The RITA Awards. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) has a young-adult category for its annual RITA and Golden Heart awards, and this year I decided to read the four finalists. I was curious to see what the RWA honored in romantic YA literature. Disclosure: I haven't read romance novels since I was a teen, and my only experience back then was with Harlequin Romances--the slim variety near the grocery store check-out. So I'm not terribly qualified to discuss romance novels, but I do know something about YA literature.
The rules. I first looked up the policy and procedures of the RITA award.
1. "All entries must contain a central love story, and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic."
2. In addition, the YA category includes: "Novels in which young-adult life is an integral part of the plot."
Oops, I already disagree. The resolution of the romance has to be "emotionally satisfying and optimistic?" This means that romance, as the RWA defines it, must include a happily-ever-after, when in fact some of the most romantic books of all time are sad or bittersweet. What about Anna Karenina? Gone With the Wind? Love Story? I guess the RWA would classify those as "women's fiction," and not romance.
Anyway, accepting the rules as given, let's proceed.
(***Note: the following reviews assume that you've read the book.***)
The winner: Boys Like You, by Juliana Stone (Sourcebooks Fire).
I think I see why this book won. It's the most romance-novel like of the group if you follow the "central focus" and "happily ever after" criteria listed in the rules. Monroe is broken, and has had suicidal thoughts in the past, after the death of her little brother (of asthma) on her watch, when she took him to the park to play and then fell asleep. Now she's just a bit dead inside--full of regret and unable to move on. She visits her refined grandmother in Louisiana, who wants Monroe to open up to her and see joy in life again. A boy named Nate begins working at the grandmother's house, and it turns out he is also broken: he was driving drunk and was responsible for the head injury of his best friend, Trevor, who is now in a coma. Nate hates himself, knows that Trevor's family hates him, and has stopped playing music (he and Trevor were in a band together). Monroe's grandmother turns out to have a bit of a secret agenda: to get these two damaged souls to "save" each other (she uses different language...perhaps "catch," from falling). That is, in fact, what happens--Monroe and Nate teach each other how to forgive themselves. I appreciate that the two co-protagonists support each other, but in YA, in my opinion, romance and love should be separate from self-forgiveness and finding meaning in life after tragedy. This novel veers close to the message that love cures all serious problems. Trevor even comes out of his coma at the end, despite being near death with his organs failing three quarters of the way through the novel. With his recovery and Monroe and Nate's nearly marital-like commitment to each other over a 1300-mile distance (Monroe goes back home to high school in New York City), Ms. Stone has definitely got "optimistic" covered.
Run to You by Clara Kensie (Harlequin Teen).
This book was possibly the most stereotypically romance-novel-like in terms of the nuts and bolts of the writing: the love interest physically carries the heroine more than once (seriously, this is what I remember from romance novels...so much carrying, which feels oddly patriarchal and women-as-property to me); he professes his desire to "protect" her; he kisses her even though she resists; he tells other people to leave her alone, even though he won't leave when she asks. This book is technically a paranormal novel, though it reads very much like a contemporary. Tessa Carson's family has paranormal abilities (all but Tessa, they think) and they're being hunted by a Bad Guy named Dennis Connelly, who wants to kill them because (the children believe) the Carson parents exposed the corruption of important politicians. The Carsons move from city to city, changing their identities, with the three children going to successive schools but never staying long. The Carson parents are loving and protective. Tessa won't allow herself to get close to anyone until she meets Tristan, another new boy at school. This book had a deal-killer in it for me. Tessa's parents turn out to be the real Bad Guys--murdering bad guys--mid-way through the book (which is not a terrible twist in and of itself). But in the final pages, Tessa (who discovers that she can see the past by touching people and objects) finds out that her mother was sexually molested by her own father as a girl, and the grandfather was the first person her mom had killed, in what turned out to be a lifetime of extortion and ruthless, cold-hearted serial killing. I think Ms. Kensie intended to make the mom a wounded character, but in my YA world, rape shouldn't be introduced without dealing with it in the text, and it's especially disastrous to imply, whether you mean to or not, that one way to become a killer is to be raped, or that being raped makes you a killer. I thought that plot point was a deal-killer for an award, and yet, while it didn't win the YA division, Run to You won the "Best First Book" RITA.
