Shelf Love

Romance for Young Adults: A Quick 80-Year Overview

Short Description

A brief overview of romance for young adult readers throughout time, with a focus on the romance series boom of the 1980s and the reverberations into the early 2000s. Wildfire, Sunfire, Sweet Dreams, Oh My! But some people haven’t always been on board with young people consuming age-appropriate romance.


romance scholarship, young adult

Show Notes

A brief overview of romance for young adult readers throughout time, with a focus on the romance series boom of the 1980s and the reverberations into the early 2000s. Wildfire, Sunfire, Sweet Dreams, Oh My! But some people haven’t always been on board with young people consuming age-appropriate romance.


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Allen, Amanda K. “Young Adult Romance.” In The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction. Routledge, 2020.

Madsen, Christine Terp. “Teen Novels: What Kind of Values Do They Promote?” Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 1981.

Wagner, Elaine. “Protesting Sexist Materials: You Can Make a Difference.” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 12, no. 3 (1981).

“Interracial Books for Children Bulletin: Special Double Issue on Preteen and Teenage Romance Series,” 1981.

Grinnan, Dabney. “At the Back Fence #145.” All About Romance. Accessed May 24, 2022.

Moss, Gabrielle. Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction. Quirk Books, 2018.

Source: re: Tracy West^tfw|twcamp^tweetembed&

Source: re: Vivian Stephens & Jackie Weger book:


[00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Shelf Love a podcast about romance novels, and how they reflect, explore, challenge, and shape desire. Welcome to season four. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci. And on this episode, I'd like to introduce you to a topic that I'll be exploring over the course of the next few episodes from different angles, young adult and teen romance.

It's summer in Boston. And I don't know about you, but summers always make me think of reading for pure pleasure. That is probably a holdover from my first experiences of summer as a kid and teenager, when there was a shift from reading as homework to reading for fun. Don't get me wrong. I've always loved reading. So it's not like I waited until summer to pick up a book by choice.

But it's definitely the time of year that I could go to the library or Borders and pore over the shelves, mostly at my leisure and take out as many books as I could carry or buy as many books as my babysitting money would allow.

So as a young reader in the 1990s through my teens and the early two thousands, I read widely and voraciously. But did eventually refine my tastes and figured out that I really only enjoyed books with romance, even if they weren't romance novels. And yes, I started reading adult romance novels early at maybe 12 or 13. But I still read books written for kids my age.

I loved modern fairytale retellings. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine was the creme de LA creme. And I kept picking up others that promised the magic, but could never quite deliver. When Ella tells the prince that she won't marry him as a declaration of love. Listener I swooned.

A Well-timed Enchantment bye Vivian van de Velde was another book that played with fairytale tropes with an ironic Daria-esque heroine who falls in love with a cat who becomes a human when he follows her into an enchanted well that she accidentally falls into. Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klaus introduced me to the sexiness of werewolves predating Twilight by seven years.

Speaking of paranormal Amelia Atwater-Rhodes wrote these like sexy age appropriate vampires. And I was always fascinated by her because she was only a few years older than me and published her first novel when she herself was a young adult, a 15 or 16.

I read the teen romance series that were being published at the time as well. In particular, I loved a six book historical disasters series that came out in 1999. My favorite was the San Francisco Earthquake 1906, with a hotel maid who survives the destruction with a young cattle rancher, visiting the city with his father and sister.

I carefully read the scene where they decide to stay together in a relief tent, because it was heavily implied that they were not just going to be sleeping in there. That was my memory and I just went back and re-read it. And it's possible they just made out and held each other. But young me definitely believed they boned.

In 2002, my library started carrying the teen historical romance line, Avon True Romances. And I checked out every single one of them and eagerly awaited new installments. This series was written by adult romance authors, which I definitely didn't [00:03:00] clock at the time. But I do remember that I was deep enough into adult romances that while they mostly hit the spot, I was always a little disappointed that I had to wait so long for the kissing. And that's all there was.

Then when I was an older teen, I volunteered at the friends of the library book sale as a person who sorts through donated books and puts a price sticker on them. I would sit alone in that musty room, off the children's library, surrounded by books and taking more than occasional breaks to flip through the romance novels and satisfied the ones that I wanted for myself, which was definitely the perk of the gig. That was I'm sorry. That was the only perk of the gig.

