It’s a common request among YA readers: aren’t there any good titles where romance is not a driving force in the book’s main storyline? For the most part, and for obvious reasons, romance plays a large role in novels of the young adult genre. Youth! Hormones! Impending life changes! An excuse to be wildly melodramatic about things that don’t really matter in the long run! With a genre that caters mostly to young people (though readers outside its age bracket are most certainly still welcome), it’s difficult to find stories where romance doesn’t make or break everything. Sometimes we want narratives that we can wholeheartedly see ourselves in, and not everyone is going to find that in novels centered around teen puppy love.
But rest assured, although it is often difficult to locate them, YA books with little or no romance do exist. The ones I have compiled here include many that quickly became personal favorites of mine, which I have to believe the lack of romance has something to do with, as most YA romances have a whole lotta heterosexual nonsense. Nonetheless, while the books on this list may or may not contain brief instances of romance, it’s not the driving force of the novel and takes a backseat to the narrative’s more important goings-on. And away we go!
A List of Cages by Robin Roe
Robin Roe’s A List of Cages follows two boys reunited by the universe but still vastly separated by circumstance. When Adam Blake finds himself working as an aide to his school psychologist in his senior year, he was expecting a free period to text with his friends. What he was not expecting was to be tracking down Julian, the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years. What follows is a riveting and sometimes disturbing portrayal of just how badly systems can fail children, and how the smallest amounts of love and kindness go the greatest distance in the end.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Growing up as a mixed-race gay teenager in London, Michael has never felt like enough: not Jamaican enough, not Greek enough, not Black enough, and certainly not masculine enough. But as he grows up and comes of age as his authentic queer self, he starts to get to know the person he was always meant to be. Enter The Black Flamingo, his fierce drag persona, who is everything the world has taught him not to be. In freeing himself from the weight of the world’s expectations, Michael may soon learn how to embrace the power of being completely himself.
I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter
“There’s that nursery rhyme. You know it? All about what makes a girl. We’re sugar and spice and everything nice, but that sounds like a cookie recipe. It doesn’t sound like the composition of a person.” In one of the most powerful and important YA novels of the last decade, T.E. Carter’s I Stop Somewhere stops at nothing to expose the pervasive rape culture that continues to find ways of incriminating women and exonerating men. Bullied and tormented throughout middle school, Ellie Frias begins her freshman year of high school with a new outlook: if she keeps her head down and doesn’t bother anyone, no one will bother her. But when a chance encounter with a friendly stranger turns deadly, Ellie is trapped and sentenced to the torture of watching the same crimes happen to others. All she can do is wait and pray for someone to find her. The problem is no one looks for a girl they didn’t notice in the first place.
We’ll Never Be Apart by Emiko Jean
In We’ll Never Be Apart, Emiko Jean crafts a twisty psychological thriller that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. Committed to a psychiatric ward at Savage Isle, all 17-year-old Alice Munroe can think about is murder, fire, and revenge. Haunted by memories of the fire that killed her boyfriend Jason — flames that were set by her twin sister Cellie — Alice is conflicted until she meets a charismatic stranger named Chase, who agrees to help her seek vengeance. Starting to pour out all her thoughts into a journal, Alice realizes that before we can face the future, we must first confront the past.
Mosquitoland by David Arnold
“I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.” Faced with the collapse of her family, Mim Malone is forced to move across the country with her father and new stepmother. But when she catches news that her mother isn’t well back in Ohio, Mim knows she must return to her. Following the compelling protagonist through a backsplash of Greyhound buses and colorful characters on the road, Mim soon learns that the demons from her childhood are really the ones holding her back. What starts as a journey home becomes one of transformation that will teach her what sanity really means and how everything is just a matter of perception.
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
Raised with the belief that the only way to succeed in life is to escape her poor, Black neighborhood, Jade accepts a scholarship to a mostly white private school in a high-end area. She expected the transition to be difficult, but what she didn’t expect was being invited to join a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls from “bad” neighborhoods. But Jade knows she doesn’t need the support being offered and is about to learn that just because her mentor is also Black does not mean they come from the same backgrounds or share the same worldviews. Piecing Me Together shines a light on the persecution women of color often face and the ways in which our societies and cultures still need to improve.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
While love does occupy most of the driving force behind Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home, it’s an unconventional kind of love that’s different from romance and immediately came to mind for inclusion on this list. Not only is Tell the Wolves I’m Home required reading for anyone interested in the AIDS crisis, but also required reading for introverts and definitely introverts with anxiety. It’s 1987, and the only friend that 14-year-old June has in the world is her Uncle Finn, a renowned painter. Unable to fit in at school or with her older sister, Finn is the only person that understands June and makes her feel safe — not only her godparent, but her only confidant. But when Finn dies far too young from an illness June’s mother can’t bring herself to talk about, June is forced to face all of her hidden fears, anxieties, and feelings — with the help of a new friend who might just be her saving grace.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
There was once a time when Justyce McAllister was at the top of his class and set for the Ivy League, but none of that mattered to the white police officer placing him in handcuffs. Even after leaving his rough neighborhood behind, his reputation never seems to recover. Thus, Justyce decides to turn to the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers, wondering if Dr. King’s wisdom and own quest for answers still hold up today. But none of that will prepare him for the day when Justyce and his friend Manny are caught in the crossfire of an angry exchange with an off-duty cop that will end up changing his life forever. A timely read in the era of Black Lives Matter, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin seeks to educate on the lingering racial hypocrisy of our day.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Ever since his mother first got sick, Conor has had the same dream every night. But tonight, something different happens. Tonight, there’s a visitor at his window. It’s an unexplainable force of nature. Just as inexplicably as it appeared, it wants the truth from Conor, of everything that he has been burying under the surface. What follows is a tale of healing, mischief, and a celebration of the age-old art of getting by.
Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki
When Montgomery Sole bought a powerful crystal amulet called the Eye of Know on the Internet for $5.99, she didn’t expect it to come with instructions: “In sight not see, black light not be.” Once she starts wearing the Eye of Know, Monty begins to notice that strange things have begun to happen, all to people she despises. While she starts hoping the amulet will help her conquer the new preacher who’s arrived to rid the town of sinners, Monty realizes that the Eye of Know might cost her everything she’s ever held dear — unless she learns how to truly harness its power.
Which are your favorite YA books without any romance?