Y.A. Kisses Done Wrong and Done Right (part III)

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.

“Good.” 

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.

“That’s you.”

“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).

YA Kisses Done Wrong and Done Right (part II)

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.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Here’s the thing. Harry Potter is a unique series in that it basically defined young adult literature as a category and therefore is exempt from most of my judgements about the genre as a whole. I also, though, maintain the belief that Harry Potter is the kind of series that grew up with its readers, so that the seventh book of the series is for a whole nother class of readers than the first.

Relating to romance specifically, we see that most clearly in the development of arguably the two most important and present relationships: Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Ginny. The juvenile pigtail yanking into will-they-won’t-they that was the progression of Ron and Hermione was a hugely defining romance in my childhood. Harry and Ginny’s was also defining, but that was because of a single kiss rather than a seven book arc.

Basically, in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we really only get two kisses, and one of them is good and one of them is, objectively, not. Here’s why.

Ron and Hermione

Ron and Hermione’s first kiss is a triumph of character building. It’s two characters who are decidedly not made for each other, are not even a little bit soulmates (an otter and a terrier, I mean, come on), but still manage to be one of the strongest romantic pairings in the series. It’s because they understand that what makes the other different is what makes them the best, and I’ll admit that when they kisses my insides melted into mush.

HOWEVER. When you go back and do a greatest hits tour of Ron and Hermione moments, the kiss as a standalone scene is anticlimactic. It’s not satisfying. It’s mostly just swaying and explosions.

There was a clatter as the basilisk fangs cascaded out of Hermione’s arms. Running at Ron, she flung them around his neck and kissed him full on the mouth. Ron threw away the fangs and broomstick he was holding and responded with such enthusiasm that he lifted Hermione off her feet.

“Is this the moment?” Harry asked weakly, and then when nothing happened except that Ron and Hermione gripped each other still more firmly and swayed on the spot, he raised his voice. “OI! There’s a war going on here!”

It reads, to me, like a list of checkpoints: arms around neck, enthusiasm, tighter holding, a touch of humor and danger to bring them back to reality. The whole “now or never trope” is only strengthened by the fact that Ron literally says, “it’s now or never.”

I understand the limitations J.K. is working under. Because it’s from Harry’s perspective, we can’t get any sensory details, because obviously Harry isn’t smelling Hermione’s hair and he doesn’t have his arms around Ron’s neck. But there could have been a pause in the relentless forward plod of plot that could have explored it from Harry’s perspective. He if it’s “the moment,” so we know he’s been waiting for this. What do the pair of them look like? How does Harry feel about it?

Give me something. Give me anything, beyond “gripped each other even more firmly and swayed on the spot.” It doesn’t feel like a kiss I waited seven books for. It feels like an awkward middle school slow dance.

Ginny and Harry

Ginny and Harry’s kiss feels like the exact opposite of Ron and Hermione’s. The confluence of events that lead up to it just set it up to be better written, so I don’t want this to sound like I think Ginny and Harry are a better pairing than Ron and Hermione. I’m not going to pass judgement on that. Their kiss is just objectively better.

Because it’s at the beginning of the book and not at the end, we’re able to take a pause from the plot. Because it’s from Harry’s perspective, we can get some more imagery beyond what a third-party observer would see. And, because it’s not their first kiss, J.K. had to know she couldn’t satisfy her readers only with the fact that it happened. She did that in Half-Blood Prince with Harry and Ginny and the whole “blazing look” thing, and reading that again would have been pointless.

So, instead, we get one of those kisses that eleven-year-old me would go back to over and over again, thinking about when I would go off on a dangerous mission and maybe this would happen to me.

“There’s the silver lining I’ve been looking for,” she whispered, and then she was kissing him as she had never kissed him before, and Harry was kissing her back, and it was blissful oblivion, better than firewhiskey; she was the only real thing in the world, Ginny, the feel of her, on hand at her back and on in her long, sweet-smelling hair–

It’s just a well-written kiss. The fact that it’s a drawn out run-on sentence, like Harry can’t reign in his thoughts. The metaphor mixed with the concrete details mixed with the vague details that give more to the older readers than they do to the younger. The fact that it starts off as playful banter, because that’s exactly the sort of relationship that Ginny and Harry have.

It’s a good kiss. I don’t know what else I can say beyond that, other than the fact that it makes me sad for Ron and Hermione, because I know what J.K. is capable of and I know she didn’t do their first kiss justice.

I would, however, like to leave everyone on a sweet Ron and Hermione moment just because they deserve it:

Ron had had a fit of gallantry and insisted that Hermione sleep on the cushions from the sofa, so that her silhouette was raised above his. Her arm curved to the floor, her fingers inches from Ron’s. Harry wondered whether they had fallen asleep holding hands. The idea made him feel strangely lonely.

That’s the Ron and Hermione we know and love. Here’s to all the kisses they’ll have in the future that’ll be better than the first.