“So, I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you.” ― Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”
For decades, one genre of book has continuously supported the book-selling industry. Worth a staggering $1.08 billion a year and making up 23% of the fiction market in 2016, romance novels prove every year that there is a mammoth demand for happily-ever-afters.
Although such novels continue to be coined as a guilty pleasure and are rarely taken seriously in academic settings, they have a profound effect on youth learning about relationships. Thus, the more pressing issue with romance novels ought to be their undeniable issue with diversity.
One such issue with diversity in romances comes to light with regards to LGBTQ+ representation. All genres of media, but particularly romances, center largely around cis-gendered, heterosexual characters — or cishet for short.
Meanwhile, queerness is commonly treated as a commodity to boost sales and create buzz. Oftentimes, the only queer representation that non-queer people are exposed to features highly stereotyped, hypersexual, one-dimensional queer characters that either have never-ending trauma from being LGBTQ+ or are poster children for extreme carefreeness.
Rarely do we see non-cishet people get a happily ever after, and when they do have romantic success, they are often in unhealthy, abusive relationships that are the antithesis of what young people should aspire to have. Take André Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name,” a novel so successful that it was adapted into a film, becoming Sony’s third highest-grossing production of 2017.
Though often hailed as a revolutionary LGBTQ+ romance, it instead portrayed a sexual relationship between a 17-year-old and 24-year-old as consensual. It played off controlling tendencies as good-natured protectiveness. Overall, it told its millions of readers and viewers that queer youth should be so lucky to find a relationship as abusive as the one between the main love interests in “Call Me By Your Name.”
As Cheyenne Montgomery wrote in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe in 2018, “No, ‘Call Me by Your Name’ isn’t a radical, brilliant piece of art. We need to call it by its name. That name is abuse.”
Yet disappointing representations such as “Call Me By Your Name” shouldn’t dissuade readers from seeking out romance novels.
Romance media can play a large role in many queer youths’ coming out journey, inspiring confidence in youth that they one day can find a partner who accepts them for their identity. And perhaps most basically, they can also be fun page-turners that leave readers with a smile on their face and a box of used tissues.
Although there are fewer than ideal, there is still a selection of excellent young adult LGBTQ+ romance novels. In honor of Valentine’s Day as well as in honor of queer love that should be celebrated every day, here are some favorites.
For historical fiction lovers, “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo is a heart-twisting, sapphic story of first love for Lily, a Chinese American teenager living in San Francisco during the Red Scare. In the 1950s — where being a rumored communist or communist-sympathizer was enough to be fired, blacklisted, or deported — Lily ventures out with Kath.
Lily’s friend eventually becomes much more and continually risks her safety to be with Kath and explore their relationship, identities, and the town’s LGBTQ+ scene. Kath takes Lily to a lesbian bar, The Telegraph Club, and the more that Lily socializes with others who have never felt comfortable on the arm of a man, the more Lily is unsure of her future.
Proving that inclusive and impactful romance can be done and be done well, “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” has nuanced, complicated characters who are struggling with things other than their queerness. In addition to LGBTQ+ Asian American representation, Lo also portrays how Lily faces even more danger than Kath, for she is not only queer but Chinese American in a decade — and country where Chinese American communities were openly and actively persecuted.
Another fantastic YA romance with queer main characters is “I Wish You All the Best” by Mason Deaver. The highly anticipated novel follows Ben, a nonbinary teenager on the brink of adulthood, and the path they take as they learn to come to terms with their past.
When thrown out of their house post-coming out, they move in with their older, estranged sister Hannah and her husband. And so, Ben starts a new semester at a new school in a new town with a new family, and the only constant remains their debilitating anxiety and insistence on putting their head down and surviving the year unscathed.
They are soon introduced to Nathan, who intrigues Ben and forces them to lower their carefully crafted walls. As Ben starts to feel things greater than strictly friendship towards the quick-to-smile, easy-going boy who has taken Ben under his wing, Ben learns to navigate the confusing feelings of liking someone you fear you’ll never have.
An open and honest discussion of mental health, family dynamics, generational trauma, and love that blooms at times least expected, “I Wish You All the Best” is a book that alternates between inspiring tears of sadness and joy. Featuring a nonbinary main character, a diverse cast, and a plot that realistically shows the immense lows, middles, and highs of adolescence, Deaver delivers a memorable novel that everyone deserves the great joy of reading.
Finally, “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender is a modern-day book that will command your full attention and emotions to the very last page — and even for some time after. Felix, a queer, Black and transgender teenage artist in New York City, is already facing extensive discrimination at every turn he takes.
That’s all before a classmate begins anonymously cyberbullying Felix, going so far as to leak Felix’s deadname and pre-transition photos. As Felix tries to hunt down their cyberbully, they struggle with the absence of their mom, are conflicted with not always feeling as masculine as he feels he should, and are battling feelings for their best friend, Ezra.
“Felix Ever After” is a story about flawed characters whose relationships and actions drive the plot, rather than the other way around. It’s impossible to not grow attached to Felix and Ezra and their developing relationship, and perhaps even harder not to root for Felix as he continually struggles and overcomes curveballs hurled at him. Callender delivers a hard-hitting book with a diverse, at times juxtaposing, cast, with such human characters and dialogue that it’s unthinkable to not be invested in the plot.
February is the month of Cupid, pink and red glitter, and unabashed love — both romantic and platonic — that everyone should get to enjoy. Romance novels offer people of all ages and identities an escape into a world where soulmates end up with each other, shaping how healthy relationships are perceived and modeled, especially for youth.
Thus, inclusive, consensual, loving and realistic romance books have importance beyond providing giggles and blushes to middle schoolers passing around romances in English class.
They can pave the way for queer youth, who may never grow up knowing an established queer couple to examine the relationship dynamics of. To learn about all aspects of the heart: self-love, abusive love, fleeting love, unrequited love and perhaps most of all, the kind of unconditional love that shouldn’t only exist in romance novels.