Ten Healthy YA Relationships

On this upcoming Valentine’s Day, it’s important to acknowledge that as much as you love someone, you might not be healthy for one another. Be it because your interests don’t match, your ambition is splitting in different directions, or even because you’re emotionally draining one another. My biggest problem with fiction these days - especially YA fiction - is the romantic relationships. Often I’m reading a book, and while I initially appreciate the love story between the protagonist and their love interest, I find myself returning later and often realizing that the relationship between them wasn’t all that healthy. Thus, I’ve compiled a list of books (mostly fantasy series’ because I have a type) with healthy and fulfilling relationships.

I’ve made sure that this list contains diverse books, featuring as many non-white, non-straight characters as possible. There are at least two books with homosexual relationships. (Plus without realizing it, I chose almost entirely female authors, so that’s pretty cool). I’ve personally read each and every book on this list and recommend them with all my heart. The next time you’re in Barnes and Noble, instead of picking up Fifty Shades of Gray, please think about choosing one of these healthier options. Disclaimer: many of these books aren’t healthy until the second, sometimes third or fourth book in the series. Please keep reading! Don’t lose hope in the first novel.

1.       A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

  • This YA fantasy novel is about a young huntress who kills a fae by accident and must atone for it by living in the fae world for the remainder of her life. In an intricate retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the human, Feyre, and fae prince, Tamlin, must learn to get along as she is forced to live in his world. There are two (soon to be three) novels in this adventurous trilogy. Each builds on the last, but does not continue in ways that you’d expect. The themes and complexities of both the characters’, and their intertwining relationships build to an astounding crescendo in the sequel, A Court of Mist and Fury. Sarah J. Maas writes romantic tension like no other, and in the sequel, she leads a powerful discussion on the process of mental recovery and what defines a healthy relationship.

2.       The Young Elites by Marie Lu

  • In The Young Elites, Marie Lu weaves an extraordinary tale of magical surrealism, medieval court rulings and the darkness of the mind. At a young age, countless children fall ill to an aggressive illness which overtook many, and left even more marked and alone. Adelina is one such individual, who at her sixteenth year, has been abused and ostracized by her father to the point that she finally awakens a dark power within herself. But in a world where those marked as “malfettos” are discriminated against by both the Crown and the kingdom, Adelina must decide who to trust: the mysterious Daggers with powers like hers, the Leader of the Inquisition who promises her safety, power and gold, or herself despite the dark failings of her mind. This trilogy promises tricks, romances and countless surprises as Adelina’s mind darkens, and as she surrounds herself with enemies and allies. It also shines a light on romance and whether love is enough of a reason to change a person for the better. Watch for the sequel where Lu makes a point to discuss the important contrast between passion and catharsis.

3.       Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

  • A naïve girl with powers beyond her control is left alone, tortured and locked up in a cell when this book opens. The protagonist, Juliette, doesn’t trust herself, but she begins to trust a mysterious boy when he’s abruptly thrown into her cell, and she’s forced to share her space and thoughts with him. But as she tries to escape and move on despite her situation, she must decide whether she can trust the boy, or beyond that, herself. As this trilogy moves and develops, it focuses on the concept of an untrustworthy narrator whose viewpoint is so narrow that the narrative can’t see the whole picture. The reader has to choose what to believe: Juliette or those around her. And following this, the reader learns what makes one person fit for another, and how we can want to be loved so entirely that we’ll put ourselves in bad situations just for a whisper of affection.

4.       The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

  • At its core, this novel is about a serial killer in charge of a nation, and the girl who tries to take him on. It’s based on an ancient folktale about a king who takes a new wife every day, and kills her the following night. This book, however, is about the wife he didn’t kill. As Shazi grows closer to the murderous king, she realizes that things aren’t as they seem and there’s more to this dangerous man than meets the eye. Ahdieh throws out age old tropes, and keeps this story about the characters at the heart of this book. The Wrath and the Dawn never falls victim to unhealthy concepts, as it’s too focused on character growth and the relationships that develop between Shazi, the king and the members of his court.

5.       Graceling by Kristin Cashore

  • First off, Graceling is part of an independent but interconnected book series that is furthered by Blue, and Fire. All of the stories can be read as stand-alone, but the general universe is the same throughout the books. The basis of this series is that some individuals are born with a skill that they are better at than anyone else. Katsa, the protagonist of Graceling, happens to be graced with killing. Along the course of the novel, she is introduced to another graced individual, Po, whom she begins to develop a close friendship with despite how untrustworthy his skill makes him, and vice versa. Katsa is an incredibly developed and well-written character. She’s diverse, unique, and her relationships, especially with Po, are healthy and trusting above all things. This book shows what it means to trust one another despite the circumstances.

