YA Kisses, Done Wrong and Done Right (part I)

I think everyone can remember the first time they were reading a book and a kiss scene did… that. You know, made you think “hmm, maybe kissing another person isn’t gross and I might want to do it.” I also know that for every one of those scenes there are probably about 20 from other young adult literature that are terribly unrealistic and weirdly described. Then there are the books that are great: vibrant characters, exciting plot, a romance that enhances the story and makes sense within the boundaries of character. And then we get to the Big Kiss Scene, and it’s just…not what it should be.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into my memory and see what romantic moments did or didn’t pique my teenage interest.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Both of these books have a fantastic central romance that drives the plot, but other than that they’re very different. Like, literal worlds apart. Graceling takes place in a world which we call (surprisingly) the Graceling Universe. It’s classic fantasy: no electricity, they ride horses, the idea of marriage is very much “men have power, women have babies.” Jellicoe Road takes place at a boarding school in Australia (which is situated, you guessed it! On Jellicoe road), and we have the complications of lightbulbs and phones and children with no parental supervision.

The central romances of both novels have characters that start off fighting. In Graceling they’re physical fights; both Katsa and Po are renowned for their physical abilities and they spar for practice. Jellicoe Road features a territory war between three groups of high schoolers, based mostly on rule violations more than any real sort of violence, that feature Taylor and Jonah as opposing generals. Obviously both pairs fall in love, and we have two very different but equally as beautiful romances on our hands. However, their first kisses vary wildly in quality.

Let’s start with Graceling.

I want to start by saying that I love Katsa and Po. I really do. I said Graceling was a strong love story and I meant it; I don’t think there’s anyone who reads it that’s not rooting for the pair of them, and their relationship helps not only helps Katsa grow into a better person, it helps her grow into her own person. All that in a fantasy society where misogyny runs rampant, might I add.

Their social interactions are sweet, and funny, and sometimes steamy. They have some truly inspired kisses in Bitterblue, a companion novel in the same universe. But their first kiss, the one that’s supposed to be the culmination of 250 pages of setup and turmoil and endless drama. Instead, we get a bit of a fight and a weird cry, and then a profoundly disappointing and awkward paragraph of kissing without any actual talk of kissing.

She wiped her face on his shirt. She wrapped her arms around his neck. She felt warm in his arms, and calm, and safe and brave. And then she was laughing, laughing at how nice it felt, how good his body felt on hers. He grinned at her, a wicked, gleaming grin that made her warm everywhere. And then his lips touched her throat and nuzzled her neck. She gasped. His mouth found hers. She turned to fire.

Here’s the thing: it’s not bad, exactly. It’s a little awkward to read, but that can be attributed to Cashore’s writing style, which fits the universe in its slightly formal word choice and sentence structure. It’s just that this paragraph is what we get as a first kiss, after more than one discussion of marriage and babies and love. It feels like it should be steamier, or at least truer to the characters.

If it sounds like I’m being harsh, it’s only because I know Cashore can do so much better. I understand that she doesn’t want to come out and describe every detail of the kiss. This is YA, I agree that I don’t need to know whose tongue was where and what it was doing. I’m cool with a sentence that implies steaminess instead of showing it, so the romance can work for multiple age levels. Take this quote, from Bitterblue:

She had seen Kasta and Po kissing, she’d stumbled upon them once in her own stables, one fo them pushing the other against a tower of hay, and once at the end of a corridor late at night, where they’d been little more than dark shapes and glimmers of gold, making small noises, barely moving, oblivious.

Plainly Cashore knows how to write a good kiss without really writing a kiss at all. It’s just frustrating that she couldn’t do that for Katsa and Po’s first kiss, because it could have been so much more.

Speaking of more, let’s talk about Jellicoe Road.

I’m not sure how many people have read this book, but it’s definitely up there on the list of Books That Changed My Life. It’s complex, it’s got a fantastic mystery that plays with time and wraps up with little to no plot holes or false leads, and it’s written in beautiful and accessible language. And it has some fantastic kisses, especially Taylor and Jonah’s first.

What makes it so great is that it’s the Christmas holidays, so they’re in the middle of a truce from their turf war. Jonah and Chaz (a townie) drove over to pick Taylor up at her friend’s house, and she was wearing a see-through nightgown that Jonah found weirdly hot. They’re mingling and having fun at the Club House, which is such a departure from the normal angst that it feels like the most special of moments. And, then.

I take deep breaths, looking at the town stretched in front of me. When I turn around, he cups my face in his hands and he kisses me so deeply that I don’t know who’s breathing for who, but his mouth and tongue taste like warm honey. I don’t know how long it lasts, but when I let go of him I miss it instantly. 

I don’t want to go too in-depth about the journey all the Jellicoe Road characters go through, because then I’d have to reveal secrets I don’t want to reveal. I do want to talk about this kiss, though. There’s no emotional analysis beforehand. There’s no fire euphemisms. It’s just two teenagers and present tense verbs and enough specific imagery that you can create a deeper picture in your mind.

This book contains more Great Kisses, but I’m bringing up this one because it’s a particularly good first kiss, which, as we’ve seen, can be hard to pull off. It’s also under appreciated and needs more love, so I hope I’ve given it some of the admiration it deserves.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of me analyzing book kisses, because I think it’s important that YA books get them right. Thanks for reading this far, and if you’re so inclined let me know what your favorite steamy scenes are–I’d love to pit them against mine in a grudge match.

Here’s to more and better kisses for Kasta and Taylor, because they deserve them.

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