| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Why Romance Is Important for Young Adult Readers
For our Romance Week series, Maya MacGregor reflects on literature’s unique ability to show readers that they are lovable and worthy of romance—even if the rest of the world is saying otherwise.
I am thirty-eight, but I was yesterday-years old when I first saw myself in an adult romance novel I didn’t write myself.
At about two in the morning, coughing up a lung with the remnants of bronchitis and knowing my body was screaming for rest, I had just hit the dark-night-of-the-soul moment in Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle . Unable to go to sleep on such a precipice—despite my deep trust in the happily ever after!—I stayed awake to finish the book.
Anna, Hoang’s protagonist, felt so much like me. Her reactions, her meltdowns, her shutdowns, her people-pleasing. She, like me, discovered her autism at a later age—and she, like me, had to go through the myriad emotions of learning to accept herself in the process. Better yet, she got to fall in love with someone who was right there with her through it all.
Several times throughout the book, I had to stop and walk away to give my mind space to work through the similarities. Today, I’m sitting here thinking of the absolute gift it is to feel so seen.
It’s a gift I am well familiar with because I wrote both of my young adult novels— The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester and The Evolving Truth of Ever-Stronger Will —to give the next generation the boon I didn’t have until the very wee hours of this morning.
For most of my life, I thought I was an alien. Or a monster. It’s no coincidence that I wrote that into the opening lines of The Evolving Truth of Ever-Stronger Will , which begins: “You are a monster. You know this already. It’s one of the first things you learned, one of the first lessons you felt down to the cells and atoms that make you up.” Will, who is—like I was—pre-diagnosed autistic and agender and queer, is a character who emerged from my own experiences of otherness. My autism, undiagnosed until twenty-nine (or thirty-six, depending on whether you want to count from my self-diagnosis or my formal diagnosis), made speaking difficult and sometimes outright impossible. I felt emotions deeply but often could not identify them. I shut down easily, and when I did, I was told I had an attitude. My meltdowns poured inward, and my overstimulation and overwhelm made me a particularly juicy target for bullies. Reading was my escape, my sole means of understanding my world and myself in a way that didn’t leave me open to attack. My journey to understanding myself on romantic and orientation and autistic levels took decades .
I have often wondered what my life would have looked like if I had had a touchstone in the fiction I read, a mirror instead of other lives to shadow. There were ghosts of it, of course. Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time and Jonas in The Giver , Gillian in L. J. Smith’s Dark Angel . But these were hands I sought to take without really knowing they were indeed reaching for me .
Adolescence is absolute chaos for most teens. Hormones heighten most emotions and conjure epic feelings from seemingly thin air. With bodies doing all sorts of bizarre things and brains matching them tit for tat, it can be overwhelming for everyone! For queer and neurodivergent teens, especially those in the closet and under the radar of diagnosis, that is triply true.
Books are a safe space for teens to engage with the world. Narratives that include romance, in particular, have a unique power to not only reflect back a reader’s identity and legitimize it, but also to establish the vital, priceless baseline of what is both normal and acceptable in relationships. While any genre can show consent in action, the romance genre specifically gets more space to do this. It shows boundaries, and, very often, it also shows examples of un healthy relationships—usually a relationship a protagonist is escaping for the safer, healthier connection with the novel’s love interest. There is space to internalize bodily autonomy and self-worth, to establish and normalize experiences that cover a wide range, from dangerous (many teens have experienced traumas that can further alienate them from their peers) to confusing to empowering to liberating.
I’ve seen a lot of recent discussions, online and between writers, about romance narratives and who is writing them and why—especially when adults are writing them for younger audiences. As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I certainly understand the need to exercise care when it comes to adult authors writing teen sexuality and sexual experiences. However, it’s my opinion that it’s worth threading the needle. It’s common for avid adolescent readers to seek out adult fiction, perhaps in part to satiate curiosity about sex and adult relationships; I myself used to sneak Dara Joy books and, later, Catherine Coulter novels to explore that curiosity. Only now am I able to recognize that the latter actually normalizes sexual assault and spousal rape. I wish there had been more age-appropriate, consent-based explorations for me to find. I wish I’d had books like Heartstopper and Felix Ever After and And They Lived . . . .
While any genre can show consent in action, the romance genre specifically gets more space to do this.
Young adulthood is a threshold between childhood and taking one’s place in the adult world, and that means learning how we interact with others platonically, romantically, and so much more. For kids at the margins, whether by neurotype or orientation or gender or otherwise, books are a vital opportunity and a treasure. They can show us that we are lovable and worthy of romance when the world tells us otherwise. Right now, both in the US and the UK, queer and trans kids are being used as a political football that tells them they’re dangerous. Anomalous. Abnormal. Alien. Monstrous.
No kid should ever have to feel that way just for existing.
But when they can see a world crafted for them in the pages of a book, a world where they are worthy of being loved, wooed, romanced by their peers and accepted by the adults around them, we help contribute to a future where they don’t have to be a football. They can just be people.
That treasure shows us that we deserve more than mere tolerance.
As a YA author, I am very often thinking about the stories I craft through the lens of my inner child and inner teen. Lessons I wish I’d been taught, experiences that I felt dangled far out of reach of my fingers, warmth and romance that could feel as safe as a hug. I wish I’d had stories that could remind me softly that I was not a monster, that I was just a person who deserves to be here and deserves to experience the full breadth of human relationships and emotions just as much as anyone else does.
I want the next generation of teens to have what I did not. They shouldn’t need to wait until they’re thirty-eight to discover stories about them and for them. Thanks to authors like Casey McQuiston, Alice Oseman, Jenn Reese (whose books explore aromanticism and asexuality!), Namina Forna, Aden Polydoros, Rebecca Podos, and so many more across all genres and spanning the spectra of identity, it heartens me knowing that we, as authors, are doing the work so they don’t have to go without.
Books are an act of hope. Romance stories can be a much-needed balm, a love letter no matter our ages.
I, for one, am ready anew to make sure I do my bit. By crafting healthy, trust-based, consent-based romances for my characters, I can reinforce that kids like my characters deserve nothing less than that in their own real-life relationships. By modeling characters who communicate, who assert their own boundaries and honor the boundaries of others, I can provide an example I wish I’d had. So many lessons about love are left to chance, and while my stories can’t fill in every gap and can’t account for all of the universe’s possibilities, they can demystify some . . . and there are other authors out there doing the work to widen that beam of illumination.
Wouldn’t it be grand if we all grew up knowing that we were truly worthy of falling in love and being loved deeply and honestly in return?
We’re not monsters or aliens—we’re humans. And love is for all of us.