I also discovered retro teen romance series because like they arrived in bulk. People were trying to get those out of their houses. I still have a few. So now I can identify that these were a mix of Wildfire romances, First Love by Silhouette, and Sweet Dreams romances from the 1980s. And they were all contemporary romances with mostly high school protagonists. And I remember thinking when I read them at the time that they were dated because they portrayed a world of high school and dating that didn't really bear any resemblance to my own experience. But they also focused on romance and relationships without fail. And there were a lot of them, which meant that I was assured that I was going to get what I was looking for. But again, I always wished that despite the reality of my own romantic life, which was like, non-existent, that the relationships in the books would progress into more mature and physical realms. Uh,

Given my desire for sexier storylines, it's no surprise that I basically just read adult romance from then on, but I still had fond memories of all those romances for younger readers.

It's been about two decades since I was a young adult, but my hyper-focus has turned itself towards digging into young adult romance after I intentionally collected some of them and started thinking about their role in capturing young readers, who aren't quite ready for adult romance and whetting their appetite until they can be funneled up into adult romance.

But maybe it's not always quite that intentional, even if that may be the unintended consequence. Like obviously some romance publishers made forays into the market for younger readers with that in mind, but giving the kids what they want as a goal in and of itself was just as motivating as a factor as I found.

So I began to dig in to try to answer a few questions.

What is the history of teen romance? How did it evolve?

How has teen romance been viewed by the young readers at the time? And how has teen romance been viewed by adults at the time?

And of course, how does teen romance compare or interact with adult romance?

I'm definitely not an expert on team romance. And the point of this exploration on the podcast is to learn even more. But I'm going to start by giving you a basic sketch of the broad strokes that I have learned as part of this investigation.

Also, I'll start with some boundaries and definitions. So because I'm starting from my position as somebody studying adult romance, I'm going to focus on books that I'd classify as [00:06:00] romance, that is books that are driven forward by a romantic plot, and that have an emotionally optimistic ending.

Given that we're talking about young protagonists, that probably looks more like a happy for now in a lot of cases, versus declarations of forever, like HEA Also, I'm interested in books that are created and marketed for an audience of younger readers. Probably most of the time, the target readers are between the ages of 10 and 16. And most of the protagonists are also probably teenagers. But I'm more concerned about the intended reader and their age versus the age or life stage of the protagonist.

So that's what I mean by teen or young adult romance. And I'm also going to use teen and young adult kind of interchangeably as a description, but those aren't always terms that would have been used at various points in history. Like young adult romance is a fairly new concept. I don't know when exactly that came into vogue, now we think of the people who are reading them as young adults.

I think that regardless of the nomenclature or genre categories of different time periods, I'm trying to follow the thread of romantic stories marketed for young readers. And my impression is that the intended target market for commercially produced romantic stories has always been girls and women as well.

So, where do we start? This year at the 2022 Pop Culture Association Conference, I heard Dr. Amanda K. Allen's presentation on the junior novels of Betty Cavanna. So I knew that novels for young readers that explored romance went back to at least the 1940s. Dr. Allen's work focuses on young adult romance and she is the YA section editor for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, AKA jeepers, as well as the author of a chapter on YA romance scholarship from the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction.

I will be speaking with her later in the series, but let's start with some of the info that I have gleaned from a review of her work and some of the work that she has cited that I've gone and found because I want to get back to the beginning of what are clearly romantic stories for young people.

So in the 1940s through the 1960s, publishers are putting out so-called junior novels and Dr. Allen notes that these were stories of first romance set primarily within the American high school milieu. Popular authors included Maureen Daly, Betty Cavanna and Anne Emory.

The next era begins in the 1980s. So what happened in the seventies? My editorial opinion based on reading things is that apparently in the 1970s, everybody got really into serious issues novels that sounds more like gritty afterschool specials. So apparently the appetite for lighthearted romantic plots fell by the wayside.

