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At least they aren’t reading romance

I have lots of conversations with teachers and teachers-in-training about what adolescents can, do, and should read. I don’t mind talking about what they can read or what they do read, but I get nervous when people start declaring what they should read, especially on their own time outside the curriculum.

Recently, in a class discussion, the topic of reading diet came up, and someone commented that she wanted students to read and didn’t really care what they read. A fairly heated discussion ensued. The general consensus seemed to be that the group would be okay if students read pretty much anything but romance.

I get it — there are awful and formulaic books out there that people think of when they think about romance, but I can’t help but think of the wonderful and true romantic stories that the YA world offers today’s teens. I think of Tyrell navigating new and old romantic relationships in Bronxwood or Sarah Dessen’s stories of ordinary life and new relationships. I think of Benjamin and Dante and their subtle discovery of the universe, Eleanor and Park and their journey toward each other a millimeter at a time, or of course, Augustus and Hazel and their “little infinity.”

I always wonder why these subjects don’t seem to get the same reaction and respect from my own students as other stories, like brutal murder games for dystopian teens (and even Katniss gets her own love triangle). I mean, don’t get me wrong — I love those dystopias and other books that feature violence as a part of their storytelling. They raise important issues about culture and society and all that.

But falling in love (or like or attraction or even dislike) is an important part of adolescence, and I’d hate to send students messages that these topics aren’t worthy of exploration in the same way that other emotions and experiences are. So I suppose I am open to romance, and I don’t have a negative reaction when the adolescents I work with read these books. I don’t even think, “at least they are reading something,” like I’ve heard so many others say. I think they are reading about a part of life and trying to figure it out, and I think that is important in its own way.

Editor’s note: For more great YA romances, read “What Makes a Good YA Love Story” by Katrina Hedeen and Rachel Smith, from the May/June 2013 Horn Book Magazine.

Christina Dobbs About Christina Dobbs

Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.



  1. But aren’t the objections to romance of the Harlequin sort? Is anyone objecting to teens reading Dessen or Green or Rowell? To be clear, I wouldn’t object to teens reading the former titles. In fact I readily admit to raiding my great-grandmother’s shelves as a young teen for some real bodice-rippers (Memé said they were good for her blood pressure) and my mom’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. Great literature? Umm, no. Problematic ideologies? Probably. But I’m grateful the adults in my life gave me free reign to read to my own heart’s desire.

  2. When I was fourteen, my summer camp group read aloud two Harlequins around the campfire at night during a week-long canoe trip. One of the happiest memories of my childhood/adolescence. I admit I’m bewildered by how many of my peers are really loving romance novels these days–I can’t get through them anymore–but they’d probably feel the same about some genre or subject I read. I agree, I doubt anyone is objecting to romantic books, hello Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Edith Wharton, whomever–I think “romance” is shorthand for Harlequin and similar. These books get objections from both sides–the very conservative for stirring up romantic feelings in teenagers (as if!), or, in some cases, depicting relationships they see as inappropriate (though I read that Harlequin itself when through a shift a few years ago and no longer includes premarital sex), while some liberal parents/teachers/librarians object to objectification, non-feminist ideology, etc. My summer camp was about as feminist as it gets, and we had a great time laughing and discussing the gender roles in the books.

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