The Return of Kids’ Books I Like!

It’s been a while since I wrote about the children’s and YA literature that captures my fancy, but recently I was asked a question that inspired me. Our own Mini Belle told me she was on a quest to find books with strong female protagonists that weren’t ultimately love stories. When she asked me if I could think of any, I perused my bookshelves. The first book to jump out at me was Spindle’s End, by Robin McKinley. It is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, and while her best friend has a fairytale romance, the romantic storyline for Sleeping Beauty takes up about two paragraphs, at the very end of the book, and the whole thing is very matter-of-fact and down to earth, much like Sleeping Beauty herself.

I love this book so much, it is not uncommon for me to start rereading it five minutes after finishing it.

Since then, I have looked some more at my collection, and I have found quite a few non-romantic YA books. Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, has a number of options. Howl’s Moving Castle is like Spindle’s End, in that the first time the main characters get even a little lovey-dovey is on the last page of the book. One of its sequels, House of Many Ways, has no romantic entanglements at all for its leading lady Charmain, unless you count the stray dog that adopts her. One of my favorite of all her books is The Year of the Griffin. The main character is a griffin named Elda who has just begun magical studies at university and she is much more interested in the wonders of magic and college than she is in boys. In general, her books focus on the characters and the story. If there is a romantic element, it is very much a secondary storyline.

The Enchanted Forest by Patricia C. Wrede
You have to love characters who value common sense over flowery romance.

Patricia C. Wrede is very similar in her treatment of romance. In Talking to Dragons, Princess Cimorene is completely dismissive of fairytale romances and the way her parents expect her to marry a prince she hardly knows and act like a proper princess. Instead, she runs away and volunteers to be a dragon’s princess. In the next book, Searching for Dragons, she has an adventure with the young, handsome king of the Enchanted Forest. At the end of the book, they admit that they have fallen for each other, but their relationship is based on mutual respect, an ability to talk openly with each other and an admiration of how the other handles stressful situations. The other two books in the series are similar. If two characters fall for each other, it is less a sweeping romance and more like two people who realize that they really enjoy talking and arguing with each other.

My beloved shelf of Tamora Pierce books

I also like Tamora Pierce’s take on love stories. They are very relatable and/or realistic, IMHO. Let’s look at three of her biggest quartets; The Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, and The Protector of the Small. The Song of the Lioness features Alana, who dates around like a normal teenage girl until she ultimately marries one of her oldest friends. Her dating meshes fairly seamlessly with her education as a knight and makes her seem like a more well-rounded character. The Immortals is about Daine the wildmage, and true love does’t enter her story until about half-way through the fourth book. Keladry, of The Protector of the Small quartet, is my favorite as far as romance goes. She works her ass off as a page, squire and knight, doing everything she can to prove that girls deserve the chance to be trained as knights. Along the way, she gets the occasional crush. She even has a boyfriend for a while, but when he starts talking about marriage and babies, her reaction is, “I can’t get married now, I have too much other stuff to do first!” Much like Wrede and Jones, when her characters fall in love, you are happy for them, but it’s an embellishment to the story arc, not the whole point of it.

These are three of my favorites, but there are a lot of other options to choose from, especially if you open it up to male protagonists. For the boys, I’ve got Charlie Bone, the hero of a series by Jenny Nimmo, Septimus Heap, brought to life by Angie Sage, and Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins. If you are gender neutral when it comes to choosing protagonists, I suggest Sir Terry Pratchett (especially the Lancre witches books) and The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott.

It is pretty hard to find books that are completely devoid of romance, unless they are about young children. Do you all have any suggestions to add to Mini Belle’s list?

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[E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at www.etsy.com/shop/AngryOwlStudio if you're interested in checking it out.

10 thoughts on “The Return of Kids’ Books I Like!”

  1. First off, I absolutely adore every book you mentioned in this article, and I love seeing them all here on P-Mag.

    I second, third, and eighth the Kristin Cashore books.  I LOVE her,  Graceling reads in a few ways like it’s clearly a first novel, but I still love it.  Fire has a little more romance than the other two, but I think Bitterblue handles romance in perhaps the most graceful way of all three, especially given the age and position of the protagonist.  Anyways, these are all fabulous books, and interested and focused on a lot more than romance.

    I also recommend Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor.  It’s a really fun fantasy, with a great female protagonist, and really doesn’t have any romance at all that I can recall.  On top of that, it’s got one of the most unique and creative magical systems that I’ve ever read about.  I also liked Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott.  It’s a little rough in some places, not the very best writing, but it deals with racism/fantastic racism in a really good way, and the main character definitely has great development and growth.  Again, I don’t recall any romance, although it’s been a while since I read it so I could be forgetting something.

    Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong also I recall having little to no romance, and great heroines.  They skew a little younger, but I remember really loving them when I was a pre-teen/early teenager, and re-reading them up to my 20s.

    The Mysterious Benedict Society books by Trenton Lee Jones have a male protagonist technically, but they’re largely ensemble casts with two really wonderful female characters, and at least through the second book, absolutely NO romance.  The characters are kids not teenagers, but the books are wonderful (I just read them this fall, so it’s not even nostalgia talking.)

