult books about love and friendship, to help her know that she’s not alone, and give her a wider view.