Let’s face it: However pure any YA author’s intentions may be to tell a story of adversity and self-discovery, a significant portion of the fandom is going to focus on the shipping side of things (no finger-pointing here; I’m a champion shipper myself). Popular YA books today offer a myriad of relationship types for pre-teens and young teenagers to look up to and try to emulate as they enter and navigate the messy world of love and dating. When authors present unhealthy, dependent ones as the ideal without showing the fallout that can result from these ill-fated hookups in the real world, it can be worrisome. While wholesome, perfect relationships don’t offer much storytelling drama, healthily realistic ones still can. Let’s take a look at some of the good, the bad, and the ambiguous relationships found in some of the biggest YA series today.
Sometimes you come across a teenage romance that’s just brimming with real love, and it’s the best thing in the world. While there might be some hiccups and misunderstandings and real adolescent confusion in the getting-it-together phase, when this couple finally gets there, generally after years of friendship and close to the end of a book’s series, they’ve been through so much already that they just know how to be with each other and still be themselves. Maybe they’ll fight sometimes, but they’ll still love each other and all the rest falls away. I’m talking Ron and Hermione, Percy and Annabeth, Will and Lyra, Alek and Deryn. I’m talking a relationship built on a foundation that’s strong enough to overcome all the hardships they’ve been through, and all the ones they’ve yet to.
Let me be clear: When I say “bad” relationships, I’m not talking about the ones that are supposed to be seen as unhealthy or bad, the ones where it’s obvious that Person A and Person B aren’t meant to be and it’s only a matter of time before one of them realizes it was Person C all along. I’m talking about the idealization of obsessive, often lust-based couplings (frequently featuring a “nice” girl and a “bad” boy) where one person becomes the world to the other — to the detriment of all other relationships and goals they may once have had. Yes, I’m talking about Edward and Bella, but this is an issue that goes all the way back to Romeo and Juliet. The problem is when these unequal and usually destructive relationships are presented as something to strive for — and very young or inexperienced readers may not know any better. Twilight is not the only culprit here — similar relationships are presented in the Fallen series and Hush Hush.
Things get interesting when relationships are less black-and-white. A simplistic reading leads you to believe that whomever the protagonist ends up with at a book’s conclusion must be the “right” person for them. Delve a little deeper and you can find aspects of an otherwise loving relationship that can be troubling. Clary and Jace spend much of their sexually-charged interactions believing they are brother and sister — an idea I as a reader was never able to get past — while Katniss spends most of The Hunger Games series lying to and almost certainly not in love with Peeta. Eragon and Arya, in turn, choose never to consummate the love we’re led to believe they feel for each other. In a way, it’s a respectable choice for authors to show that relationships aren’t all the same, and they aren’t all perfect, and they’re not all going to end up the way we want them to.
Older teens and adult readers of these novels are probably going to be able to better analyze and distinguish between these different kinds of relationships, but younger and younger readers are picking up these trendy books and may not yet have the maturity to do this. Is it the author’s responsibility to think of these readers and demonstrate the difference between a healthy relationship and an abusive one? That’s a hard question to answer. We can only hope that young readers have someone in their lives they can discuss it with.