Of the four books, this one also had the most ordinary writing:
"Without using his PK [psychokinesis], Logan opened the door and went inside without another word."
"My hand fluttered to my belly." [This happened at least ten times. She has scars on her stomach from an alleged attack by the Bad Guy when she was a child.]
"Licked my lips, swallowed." [This sentence shows up several times, and is also missing a subject.]
"He grinned, and just like that, the awkwardness between us melted like ice in the sun."
"My face became hotter than the oven."
"I glared at him for a full minute before returning to the binder." [Seriously, authors, try glaring at a clock for a full minute. It's longer than you think.]
"[Tristan] smelled of soap and masculinity."
And as mentioned, there's the "protective" boyfriend, so ubiquitous in romance novels, but always verging on creepy:
"...all I wanted to do was make that scared, sad look in your eyes go away."
"I promise, whatever it is, I'll keep you safe."
"I'll do anything for you, Tessa. Except for one thing. I. Will. Not. Leave. You."
Some Boys by Patty Blount (Sourcebooks Fire)
Well, phew, this one has the opposite message of the winner, in that the main character "saves herself," without being saved by love. In terms of the RWA rules, this book (and the last finalist, Plus One by Elizabeth Fama) doesn't quite fit the romance mold. As with many YA novels that include love stories, the romance is an integral part of the story, but the character's personal conflict or struggle is the most important part. In Some Boys, Grace has been raped by the school's golden boy, Zac, a star Lacrosse player, and her peers (even her best friends) ostracize her for what they think is her false accusation. Zac has uploaded a video of the encounter to a social media site, and in it, Grace is moaning--interpreted by all as enjoying herself. Everyone calls her a slut and bullies her. Zac and his friends try to intimidate her. The treatment she receives from her classmates is really brutal, but Grace is determined not to hide. She continues to dress provocatively-Goth, the way she has since 8th grade, and never backs down from a vocal claim that Zac raped her. It's palpable how hard this is for her to do, but with her mom's support, she continues to stand her ground. When she and Ian, Zac's close friend, are assigned to clean lockers over the break (both for bad behavior), they slowly develop a friendship. Grace begins to trust Ian, but Ian is confused by his allegiance to Zac, and what he thinks is the ambiguous nature of what happened between Grace and Zac. My only objection to the novel is how "clean" the resolution is. Ian discovers that Zac has a second video on his phone--a longer one that clearly shows that Grace is drunk and sick and saying no--and Ian is brave enough to show this second video to the authorities. Some of the power of the story is diminished by this too-handy plot device, and by Zac's violent outburst at Ian, sending him to the hospital (which in itself is enough to get him in trouble with the law). But by and large, the story is a strong one, with an admirable protagonist.
Plus One by Elizabeth Fama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers)
This book is truly "odd man out" among the four: like Some Boys, it's not primarily a romance, but it also has a seriously bittersweet (verging on sad) ending. The only person who would think this book has an "emotionally satisfying resolution" is probably me--I feel utter satisfaction with open endings and characters who don't get what they want, even after their heroic efforts; because that's life, my friends. There's hope at the end of Plus One, but it's the kind of hope that looks like loss--the kind that comes from knowing you did the right thing, and hoping the gods will reimburse you someday. In fact, it's a Casablanca, hill-of-beans ending ("I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"). Sol LeCoeur is a wounded, raw character at the beginning of the novel. She lives in a society divided into Day and Night, with mandatory curfews. She is a Night girl, and her brother has been transferred to Day. Sol doesn't want to save the world, she wants something crazier and simpler: to kidnap her brother's newborn daughter for an hour so that her grandfather can hold the baby before he dies. But Sol makes a mistake and kidnaps the wrong baby, an important baby, and accidentally drags a Day boy (the medical apprentice who treated her) on her run from the law. That's where the romance comes in--you can't get more star-crossed than a Day boy and a Night girl. But the book itself is--as its dust jacket says--"a drama of individual liberty and civil rights."
In sum. The two books I enjoyed the most in this year's slate of RITA finalists--Some Boys and Plus One--only loosely adhered to the definition of "romance" stated in the RWA rules. But it's no surprise to me that I favored those two. For me, a love story is even more swoon-worthy if the conflict, plot, characterization, setting, voice, and lyricism are all in place, too.