6.       The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

  • Kestrel is the general’s daughter; one day she’s wandering the town square when a slave on auction peaks her curiosity. Her first mistake is in purchasing the slave, Arin, who harbors secrets deeper than she could possibly know. As the two are thrown together, Arin’s secrets and mysterious motives begin to cause tension between them. Eventually Kestrel and Arin may just find themselves on opposite sides of the war to come. There’s a great class divide between their peoples, and to end up together as they both begin to want, they must overcome this barrier. Now, don’t get me wrong. This series is wrought with emotional instability and lies. But by the end of the series, the two protagonists have established and built up a healthy, equal relationship from scratch.

7.       The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

  • The first same-sex relationship on the list so far! Now, this book is for a slightly younger crowd, and the plot isn’t as stable as the rest, but the relationship between protagonist, Greta, and her best friend, Xie, is one of the purest on the list. Greta is a daughter of a world-ruler, and as such, she grows up in a school built for hostages. There, the first-born children of all world-rulers are kept comfortable, well-educated, and safe, until, of course, their parents choose to go to war. In that case, their children are killed. It’s a failsafe used by the almighty A.I., Talis, to keep the countries on Earth as peaceful as possible. Heteronormative assumptions will lead you to believe Greta will fall for newcomer, Elian, but when push comes to shove, any romantic feelings she has are directed toward Xie, her fellow princess and hostage. The two are inseparable and support each other consistently. It’s easy to fall in love with their love. Be warned though, this book’s romance takes second fiddle to its larger plot.

8.       The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

  • I’d like to make it clear that this novel was not included for the romance of the protagonists, Blue and Gansey. While they are fairly healthy and just as investing, the true romance of the series lies with two male characters. I don’t want to spoil anything by telling you who, in the fourth book, The Raven King, becomes a part of this healthy, same-sex relationship based entirely on mutual respect. But it’s entirely worth the wait when the secondary romance blooms. One of the characters in this series comes out slowly over the course of the novels, but it’s subtle, and neither of the characters ever experience anything less than love and acceptance from their friends. Stiefvater writes this same-sex relationship without every truly forcing labels onto her characters which is entirely refreshing.

9.       Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

  • I don’t know if anyone remembers this book, but it was my favorite in middle school. I took a second to reread it last semester and found that it held up more than I’d ever expected. The characters and writing style may be a little younger than the rest on this list, but Westerfeld never strays from breaching darker and pivotal themes. Unfortunately, the relationships in the first book are not healthy, and the protagonist, Tally, is in a very bad place as she’s forced by the government to go spy on her best friend, Shay. She follows Shay into the wild instead of undergoing a life-changing operation, and what she finds in the woods is not what she ever expected. Tally’s mental strength is infallible, and so interesting to follow. It takes more energy to put this series’ down than to pick it up. Technically this trilogy could be considered a love triangle, but in the sequel, Tally makes an important decision that sets her apart from any other romantic protagonist. I’m begging you to give this series a chance, but be warned: sometimes the dystopian themes are just relevant enough to be scary.

10.   The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

  • The title is not misleading; this book is full of deception. There’s a twist that you may catch (that I did not). There are lies all over the place, and as Lia chooses between two men, one an assassin, and the other a prince, she is unaware of either of their professions. Lia is just as in the dark as we are, reader, and if anything, that makes the revelation of the book even more intense. This series is about Lia, a princess on course to marry for her father’s alliance with another kingdom, but in the first chapter, she decides “screw that” and runs off instead. Unknowingly, Lia is followed by her curious betrothed, and the assassin another kingdom sends to take her out. Now, I need to be clear: the healthy relationship doesn’t become “healthy” until the second book when Lia and the man she chooses must set aside their lies and trust one another fully to escape a sinister plot. This book takes the typical “relationship falls apart because of lies” trope and turns it on its head, as instead of falling apart, their relationship grows in strength and they learn to rely on each other as they never have before.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

    • The protagonists in this time traveling adventure connect immediately, and spend most of the book deciding whether to fight or accept the bond between them. This book turns a lot of common tropes on its head, and never strays from dealing with controversial topics.

  2. If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

    • Another same-sex relationship! This book is actually the only realistic fiction novel on the list (because I have a problem). Farizan weaves a phenomenally bittersweet story about lovers, Sahar and Nasrin, an Iranian couple who are pulled apart by the homophobic laws of their society.

  3. Cinder by Marissa Meyer

    • Cinder is a Cyborg-Cinderella who wants nothing more than to be free of the rules forced upon cyborgs and other robotic members of society. But when she meets Prince Kai, her life is catapulted in another direction entirely. Cinder is the first book in a four-part series following futuristic adaptations of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White.

  4. Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis

    • Otherbound is easily the most diverse book on this entire list. One of the protagonists, Amara, is a mute, bisexual slave in love with the princess of color she’s been assigned to protect. The other protagonist, Nolan, is a Spanish boy handicapped by a car in childhood who still has seizures because of the accident. Set in two different dimensions, the relationships that develop along the course of this adventure will have you smiling for weeks.

Happy Valentine’s Day, folks! I hope you enjoy these books as much as I did. And remember, just because you’re reading healthier doesn’t mean you have to eat healthier. You can still eat all the chocolate you want.