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To 11 YA Romances I've Loved Before

by Mary Chase
Posted on December 6, 2019

This list started out with 24 YA Romance contenders and still seemed way too short. But I wanted to do a top ten list. After much struggle and heartache and concern that I wasn’t representing a diverse enough range of love stories, I decided to get over myself. This is just one list. One snapshot of characters who made me wish I could fall in love for the first time all over again (which is not to say these are all first-time love stories). And I like funny books with awkward, possibly sarcastic characters, and only a little heartbreak. It doesn’t make the tearjerkers any less great, but this is my list, and my very favorite books don’t leave me a sobbing puddle on the floor.

I cut 13 very deserving books (sorry Simon and The Sun is Also a Star and Annie on My Mind which blew up my world in the best way when I read it in middle school), leaving me with this top ten list of 11 favorite YA Romances. Feel free to judge me harshly for my contradictory bad math!

1. To All the Boys I've Loved Before

by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

If you haven’t read the book, I’m sure you’ve seen the Netflix movie version. I almost left this book off the list. Everyone already knows about it, right? But what if you don't? I can't have that on my conscience. Lara Jean writes letters to boys she’s had secret crushes on when she’s ready to “get over” them. She keeps them in a hat box until one day that hat box disappears. Was it accidentally donated to Goodwill? Is it hiding under a pile somewhere in her room? Or did all the letters get mailed out to said boys? It’s the last one. Every single letter gets mailed (which begs the question why she actually addressed the envelopes, but…) This includes a letter to her sister’s recent ex-boyfriend, and trying to avoid him leads to one of the greatest executions of the pretend-to-be-dating romance trope that I’ve ever read. Just thinking about the moment when the boys start coming up to Lara Jean in school to confront her, letters in hand, still makes my stomach lurch in a tsunami of panic. It’s mortifying. Which is why this book is so great (the movie is pretty great too; Peter Kavinsky is super dreamy in both versions), and why I had to include it even though you already know it’s great (note to people who haven’t read it: this is a 3-book series that ends with cliffhangers; prepare to read on!).

2. Why We Broke Up

by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Why We Broke Up

This is the book I want my daughters to read before they start seriously dating anyone. It’s funny, stream-of-consciousness, but also sad because your first heartbreak (and, who am I kidding, all the ones that come after too) is crushing. And who among us hasn’t wanted to write a 354-page diatribe about why it happened, how it could have been avoided, and how you should have seen the portents along the way? A ticket to a movie you loved and he didn’t really get. A pinhole camera he buys you even though to him it just looks like a box. A one-line note folded to look like an origami spaceship, the least romantic of all ships. And every one of these reasons is beautifully illustrated by Maira Kalman. I thought this promotional video of the author interviewing people in Grand Central Station about break-ups was hysterical.

3. The Upside of Unrequited

by Becky Albertalli

The Upside of Unrequited

I read this book first in the Simonverse series, so out of order, and I adored anxious, cardigan-wearing, Pinterest-loving, wondering-if-she’ll-ever-get-kissed Molly. She felt so much more believable to me than many of the have-it-all-together characters of other romances. That’s probably because I was (am?) anxious Molly. The book starts with her twin sister Cassie, who has enough confidence for both of them and plenty of relationship experience, meeting the girl of her dreams and trying to set Molly up with new-girlfriend's best friend Will. Meanwhile, Molly is starting to fall for her Dungeons-and-Dragon’s-loving co-worker, Reid, but doesn’t know how to read anything but the Game of Thrones quotes on his t-shirts. It’s a great, funny, geeky, LGBTQ+ affirming book.

4. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

by David Levithan & Rachel Cohn

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

A night spent running around the city looking for a secret concert and spilling your guts to an attractive stranger seems perfect to me. There’s something so intimate about this book. The timing and the conversations and the intensity of the characters all work perfectly. It’s told in Nick and Norah’s alternating points of view, and I love the story of how it was written. Rachel Cohn and David Levithan traded chapters back and forth without discussing the overall plot. All they knew going in was that it would take place in 24-hours over one night in New York City. I got jealous reading this article about their seemingly-simple, super-effective process.

