The Curious Case of YA Friendships

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about friendships in young adult books, and how they tend, overall, to be relegated to the background, pushed to the margins to make way for romance. In a way, it’s a reflection of the tension some young adults experience as they pass through important, but sometimes very liminal, stages of their lives; they are growing into themselves and at the same time making connections with other people that are different from the friendships they’ve had in the past. One consequence, for some, is the loss or dilution of friendships in the face of romantic relationships, which can be very consuming.

So it’s not surprising to see that echoed in YA lit as well—authors write their experience, but they also think about the experiences of their readers, and they know that friendships and romantic relationships can become a balancing act, especially when the two become entangled. At the same time, though, it reinforces specific social attitudes about friendships, and friends, that I find unnerving, because they tend to devalue friends in preference for romantic relationships, setting people up for a lifetime in which their friendships are less important than the people they have romantic and sexual relationships with.

Reading Sweethearts by Sarah Zarr last year, I was struck by a number of themes, but obviously the friendship was one of them. This was a book that revolved around a friendship, which made it a standout in its genre; in a world where every book I pick up seems to be about romantic love in some aspect (chasing it, finding it, grieving its loss), Zarr defied the norm to talk about friends and what they can mean to each other in a complex, multilayered book that resonated with me in ways that romance often does not (though I am, of course, a reader of romance novels and romantic YA—especially since it’s very hard to find YA without romantic themes these days).

It’s not that friendships aren’t featured in young adult fiction; on the contrary, they’re a very important part of the story. Friends support each other, fight with each other, follow each other to the last. Harry and Hermione, for example, have an important bond that is very specifically a friendship, and they offer things to each other that are different from what Ron and Hermione bring to their relationship. Friends are a tapestry of young adult lives, and discussions about building, making, and maintaining friendships are an important part of narratives from historical fiction to dystopian nightmares.

It’s that friendship takes to the wings when the possibility of a romantic relationship is on the horizon, and suddenly the story becomes about that. We focus on the relationship with the love interest (or interests, since triangles are enduringly popular), and we’re driven away from the textural complexity of the friendship, and the interaction of friends and lovers.

In Team Human, Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier managed to strike the balancing act very well: this is a book about two friends who love each other very much, and are determined and feisty and independent, and it’s also a book about a romantic relationship, and the tensions that arise when one friend disapproves.

While the book is of course told from the point of view of the friend rather than one of the lovers, which slants the book in the direction of a more friend-centric narrative anyway, I’d argue it’s still an excellent example of a YA that manages to preserve a strong balance. Friendship, Team Human states, is important, and friendships make up an important part of your life. They are not less valuable in the face of romantic interludes, nor are they practice relationships for you to cut your teeth on until the ‘real thing’ in the form of romance comes along. Team Human doesn’t set up the implied value system many other books do, where a friendship is less-than as soon as a hot character trots across the pages.

In a market, and a society, that demands romantic books and expects to see such relationships given precedence, it’s hard to go against the tide, and authors who do choose are to be commended. It’s possible to write a book just about a friendship that will be fabulous, rich, complex, and interesting, without suggesting that the characters in the book need romance to feel complete. And it’s possible to write a book with a mixture of both romance and friendship in which the two types of relationships are given equal time and equal treatment, occupying spaces of comparative importance both for the author and the characters.

Because we live in a world where friendship is often treated like second place, and as something that should be set aside for romance. Whether you’re being told to tolerate something hateful your friend’s boyfriend said to you because they’re so in love, or you’re dating someone new and you slowly stop calling your friends, you’re reminded on a regular basis that the most important form of relationship in this society is romantic love, and that anything else is lesser. I like to see narratives that push back on that, that position friends and other kinds of relationships as great, important, and valuable too. And I suspect I am not the only reader who feels this way.

In the quest to push for more diverse depiction of romantic relationships, we must also remember that there are other kinds of relationships that are getting short-shrift. Yes, I want more Tamora Pierce-style romantic couples and less Stephenie Meyer-style stalking and controlling in the name of ‘romance,’ but I want friends, too. Glorious, excellent, wonderful friends.