I saw a Twitter message from my fellow 2009 debut novelist (aka “deb”) R.J. Anderson about wanting to write love stories but being a middle-grade novelist, and without thinking much about the topic I fired back that twelve year olds are the truest romantics in the world. I meant that not only are those topics not mutually exclusive, love is very much a part of middle school life. Especially the sort she was talking about, which is “smart, realistic, slow-burn romance.” Heck, who knows more about slow-burn romance than fifth-through-eighth graders, whose entire relationship can take the form of glances exchanged across a classroom?
It got me to thinking, and when I get thinking, I get blogging.
First of all, I meant what I said about kids being romantics. We tend to think that young crushes are cute and superficial, but my memory of them is that they were intense and all-consuming, as wonderful and pure and tragic as love ever is. They are part of middle school life, and hence should be appropriate for middle school books. If romance is discussed less in boy books, it’s not because boys are less interested in the subject, just that they’re more afraid to show their interest. The idea that they shouldn’t be interested in the subject is part of the socialization of men away from caring about caring, and although I don’t spend much time worrying about themes or morals to my books, I do aim to tell the truth — and the truth is that boys have great big hearts.
There is a touch of romance in Mudville, and sometimes a kid will ask me why I had to go and muck up a perfectly good baseball book with romance. Note that these boys have never complained about there being girls in the story on the team — we’re raising this generation right — they just don’t like Roy’s interest in Rita as more than a teammate. I’m OK with that criticism, because it wasn’t my decision to have Roy develop a crush on Rita. It was Roy’s. I originally just wanted girls in the story, but the passages with them felt leaden and lifeless until Roy had an emotional stake in it. And in retrospect, it makes perfect sense for Roy to want female companionship — his mother’s not in the picture, and he doesn’t have sisters or even an aunt or grandmother that lives close by.
In Mamba Point, Linus has a fleeting interest in a girl that has more to do with his wanting both a friend and social status than really liking (or even getting to know) the girl in question. In Wake, ME — at least the first draft — Eric hangs out with a girl but it never occurs to him to think of her as more than a friend and ally. To some extent these guys tell me how much love is a part of their story. But I would never call the topic off limits. Romance is not only a part of life from age ten on, it’s a huge part of figuring out who you are, the single theme that runs through pretty much all middle grade novels.
Still, I don’t think there’s many books that talk about romantic love from a young boy’s point of view, especially that’s written for boys. The examples I can think of — Tom Sawyer, or Herman Wouk’s City Boy — were written for grown ups as nostalgia. I reread both books as a kid because I was eager to read about what I was going through.
If I may get truly confessional, I even read a few of the girly youth romances, though I can’t remember anything about them except one featured a young man who arrived on the doorstep of the young female protagonist with flecks of snow in his hair, carrying an injured bird. For me, the image remains one of principle ones for romantic love. It always arrives out of the blue, on wintry days, and carrying limp and fragile fledglings that may or may not ever learn to fly.