Cultural changes, including economic prosperity, the rise of the teenager as a consumer. And new distribution channels to directly reach young readers and let them make their own choices about reading materials, ushered in a new era in the [00:09:00] 1980s, and this was a boom time of romance series targeted to young readers. So I'm going to spend most of today talking about this period.

By most accounts this seems to have been kicked off when Scholastic editor Ann Reit noticed that book club selections with romance did particularly well and pitched what would become the Wildfire contemporary romance series, which began in 1979. Back to that in a second, but let's pause on Scholastic book club for one moment.

Do you remember those newspaper print flyers that got sent home with you at school, with inexpensive books that you could order essentially from your teacher?

While Scholastic has been doing school book clubs since the 1940s, by the 1970s, they had established their supremacy in schools and had a good reputation for publishing and promoting high quality educational material for young readers.

And Scholastic still has a really meaty presence in schools. My first grader brings home flyers that look a lot like the ones that I used to get updated with the latest age appropriate book picks. So why is this important? First because empowering kids to choose their own books means kids' preferences are making themselves known to the market, which starts to shape what is acquired.

And secondly, because Scholastic has this foothold in the school market, they have consumer data and a very strong distribution channel that they can use to sell a lot of books.

Also Scholastic's reputation as creating trustworthy educational content is going to become relevant.

The other big shift in distribution is the rise in malls in the 1980s and chain bookstores. Young people increasingly had more freedom to shop for books on their own. And they had disposable income from allowances, babysitting or lawnmowing money to buy the books that they wanted to read.

So those are the factors that drive this next boom in teen romance in the early 1980s. Ann Reit had a long career as an editor and eventually executive editor at Scholastic. And by this time she seems to have had enough authority to introduce big new ideas, like the Wildfire series.

The first Wildfire came out in 1979 and it was a hit. In an interview with Christian Science Monitor in 1981, back to that in a sec, Ann Reit said that romance titles were selling double what classic sells. Between 55 and 90,000 copies in a two month period.

One could say they caught on like wildfire.

This did not go unnoticed by Scholastic's competitors, and even adult romance publishers, and there was an influx of different teen romance series that are essentially category romances for young people. Wildfire focused on fairly straightforward contemporary high school first love stories told from the perspective of the heroine.

And Bantam created Sweet Dreams in their image with the innovation of also including the boy's perspective on the romance. Silhouette the well-known publisher of adult romance started the First Love by Silhouette line. There were even two lines of choose your own [00:12:00] adventure series, although they didn't seem to catch on. These were called, Make your Dreams Come True and Follow Your Heart. Scholastic also created other romance series that mirrored well-known sub-genres in adult romance. For example, Windswept sounds like contemporary gothics and Sunfires were historical romance.

Now, if you know anything about the history of commercial publishing companies, it will not surprise you that all of these romance lines focus on heterosexual relationships and they take place in a heteronormative world. And also display a breathtaking deficit of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity.

In 1981, Scholastic was publicly criticized for two main reasons. And it all started because they sold their new Wildfire magazine via their school book club. There was only one issue of this magazine because the criticism shut it down pretty quickly. Naturally I had to hunt this magazine down. And have it in my possession.

Wildfire magazine's tagline was Every Young Girl's Dream. And included in this issue is a reprint of Maureen Daly's award-winning story "Sixteen". Remember Maureen Daly? She was one of those notable authors from the junior novel days. And apparently she was also one of Ann Reit's personal favorites growing up.

There was also a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay and a short story by Caroline B. Cooney, who hadn't yet written The Face on The Milk Carton. It also included horoscopes, an agony aunt advice column, and quizzes by Ann Reit herself. "Does he like me?" And the stunning followup, "Do I like him?"

What proved objectionable to at least one parent was the supposed sexist stereotypes embodied in the stories and advice within. Concerned parent, Elaine Wagner complained loudly to Scholastic, to library organizations, to women's groups and to the school that dared allow this to be sent home to her 11 year old daughter who is both extremely impressionable yet also smart enough to see how dumb it was.

And of course, she also complained to the media which is how we heard about it.

The crux of the issue was that this was being distributed at school. It was almost as if the teachers were like salespeople, relentlessly pushing this magazine for profit. Quoting from Elaine Wagner's article in a special issue of the Interracial Books for Children's Bulletin.