    Also, most McKinley books do have some romance (what with mostly being fairy tale re-tellings) but in all of them, the heroines are awesome strong women, and the focus is more on their character development and badassness than the romance.  Plus Robin McKinley is AWESOME.  I would avoid recommending Deerskin to teenagers though, because it’s a tough read and not in any way intended to be a YA.  Same with Sunshine.  All her other books though are must-reads in my opinion.

    Liar by Justine Larbalestier is a phenomenal, if intense and frustrating book, with a romantic element but not really about that.  It’s very suspenseful, and is the kind of book that sticks with you.  After reading it, check out Larbalestier’s essay Ain’t That a Shame (http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/07/23/aint-that-a-shame/) about the whitewashing of the cover – it’s a great read.

    That’s all I got for now, although I’m sure more will pop into my head.  Happy reading, Mini Belle!

    Sincerely, -Future YA Librarian

  2. I love Garth Nix’s books. The Abhorsen books all feature female main characters, and while they do feature a bit of romance, it’s secondary to the plot and very understated. The first book has the most romance. The main character, Sabriel, saves a prince from a curse, but it happens while she’s in the middle of a quest to save her father’s life, and her feelings take back seat. About the most play out it gets is a sort of humorous scene when she thinks she overhears him having sex with a hotel maid, and the tacit acknowledgement that they end up getting married (books two and three feature their kids). The second books as no romance at all, and in the third book the romance doesn’t really happen until the end (as in the character’s don’t even meet until that point), and then it’s left at the very early, shy “We sort of like each other” phase, not “True love at last!”. There is a novela that takes place after the series told from the male love interest of the third book’s perspective and it’s shown in that to still be at the budding relationship level a little further on in time.

    The Keys to the Kingdom books are maybe a bit more young than adult in terms of character ages, but I read them in my twenties and found them fascinating. The main character is a boy, but his two closest companions are both girls (and there is no romance with either, at all). Also in the main character’s family, Mom is a very important scientist and Dad works from home (added bonus, Mom is not frigid and uncaring while Dad is warm and nurturing, both parents are shown to be caring, good people).

  3. I would recommend the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy. The book has very little romance (Valkyrie does have a boyfriend at some point in the series, but it’s a very realistic teenage relationship and they eventually break up), and focuses mainly on the main character Valkyrie and her relationship with her friend/mentor skulduggery. There are also a lot of strong and varied female characters in Tanith Low and China Sorrows, and the friendships between the women are very developed.

  4. 1. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Strong female characters? Check. Romance not a strong focus in the story? Check. Granted, it is quite dark and does deal with adult matters, but there are lots of young readers that can handle that.

    2. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Eilonwy  is such a great character — sure, she can be silly and she has her weaknesses, but she’s also very smart, strong and opinionated. Plus, her relationship with Taran comes out of a very long and close (though querulous) friendship.

    3. Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale. This is actually a graphic novel — still a fantastic read, though. This Rapunzel gives the one in Tangled a run for her money. She’s tough, smart, resourceful and brave — and she doesn’t need a prince to rescue her!  If there is any romance, it’s kept to a minimum and it comes out of a relationship between equals who respect each other and have each other’s back.  (Also, I love the AU Western setting.)

    Bonus Round: The Forestwife by Theresa Tomlinson. Great feminist re-imagining of the Robin Hood mythos.   It mostly focuses on Marian (or in this version, Mary de Holt) and her journey of self-discovery. The romance is an integral part of the story, but it’s not very crucial.

  5. I  always end up going back to the Louisa May Alcott or L.M. Montgomery books.  There are romances in these if they end up being series.  But a lot of times the romances are very sweet and about accepting people for who they are and loving each other on an equal footing.  Which is important for young girls to know.

    And A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is very good.  And I always hear The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor is good, too.  The series is on my Kindle and I have yet to read it!

  6. I’d recommend Kristin Cashore’s books: Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue (which should be read in that order). They all have elements of romance in them, but it is not the focus. Graceling has actually gotten a lot of criticism because SPOILER the protagonist is not interested in getting married (gasp!) END SPOILER. All three feature strong female protagonists, though they show their strength in different ways. They are all fantasy and are all set in the same world. Bitterblue features characters from both of the previous books, although Fire is considered a companion novel instead of a sequel to Graceling. They all cover some real-world issues in a manner that I’ve heard is similar to Tamora Pierce (although I have yet to read her books), such as homosexuality, self-injury, birth-control, pre-marital sex, long-distance relationships, familial pressure, abuse of power, politics, and more. In particular, I appreciate her characters’ ability to be in a romantic relationships without getting married and/or having children.

  7. I love love love Patricia C Wrede’s dragon series. The humor and the total disagreement with standard fairytale stereotypes appealed to me as a nascent feminist at about age 7. At that point I was already making up stories about princesses who were far more kick-ass than their princeley counterparts. Though I do remember once turning in a story (poem?) in which I said I was a prince rescuing a princess and my teacher corrected me saying I couldn’t be a prince. Tiny me objected greatly to that concept. I didn’t think that being a prince should depend upon your gender but rather upon your function (much as the dragons in Wrede’s books think).

    1. It’s so true. I have a series of stories in my head where, instead of princes always rescuing princesses, you have questers, who are young royals of any gender going out on quests to qualify to be rulers. I think they would rock if I could actually get them down on paper.

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