The Great RITA Read: Young Adult Romace 

Young Adult Romance is a unique category in the Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award.

All the other categories are defined by their genre or length, but the YA category is defined by its intended audience. That means stories set in any genre can—and have—won the Young Adult Romance RITA Award. Those genres include contemporary, historicals, suspense, urban fantasy, and dystopian fantasy.

It also means that interest in young adult romance has waxed and waned since the YA award was created in 1983. Cheryl Zach, who won the award three times, was the most prominent early YA author in the 1980s and 1990s, winning in 1985, 1986 and 1996.

But then there was a long gap. RWA officials said that the YA Romance RITA award was always available for entry, but lack of entries lead to no awards being given between 1997-2007.

This revitalization is likely due to a book that never won the award at all: Adios To My Old Life by Caridad Ferrer. This novel, about a teenage girl who enters a reality show music competition, won the Contemporary Single Title Romance RITA in 2007. Ferrer had originally entered her book in YA but that category didn’t have enough entries, so it was moved to contemporary romance, where it unexpectedly was the victor. In her emotional acceptance speech, Ferrer urged other YA writers to write their stories and enter their books.

And since 2008, YA Romance RITA Award winners have included dystopian and urban fantasy coming-of-age stories, such as the The Iron King by Julie Kagawa, and The Farm by Emily McKay, along with the contemporary tales, such as the latest winner, 2017’s The Problem With Forever by Jennifer L. Armentrout.

But whatever the genre or the year of publication, there have been two constants for the RITA Award winner in YA romance:

First, they’re the heroine’s story. Not one of the young adult romances I found still available featured the hero’s story first. They all begin with the heroine. The recent YA RITA Award winners feature first-person narration from the heroine’s point of view. Among the earlier winners, it’s generally a third-person narration that always includes the heroine’s point of view.

Second, the young adult romances are intensely emotional tales.

I discovered some delightful stories but also some shockers. We modern readers sometimes believe we’ve invented something new, but it might surprise you to learn that the winner in 1992 was Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep by Lurlene McDaniel, and it featured two young cancer patients falling in love. (Yes, many years before John Green delved into similar territory with The Fault In Our Stars.)

And reading Cheryl Zach’s books showed me that these early stories set the standard for quality and emotional involvement. Zach’s award winners—The Frog Princess (1985), Waiting for Amanda (1986), and Runaway (1996)—put her in the RWA Hall of Fame in 1996. She’s one of the few (if not the only) romance writer to receive the three different versions of the Award now known as the RITA: a plaque (1985), a large wooden “book” with a round medallion in its center (1986), and the now-traditional RITA statue in 1996.

Zach was the third member of that Hall of Fame, preceded only by Nora Roberts and LaVryle Spencer. It’s a shame that these three of Zach’s books are out of print, because while some details of the world might seem dated, their quality is unmistakable. But Zach also writes historical novels under her own name and as Nicole Byrd, and many of those later Zach and Byrd books are available for sale.

Waiting for Amanda, my favorite of Zach’s three winners, is the story of a teenage girl who is left bereft by the death of her mother, and shipped off with her younger sister to a distant relative in a small town. It’s clear the heroine is traumatized and has what we’d now call PTSD due to grief and past abuse from the father who abandoned them. She buries her grief by keeping busy, and there’s much that needs doing, including cleaning up the hoarding mess created by her new guardian, her great-aunt, and watching over her sister, who’s expressing her own grief by acting out in various ways. Amanda’s story would resonate today, even with the few anachronisms–no cell phones, and the inability to, well, locate people who have left town.

I asked Zach what led her to writing young adult stories.

“I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, wrote for the school paper in high school and college, in was published book reviews in the local city paper. After college, I started trying to publish books, slowed by having children—would still have the children!—finally succeeded. I got the idea for Frog Princess from an incident that happened while I was still teaching at high school—what would happen if someone was elected class president as a prank? The plot for Waiting for Amanda came to me as I was finishing the first book.

Runaway, the last award winner, came straight out of a newspaper story in back pages…I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it as it seemed pretty sad, but it wouldn’t leave me. I happened to speak to an editor shortly afterward, mentioned the story idea, and she immediately wanted the book. Something happened then that I had heard about but not experienced before: the characters took over and would not do what I had planned…I had to call my editor and tell her the book was going to end differently than I had expected. But it turned out to be one of my strongest books, I think, and certainly one of my favorites.”

She said that YA books have seen an evolution over the years.

“Early on, I well remember editors taking out lines or passages or nixing topics I was not allowed to write about. Runaway was a step forward in what I was free to cover. Now about anything goes. I do agree with the late great Madeleine L’Engle that young readers deserve some hope at the end of the book (as opposed to adult readers). She also said the best writing was being done for young readers!”

Adios To My Old Life was somewhat of a departure for Caridad Ferrer, who has also written When The Stars Go Blue and Between Here and Gone as Barbara Ferrer.

“Since YA had been such an unexpected detour in terms of my writing, it’s not a world I was ever very in touch with. What influences I did have, were more rooted in the books I’d read growing up. Judy Blume, for example, and oddly, some of the books that were quote/unquote “children’s” books when they were first published, but had a lot of YA influence to them, like Beverly Cleary’s Sister of the Bride and Jean and Johnnyand Fifteen—books that might seem dated because of when they were written, but the underlying story structure is sound and timeless.

“I also referred to a lot of the coming of age stories I’d read as a kid and teenager, like Fox Running and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel and The Witch of Blackbird Pond—all which fall in line with my preference for writing older teen characters (as all three of my YA novels and the two novellas showcased).”

The last three winners of the YA RITA have all been contemporary stories, which made me wonder if that’s a new trend. I asked Ferrer about where they saw the Young Adult RITA category going in the future.

“I honestly could not tell you,” Ferrer said. “What I can tell from looking at the winners in the ten years since I won my RITA (albeit in a different category), is that there’s been something of a shift from paranormal/dystopian skewed YA toward more realistic, contemporary YA. I can’t help but wonder if Adiós would have even won in 2007, had there been a YA category that year, and how my later YA novels, which were more of the realistic contemporary (and weren’t as well received) would do if they were published now. Beyond that, it’s going to be interesting to see which way the pendulum swings in the next decade.”

Zach says she still reads young adult books and enjoys young adult books and stories.

“Recent books I’ve enjoyed include Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys quartet, Sonia Gensler’s The Dark Between, and Tracy Barrett’s historical fiction such as King of Ithaka.”

As for advice for anyone who wants to write young adult stories, romance or not, and perhaps become the future of young adult romance?

“Anyone who wants to write should read lots of books and write, write, write and write some more,” Zach said.

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