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.
But I’ve written about two sad and terrible kiss scenes, and I’m tired of it! Just tired.
So I’m here to talk about the kiss that inspired this deep dive into what makes good young adult romance: Cath and Levi in Fangirl.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
The most important thing to me about Fangirl’s kissing scenes are that Cath, our anxious protagonist, is so nervous to kiss her boyfriend that she waits about a month into their relationship before she tries anything. And that’s not portrayed at all as being bad, or annoying. If anything Levi (strapping and considerate boyfriend) is happy they’re waiting, because he wants her to be ready. He wants everything to be good for Cath, because she deserves it. My God, does she deserve it.
And they have a conversation. An honest to God, enthusiastic consent only conversation. Levi asks if it’s still about earning his trust. Cath is honest, and admits that it’s because she’s nervous she’s going to do something wrong. There’s no shame, there’s no dismissal. There’s just Levi doing his best to understand and make his significant other feel safe, and Cath doing her best to understand and make her significant other feel loved.
He was right: As long as she was reading, it was almost like he was touching someone else. Which was kind of messed up, now that she thought about it…
Cath let her phone drop to the floor.
She slowly turned towards Levi, feeling her waist twist in his arms, looking up as far as his chin and shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No. I don’t want to be distracted. I want to touch you back.”
And then, what we’ve all been waiting for. Kissing ensues.
This isn’t the first kissing scene in these books, and it isn’t the last. What I like the most about this one, though, is that it’s funny and realistic and, somehow, hot. There’s constant communication and reassurance and we don’t lose the characters in descriptions of mouths and teeth and tongues.
(That’s not to say that we don’t get descriptions of mouths and teeth and tongues, because we do, and they’re great.)
Anyways, the chapter I’m referring to is many many pages and I can’t quote them all so I’m going to give you one more taste of it, but then what you’ve got to do is just go read the book. Read the whole thing. And if you already have, you know what I’m talking about.
“I just like you so much,” he said, his head falling back against the couch. “Even more than that, you know?”
“And here,” she said, pushing her nose up against his ears. Levi’s earlobes were attached to his head. Which made Cath think of Punnett squares. And Mendel. And made her try to pull his earlobe away with her teeth. “You’re really good here,” she said. He brought his shoulders up, like it tickled.
“C’mere, c’mere,” he said, pulling at her waist. She was sitting just beside him, and he seemed to want her in his lap.
“I’m heavy,” she said.
And I know that this book is set in college, and it makes sense that Rowell describes these scenes with more detail than in something like Harry Potter or the Graceling series. Those are for younger readers, and it makes sense that we just get the mouths, and not the rest of it. But what makes this scene so great is the communication and the internal monologue.
Cath is nervous. She feels like she’s going to mess it up. Emotionally, she’s young–she’s had about the same amount of kissing experience that a lot of younger characters in YA do. But you can tell that she really wants this, and you can tell that Levi wants it just as much despite the fact that he’s had more experience. You can tell that what makes them happy isn’t just the physical stuff, it’s that they’re doing it with each other. That’s what I’m looking for in a kiss scene.
They don’t even need to be kissing! Like, okay, here’s another inspired moment from Rainbow Rowell’s brain:
Cath wanted to go back and rewrite every scene she’s ever written about Baz or Simon’s chests. She’d written them flat and sharp and hard. Levi was also soft motion and breath, curves and warm hollows. Levi’s chest was a living thing.
“You’re beautiful,” she said.
“Don’t argue with me. You’re beautiful.”
And, okay, I get it. I’m being overkill here. It’s just that I could quote literally any Cath and Levi scene here and I’d be able to come to the same conclusion: it’s hot because they love each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read kissing scenes that are other kinds of hot. I’m talking the passionate kind between people that don’t like each other very much, or dark characters doing dark and sexy things, or, I don’t know. Different things get different people going, it doesn’t have to be love to be hot.
But in a YA novel, that’s really all you’re allowed. There’s the bad boy trope and there’s the OTP trope, and those are the only things that make teenagers freak out on the internet. They sell books. But so often, they’re empty and hollow, and you can’t see the people in them. You can’t photoshop these scenes onto any other characters. They aren’t formulaic. They’re all Cath and Levi, and nobody else. That’s what makes them great.
And, I do have to admit, I reread this book a lot when I was in high school. Partially because I identified with Cath, and partially because, well. There are some damn good kissing scenes.
So, YA readers and writers, take notes! This is how you do it.
(If you know of any spectacularly good or bad kisses in YA, please let me know! I’m always on the hunt for more. Kissing scenes are important to me, if you haven’t already noticed).