Quote, "Scholastic's ads boasts that it reaches 50% of the school children in this country. In addition, the company's reputation with both parents and teachers has meant it is virtually unmonitored. And then she switches into this voice of a child. 'After all mommy, we got this at school. Our teachers sold it to us, so it must be okay, right?'

And then she continues. "All in all Scholastic clearly has the opportunity to sanction and reinforce the attitudes that have imprisoned our children of both sexes." End quote.

She then later expresses [00:15:00] dismay that there is a whole book series, the Wildfire series, that she assumes must have the same issues as what she sampled briefly in this magazine.

I truly fell down a rabbit hole on this. Like I did so much reading about this drama. So, let me give you my high level impressions.

Elaine Wagner says that she's most concerned about the sexist stereotypes in the texts and she tacks on at the end, like almost as an afterthought. Oh, there's also no racial diversity. She clearly only mentioned that because she's writing in a bulletin for an organization that is concerned with racial diversity, but it's really not what's animating her animus.

Her entire letter and crusade is backed up by very little evidence of her statements. And I haven't read enough of the Wildfire books to confirm or deny her take, but my take is she seems to object more to the perceived tawdriness of romance in general, and uses a lot of language that you find in moral panics.

Won't someone think of the children?

She also clearly thinks that romance is garbage and no matter how well done should not be condoned by an educational authority. So in the Christian Science Monitor article that I mentioned before,

They did a 1981 story about Wagner's war on Scholastic. And this snobbery about romance became extremely apparent. Ann Reit clarified that only one Wildfire book is included in each book club flyer, and the majority of content is still solidly educational, but also that she still sees the Wildfire books as having benefits for readers.

This is a quote from Ann Reit.

" I hope that what we are giving them are books that when they read them, they know the writer knows them and likes them and respects them. That they're not looked down upon. That even these first relationships with boys are not brushed off. I like to think one of two things: either they will read these and learn to like to read and move on to other kinds of books or maybe they never will, but at least they'll be reading." End quote.

Giving kids enjoyable books to read that don't hammer them on the head with a lesson? Ann! You revolutionary.

Meanwhile, most of the other experts, in heavy air quotes, quoted in this article, just parodied, hackneyed, highbrow, lowbrow, talking points about romance that we hear today with a side of paternalistic concern for the children.

Quote. "After adults read 20 Harlequins, do they read Thomas Hardy?" Asks Alleen Nilsen associate professor of education. Ah, yes. Thomas Hardy. Noted for his essentialist views on gender who believed women couldn't help being passive and motherly. And who also punished his heroines for straying from Victorian morality, no matter how unfair it was. Wait a second. Weren't we getting mad about gender stereotypes in these teen romances? Also Nilsen quote, "worries about kids always being disappointed because their own love life never stacks up to these romances." End quote.

Again, did they consult the romance novel criticism handbook?

Alleen also expresses concern for the teen boys who can never live up to this unrealistic [00:18:00] ideal. You know, the teen boys who aren't reading these books, but could be judged harshly by the girls they want to date who do read them. Won't someone think of the men?

Again, as almost a footnote in this article, the concerned experts note the absence of minority characters in the books, which is fair. I will give them that. Ann Reit does mention that an upcoming Wildfire book was going to feature both a black and a white couple.

Now I bought the book she's referencing.

It's called Senior Class published in 1982 by author Jane Claypool Miner. And is it weird that every other book features one couple and this one has a white couple and a Black couple on the cover? And the book is about both romances? Yes, definitely.

Also, I couldn't find any Wildfires after this that had any nonwhite main characters. I should also note that Jane Claypool Miner is a white author and in other cringe-worthy news, she also wrote the only Sunfire historical romance that features a Black character.

Now in an upcoming episode, I'm going to talk to author Candice Ransom, who worked with Ann Reit for years. And Ann seems to be a complicated figure because on the one hand she pushed her authors to deal with racial diversity, sensitively, and a few of the Sunfire romances that I've read that she helped shape do a pretty decent job creating nuanced characterization of characters who are Black or indigenous or other people of color.