5. Emergency Contact

by Mary H.K. Choi

Emergency Contact

Everyone needs an emergency contact like Sam. Penny finds Sam in a precarious position one morning (I won’t give it away, but I thought the whole situation was a perfect piece of black comedy). They are virtual strangers, but they put each other’s numbers in their phones under the name “emergency contact” and start a text friendship that is delightful. This book is hysterically funny, but also deals with some heavy issues about family and mental health and poverty. It also gives a great snapshot into the stresses of freshmen year in college. I loved everything about the way that Penny and Sam interacted, and I only wanted more of them when the book ended.

6. Eleanor & Park

by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park

This pick is not unexpected on any list of favorite YA romances, and therefore almost feels like a cop out. However, being a chubby redhead myself who did not have a bus seat-mate to share comics books and mix tapes with like Park in high school, I will always love this book. That’s not the only reason though. There’s the three pages devoted to describing the first time they hold hands. There’s the way she’s the Han Solo in the relationship. There’s the lovely story arc with Park’s parents where you see them both in a different light at the end of the story. I read the book in one night because I couldn't bear to put it down and I’ve read it many times since because I didn't want the book to end.

7. Isla and the Happily Ever After

by Stephanie Perkins

Isla and the Happily Ever After

This is the third book in Stephanie Perkins series. I liked them all, but this is the only one I loved. Anna and St. Claire kind of bugged me in Anna and the French Kiss. I was completely in love with Cricket (because who wouldn’t be?) in Lola and the Boy Next Door, but Lola’s arc left me frustrated. Isla and the Happily Ever After, the final book in the series, starts out with Isla running into her long-time-crush-from-school-abroad Josh in New York where both their families live. She’s high on pain killers after getting her wisdom teeth out which is the only reason she’s brave enough to talk to him. I laughed out loud a lot reading this one and I liked both Isla and Josh so much. I really wanted them to get the happily ever after the title promised, and loved their journey along the way.

8. Dreamology

by Lucy Keating

Dreamology

This is a trippy one, and I can’t say much about it without spoilers. Alice has been dreaming of Max her whole life. Literally. In her dreams, he’s her perfect boyfriend and they go on crazy, somewhat psychedelic adventures. So what happens when she moves and bumps into a real-life Max at her new school? This is not your cookie-cutter romance. Reading it set off all sorts of fantasies about what could be possible if dreams really could come true. It also made me think about whether or not some of those dreams are better left in your subconscious.

9. The Geography of Lost Things

by Jessica Brody

The Geography of Lost Things

A road trip book by the author of one of my favorite books on the craft of writing (Save the Cat Writes a Novel), so of course the story is amazing. Ali and her mom can’t afford the mortgage on their house anymore. When her absentee father dies and leaves Ali his old 1968 Firebird Convertible, she decides to sell it to try and save her home. A potential buyer is willing to pay top dollar but he wants her to drive the car across the state to him, and she can’t drive stick. Insert her ex, Nico, who can. He offers to drive, and Ali says yes because she's out of options. The road trip offers plenty of opportunity for complications and ruminations on why they broke up in the first place. And, of course, new, budding tension because maybe they shouldn’t have. Then more residual tension, because maybe breaking up was the best thing they ever did. The story is so well constructed, and I ended up falling in love with both of the characters. There’s also a fascinating trading-things-up-on-Craig’s-List subplot that made me want to see how far I could go with a scrunchie.

10. Letters to the Lost

by Brigid Kemmerer

Letters to the Lost

Most of the books on this list are funny. This one falls into a heavier category. Juliet’s mom died in a car accident, and to help her process the loss, she leaves notes at her mother’s grave. Declan has crippling problems of his own and crippling guilt, which has culminated with a community service sentence that he serves mowing lawns at the cemetery. He answers Juliet’s letter anonymously, and they begin writing back and forth, sharing more with each other than they’d ever share with anyone in person. In real life, the two come from very different social circles, but keep crossing paths and don’t get along (because of course they don’t!). The slow build to finding out they are each other's secret pen pals is perfect.

11. I'll Give You the Sun

by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the Sun

Every other sentence in this book made me wish I’d written it. I'll Give You the Sun isn’t strictly a romance. It’s a family story about twins dealing with jealously, competitiveness, a devastating loss, and coming to terms with who they are. The early years of the story are told by Jonah, and his twin sister, Jude, tells the later years after a rift has torn the siblings apart. Over the course of rebuilding their world, they each have their own beautiful love story which qualifies this book, one of my all-time favorites, for this list.

Which of these do you love, and which books would you recommend adding? I'd love to hear about your favorite YA romances! Maybe I'll have to start a second or third list...

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