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.
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.
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.
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?