But on the other hand, the series she edited and acquired for seem to be like 99% white. And I don't think any of these romance series were written by authors of color.

In the CS Monitor Ann Reit says, quote, "Scholastic perceives its market as middle-class, middle America white. So, I'm doing books for this market." end quote. This indicates to me knowing what I know about adult romance publishing at the time as well, that the prevailing attitude within the corporate, profit- motivated machinery was that their target markets were white readers and that white readers didn't want to read about people of color. It's hard to say how much of this attitude was shared by Ann Reit, and also hard to know if she went to bat on these issues and lost.

In the adult romance field at this exact same time, legendary black editor Vivian Stephens was making an effort to publish so-called ethnic romance by authors of color, including the first category romance with Black protagonists written by a Black author when she published Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles, aKA journalist Elsie B Washington in 1980.

When Stephen's moved from Candlelight Ecstasy over to Harlequin and launched the Harlequin American Romance line in 1983, though, she asked white author, Jackie Weger to change her white characters to Black characters as a way to encourage authors of color to submit to the line. This book, A Strong and Tender Thread, American romance, number Five, apparently bombed. And of course, it's hard to say if that was because the cover portrayed a Black couple or because that's not how racial representation works. [00:21:00]

But the reason I bring up this anecdote is because it's perhaps illustrative that at the time the idea of white authors, writing people of color may not have had the exact same connotations that it does now.

Obviously it would have been better to acquire work by writers of color. But also I get the sense that the discourse around this was just different from today.

So how were the other series doing with racial diversity at the time? First Love from Silhouette did publish two books by Tracy West with Black couples. Yay. Lesson in Love came out in 1982 and Promises came out in 1986. And based on info from a tweet by Steve Ammidown when he was at BGSU's Browne Pop Culture Library, Tracy West was a Black author and she also wrote an adult romance with Silhouette in 1992 as Joyce McGill.

I have not done a deep dive on every teen romance series at the time. So I can't say that these books that I mentioned are the only ones with any racial diversity, but it's fair to say that these series are dominated by white couples and white characters and white authors.

Most of the teen series lines that I mentioned went on for years, but most ended between 1985 and 1987, with the exception of Bantam's Sweet Dreams line which published for 14 years until 1995. Putting out a total of 250 books. Somehow First Love by Silhouette still, almost outpaced them in six years, putting out 236 books.

Gabrielle Moss's book on the history of eighties and nineties teen fiction called Paperback Crush, claims that many of these lines eventually petered out because they didn't keep up with the changing attitudes about sexuality in the U S.

I'll dig into the early queer teen romance that was published prior to 2000 in another episode. It did exist, but not within these more formulaic romance series with guaranteed structural elements.

And because young adult books tend to be more focused on identity versus romance, unless they're like explicitly part of a romance series, I need to read them to confirm that they are in fact romance and have happy endings. So stay tuned for that.

I've spent a long time in the 1980s, but things really started booming and there was a huge volume and they were very nicely organized in series, which made it easy to quantify them. There's a related type of book that I guess is called a soap opera series. And this includes Sweet Valley High.

What distinguishes them from the other series I've talked about is that they follow the same characters over the course of many books. And each book is an episode. Versus the publisher series where each book follows a different couple and there's no overlap in characters between books.

Instead those publisher series are bound together by a similar theme or a formulaic structure. So other than Sweet Valley High one series, I'd like to note that followed that soap opera format was called 18 Pine Street and it came out in 1992.

The entire series seems to have [00:24:00] been written by Stacie Williams, but similar to how Sweet Valley High was created by Francine Pascal, but actually all written by other authors, 18 Pine Street was created by Walter Dean Myers and it featured a cast of characters who were primarily Black.

So this isn't a comprehensive list, but two notable series I want to call out, came out in the early two thousands and this is when we start getting into the era of books that came out when I was a sentient human being.

Avon True Romance was a line of historical romances written by adult historical romance authors. I found a very useful article with interviews from 2002 on All About Romance, where I got this info. So the author of this section, L L B said, quote, "I knew from earlier conversations with Avon executive editor for romance, Carrie Feron, that Avon was actively seeking ways to pull younger audiences into the romance fold" end quote.

