This season, several authors are making the leap from crafting complicated romances for adults to equally nuanced YA romances. While capturing the essence of a new generation coming of age and falling in love, debut authors in the YA space shared how their experience as adult romance writers translated into depicting young love.
At the center of many current YA novels are the teens of Gen Z, a generation notable for its tech savviness, social acceptance, and political outspokenness. To capture the unique struggles of teens today, authors noted how today’s societal and cultural climate differs from generations past.
Mazey Eddings, author of the forthcoming adult title The Plus One (St. Martin's Griffin, Aug.) cited the ways that societal conditions shape how young people consider their futures in her debut YA romance. In Tilly in Technicolor (Wednesday), a neurodivergent teen begins an internship that takes her across the globe. Tilly isn’t sure what she wants to do with the rest of her life and falls for Oliver, another neurodivergent teen, whose own plans are thrown off course due to their blossoming relationship.
“Gen Z is being told they have to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debts to get advanced degrees for even the hope of getting a low-paying job that barely covers their rent, let alone provides disposable income to actually go out and live,” Eddings told PW. “There’s so much pressure on young people today, and I wanted to acknowledge that while also trying to subvert that expectation.”
When Talia Hibbert (the Brown Sisters trilogy, Avon) turned to the teens in her own life to learn about what it’s like to be young and queer today, like Brad the protagonist in her YA debut Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute (Joy Revolution, Jan.), she was “mind-blown” at how accepting the Gen Z community is. In the novel, Celine and her former best friend Brad attempt to reconcile over the course of an outdoor internship program. Brad is a Black bisexual teen, and his sexual orientation has little influence on the way his friends, peers, and love interest perceive him.
“I had to ask the kids I knew, what would that situation be [like]? What did you witness when it comes to queer kids at school?” Hibbert said. “The answer I got really surprised me in that homophobia of course still exists, but they were very much like, yeah, there are queer kids at school, obviously.”
In Alisha Rai’s (Partners in Crime, Avon) YA debut, While You Were Dreaming (Quill Tree, Mar.), first-generation cosplayer Sonia attempts to hide her identity after a video goes viral to avoid drawing attention to herself and her undocumented family members. Rai realized she was “basically the mom” when considering where she fit into the story, and how that age gap could affect the way she portrayed Sonia’s experience.
“I’m a first-generation American, but the struggles that I went through are very different from the struggles of first-generation immigrants today.” Rai said. “I really wanted to make sure that I was being true to what is realistic today and not necessarily exactly what my experience was.”
And yet, even with Gen Z’s unique perspective and challenges, certain aspects of the coming-of-age experience can be “somewhat universal” regardless of the time period, according to Rebekah Weatherspoon, author of the YA romance Her Good Side (Razorbill, May).
“You’re at that age where you still want to be babied and taken care of, but you also want your independence,” Weatherspoon said. “You’re figuring out who you are. You’re going through the worst parts of puberty, where your body is just betraying you. But you also want to grow up. I feel like that’s always relatable.”
Some Things Never Change
While writing romance for young adults has some obvious shifts from adult content, remaining true to storytelling styles and maintaining truths about love that spans across ages was a priority for these first-time YA authors.
In Her Good Side (Razorbill), Weatherspoon (the Cowboys of California trilogy) strives to give their protagonist Bethany plenty of TLC, as they do with any of their adult romance leads. Bethany, a plus-size Black teen navigates blossoming feelings while “practice dating” her best friend’s ex-boyfriend Jacob. Throughout the novel, Bethany can fall back on the support of her friends, family, and her love interest Jacob.
“When we [my editor and I] talked about this, it was mostly having a Black heroine who is supported, needs to feel seen, needs to feel loved and appreciated,” Weatherspoon said. “A throughline in my adult stuff is two people who meet and then really decide to take care of each other. In all my books the characters really try to talk to each other a lot.”
For Eddings, letting her female protagonists “push against expectations of who they are supposed to be as adults” is a core theme to all her books. “While Tilly’s age sets her apart from my adult leads, I didn’t approach her much differently than I do any character,” Eddings said. “Her age doesn’t impact her desires to have human connection. I think, when it’s all said and done, that’s what any character—any person—is searching for.”
For Hibbert, the “dark, internal” feelings that characters face in her adult novels weren’t something to shy away when writing for teens. Her protagonist Celine navigates feelings of abandonment from an absent father, and Brad manages OCD, difficult subjects that Hibbert believes young readers are capable of handling.
“I think sometimes there’s a misconception that if you’re a kid, ‘Oh, how bad can your problems be,’ but they can be just as bad. Unfortunately, life doesn’t discriminate based on age.”
All the Feels
Thinking back on the sensations of early romantic relationships, the word that came up often for the authors was “butterflies.” Capturing that pivotal first experience of falling head over heels in love that often arrives in adolescence is one of the appealing aspects that writing a young adult romance affords authors who are accustomed to writing for adults.
“I do think that those flutters of first love are so much more intense than your fourth or fifth or sixth relationship,” Rai said of developing her protagonist Sonia’s first relationship. “I really wanted to capture that puppy love feeling and how you can build up a fantasy in your head.”
For Eddings, young love taps into a range of emotions for the first time, which makes crafting the experience so specific. “Young love has a playfulness to it, a striking amount of earnestness and vulnerability that requires those falling to be so brave, and there’s nothing more special than that!” she said. “I think the essence of young love has a great deal of overlap with true love, the magnitude of connection and partnership and swamping emotions, and that’s what makes romance in general, regardless of the age demographic, so amazing.”
When those first relationships feel neon with importance, Weatherspoon believes that there is joy in reveling in romantic experiences. “I think we want young people to be like, ‘Oh, relationships aren’t the only thing that matters, blah, blah.’ And that’s true! But I think at that age, those experiences feel so important. They feel like that’s your whole world.”
Authors in the YA space have been making strides in bringing representation across all genres to young readers. Facing the challenge of the publishing industry’s predominant whiteness, authors are highlighting all bodies, races, and other marginalized identities in dreamy loving relationships.
In Tilly in Technicolor, it was important to Eddings to “challenge how neurodivergent people are often infantilized by society,” she said. “I set a strong intention to show these teenagers with desires to be happy and find love and make out with each other, because those wants aren’t exclusive to neurotypical people,.” Eddings said. “I thought about how Oliver’s autism and Tilly’s ADHD influence the way they navigate the world, but never let their neurodivergence be the defining factors of who they are as people.”
In Weatherspoon’s romance, protagonist Bethany’s body is not the central source of her insecurities. “I wanted to show that there is nothing wrong with her being fat,” Weatherspoon said. “That does not change who she is as a person, in the sense that it doesn’t make her a bad person. It’s not something she needs to change. I wanted to create Bethany as someone who is confident in herself and who loves herself, but also has those same insecurities that we all have.”
The work to create diverse bookshelves continues, with initiatives such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks dedicated to providing access to literature featuring diverse representation, and CCBC Diversity Statistics, which has been tracking the shifts in representation for more than 30 years. For Rai, seeing more representation is a welcome surprise, one that gives all young readers an opportunity to believe in falling in love.
“I could not have dreamed of seeing books like this,” Rai said of the diversity she sees on bookshelves today. “I do feel so honored to be a part of it. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey how honored I feel to write for young adults.”