Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ewww - Kissing!

 So with where I appear in the Prosers publication cycle, when we decide on a new theme to use, I get to debut it. Isn’t that fabulous? OR, it could be the other ladies decide to use me as a guinea pig and if my post flops/makes no sense they go in completely different directions? Hmm….<contemplates my fellow prosers posting habits carefully.>

AT ANY RATE – this cycle, we got chatting about romance in novels, and particularly KISSING. Although some Prosers may take this theme and talk about romance and conflict in romantic plots more generally, I plan to talk about kissing. Who doesn’t like to talk about kissing, right?

Well, I’ll be honest. This mother of a thirteen year old does not always like to talk about kissing. The older my kids get and more likely to experience the kinds of things I write into my books, the more my heart lurches as the idea of them having these kinds of experiences! Putting aside the existential-angst-by-proxy of imagining my babies EVER entangled romantically with other folks, though, I will focus more on how and what I do about romance (and KISSING) in my YA and MG stories.

First, here’s my philosophy as a mother, woman, writer, and massive reader of YA and MG stories. I think middle grade books sometimes over-emphasize romantic subplots. I think it’s realistic to include crushes and boys/girls thinking about (obsessing about?) each other, but to go beyond hand-holding or chaste kisses is wrong, IMHO. That’s not the kind of thing I want my own tweens thinking is normal for kids their age, and kids base a lot of what they think is normal/acceptable behavior off what they read in these kinds of books. Plus it's not all that reflective of the real inner lives of 11 and 12 year olds. 

These two share one of the bigger big-screen kisses of recent memory.

In YA books, which are meant for teens, I think some amount of heart-racing is appropriate. But I really don’t want my kids having sex. This is where I diverge from many popular YA titles in, as there’s quite a bit of sex in YA. In many popular series’, the sex is done in a “fade to black” way. That’s a better way of handling it than crossing over into erotica, but since most kids “read up” (as they age kids always want to read about kids that little bit older than themselves) it’s a source of frustration. I am not sure I want my 12 year old reading about 16 year olds having sex. Then again, for many writers it seems to be the only way they can figure out how to culminate romantic plots. It’s the “will they or won’t they” question. The last Divergent book stands out to me as an example.

I feel that this sort of thing is an easy way out. It’s like the idea of killing off the parents (also a technique Divergent used) as a way to up the stakes for the characters in a YA or MG book. It frustrates me. I’d rather see the difficult work of portraying a changing relationship between tween/teen and his/her parents than the author just arbitrarily offing the parents to remove them from the scene, to up the stakes for the MC, and to make it so the MC has to take all the actions in the book (not get “saved” by adults in the story.) Fair points, but again feels a bit like a cheat to me.

I think I need some examples to help illustrate.

First, from my own novel, CONVERGENCE, here’s the bit at the end where the two main characters kiss. It’s a YA novel and this is the only kissing, though there’s some heart-flutters earlier.

Her arm felt like it was on fire. From this close angle, Anya could look directly into his eyes. Her voice was hoarse. "You have to feel that, too." 
Bruce didn't say anything, but nodded, still looking at her, still holding onto her arm.
"I'd like to, you know, like, try out something a little more than friends." Anya said, clearing her throat. 
Bruce's eyebrows shot up. "Really? I thought, I just thought, you know, well when you didn't say anything." 
Anya silenced him by putting her lips on his. They were as soft as they looked, and she relaxed into him, feeling the warmth as he put his other arm around her and they kissed for several long seconds. She felt her new Identity clank into Bruce's. Anya tried to memorize everything about the moment, her first kiss. She felt a little dizzy, and lighter than the low-gravity of the school hall.

And here’s a bit from one of my all-time favorite books, The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley:

“Yes-of-course-I’ll-marry-you,” said Aerin, and when he caught her up in his arms to kiss her she didn’t even notice the shrill pain of burst blisters.

Less than I thought, actually. I’ll have to dig around and see if there’s one more kiss elsewhere in the book, but… well that’s one example from a Newberry winner published in 1984.

A book I read recently had a different (more along the lines of modern sensibilities, frustratingly) take. I joke that it seems like it oculdn’t figure out if it was a fun steampunk adventure tale, or YA bodice-ripper. For example:

“Her laughter brought a smile to his lips that made Charlotte’s breath quicken. 
“Shall I take you upstairs?” Jack asked. Something about the question sent warmth pooling into Charlotte’s belly. 
“Please,” she whispered. 
Jack kept her hand in his as he escorted her up the grand staircase. They stopped at her bedroom door, shrouded in darkness. 
“Charlotte,” Jack murmured. 
She could barely make out his face, but she felt his hand against her cheek. Without thinking, Charlotte leaned her cheek into his palm, turning her face so her lips brushed the heel of his hand. She heard Jack stifle a groan. 
Charlotte quickly straightened, shocked by her own behavior. What had she done? Was she so wanton as this? She’d practically swooned into Coe’s arms earlier that night, and now she was playing the seductress with Jack. 
“I should say good night.” Charlotte’s voice cracked. 
But the weight of Jack’s hands rested on her waist, then moved to her lower back, drawing her forward. The silk of her gown rustled when her body pressed against his.

(and then our young lovers get interrupted, THANK HEAVENS since I was feeling a little over-warm just re-reading that passage.)

This is a book with 16 year-old protagonists, set in an alternative history America of the nineteenth century (with all the steampunk trappings.) In the fourth chapter Charlotte more-or-less does a striptease with Jack, pushing the sexual tension far beyond my comfort level for a book that is advertised as an alt history adventure/thriller. (The book is The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer. There really isn’t anything wrong with it other than my complaints about this overly mature content in a book marketed in a young-tilting way, but your mileage may vary.)

Last example is from Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, also a Newberry Honor book.

Peder shook his head as if giving up on words, reached out and took her hand. Miri bit her lip to keep herself from pulling away. She was certain he could feel her heartbeat in her fingers and would know that inside she was trembling and sighing. Then after a time she stopped worrying. She could feel his heartbeat, too, and it was as fast as a fleeing hare.
 When they entered the village, Peder still kept hold of her hand. Frid stared as they passed, Esa blushed for them, Gerti and her three younger sisters giggled and chased after, chanting about a kiss for every miri petal. Twice Miri relaxed her hand in case he wanted to leave her, but he held on even tighter.

No kissing at all, as it turns out, but the scene shows a great example of saying much without saying much at all. By this point in the story we know the characters quite well and the reactions of Frid, Esa, and Gerti are as important as the main character, Miri’s, thoughts about holding hands with Peder.

So there are three really different examples from books all aimed at a 12 and up audience. What are your thoughts on kissing or public displays of affection in YA and MG fiction?


  1. Oh my gosh, I love this. I love how my favorite of these kissing scenes, is just two people holding hands. And I love that the kiss from McKinley is so short, but it worked so much bigger for you in memory, because it was the lead up to the brief moment, the conversations, and chemistry beforehand that led to a great pay off.

    Also, I love that gif.

  2. Some of my favorite kissing scenes turn out to not be kissing scenes when I reread them too. I'm thinking particularly of Howl's Moving Castle, which remains my all time favorite non-kiss. I love this post Karen. It makes me smile.


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