And then they interviewed editor, Abby McAden, who created the Avon True Romance line. And she says that she cut her teeth on Scholastic romances, including the Sunfire line. In addition to reading adult historicals, like The Flame and the Flower and books by Jude Deveraux. And Abby McAden and confirms that she approached adult romance authors already working with Avon because they were a known quantity before she then reached out to other authors, not already in the Avon stable, including Meg Cabot.

The authors in this series include in order of appearance: Lorraine Heath with a Western. Beverly Jenkins with a Civil War romance. Kathryn Smith with a Regency. Margaret Moore with a medieval romance. Meg Cabot with our Regency, and Karen Hawkins with a revolutionary war romance. And there are others and some of these authors repeat, but compared with the Sunfire series, I think the impact of adult romance trends is really clear in this line.

Where Sunfires all took place in America. It was the 1980s. They covered a pretty wide range of time periods and locations. And the authors seemed to be doing like net new original research for each. Meanwhile, adult romance tended to gravitate towards a more narrow range of settings. And these authors are setting their stories in time periods and places that they are known for consistently tromping around in there are adult romances.

So that's just an observation, something I noticed.

Okay. So how does this series do on racial diversity? There are only 12 books in this series and two of them are written by Ms. Bev, AKA Beverly Jenkins, and they have Black characters. Also Miranda and the Warrior has a hero who is indigenous and part of the Cheyenne nation.


In 2007, Kimani, which was Harlequin's line of multicultural romance, created the Kimani Tru line for teen readers. It seems like similar to Silhouette and Avon, they saw that young readers are potential future romance readers. And in addition, there was an [00:27:00] underserved blue ocean market of young readers who were ripe for the picking.

Similar to Kimani books for adults, Kimani Tru, focused on stories by and about people of color. And they went on to publish 49 books over six years, including reissuing Beverly Jenkins' Avon, True Romance historicals. Other than those two though, I'm pretty sure the rest of the Kimani Tru line work, contemporary romances.

Twilight came out in 2007 and that seemed to kick off a whole new age of young adult romance stories, in particular, those driven by authors versus publishers.

So for example, Twilight is a series all written by the same author and the same universe. Whereas all of those romance series I was talking about before, it's a publisher series where the publisher is like, this is what the series is about. And there's all these different authors and all these different stories. You get me.

Plus Twilight seemed to kick off a greater interest in paranormal and fantasy settings as compared to the contemporary or historicals that we've mostly been talking about up until this point.

A lot has happened in Y since then. I haven't experienced it as a participant. And I also haven't done research on YA since then, so that's kind of where we get off the ride today in terms of my history lesson.

Ooh, that was a lot of setup, but it is setting a foundation.

Here is what is coming next as we continue to explore teen romance on Shelf Love. So first we've got Jess who introduced me to Sunfire and she joined me in Shelf Love's outdoor recording studio to talk about Jessica a Sunfire romance.

I also spoke with Candice Ransom who got her start in publishing by writing Sunfire romances. And she was also able to provide more insight into the editorial decisions that were made at the time by Ann Reit because she was her editor at Scholastic. Also Amanda K. Allen who studies junior novels and is also an expert on YA romance, will be sharing way more about the history of YA romance and how it has been and being studied.

And I have other convos that I'm in the process of scheduling, but I get paranoid about announcing things before they've happened. So stay tuned.

What's going on in my life. I went on a bit of a retro book, buying men recently. And that includes a sampling of early YA romance, some of which I've talked about. And so I'm still making my way through reading them and collecting observations. And that binge includes purchasing 231 adult category romances in some lots, mostly from the 1980s.

And it is very possible that I have a problem. But as long as I podcast about it, it's not a problem. Right? Right. Totally.

In addition to talking about YA romance this summer, I will also be discussing adult romance with awesome guests, because I want to know what happens after the kiss. Dammit.

However that is it for today. And yes you did hear right at the beginning. This is now season four of Shelf Love. I'm going to figure out this season's theme. I think it has [00:30:00] something to do with talking about a lot of books again and getting back to the romance, but as always, thanks for coming with me on this journey. And it is a journey.

I appreciate you.

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