When is romance a key part of a coming-of-age young adult story, and when is it simply a box to be checked? In a 2013 Huffington Post op-ed, author Elizabeth Vail lamented the unnecessary YA romance, which can overshadow other plot elements. Other bloggers agreed, with author Morgan Matson pointing out that friendship can take a backseat to romance in YA. Thankfully, there are plenty of YA authors who subscribe to the notion of “mates before dates,” in these books where friendship is more important than—or even entirely replaces—a love story.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
The most important bond in this World War II novel is the trust between pilot Kittyhawk and spy Verity, which is put to the test after their plane crash-lands in France and Verity is captured by the Gestapo. With their code names stripped away, Queenie must protect Maddie and herself. With stakes that high, there’s no need for the story to include a romance plot—which would be superfluous, because, as Queenie writes, “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”
The Bermudez Triangle, by Maureen Johnson
Johnson’s novel (also known as On the Count of Three) toes the line between friendship and romance. But “at its heart,” she writes on her blog, “Bermudez is a story about friendship, and what you do with friendship when some of the friends begin to date. The romance part of this story had a full arc—it was about a getting together, a being together, and a breaking up.” And while Mel and Avery (two-thirds of one of the best girl packs in YA) fumble with being girlfriends, it’s because they care so much about each other as friends.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Sam gives Charlie his first kiss because she wants it to come from someone who loves him. But thanks to missed connections and Charlie’s discovery of the awful memories he’s repressing, they’re never able to truly act on their romantic attraction. But does that change the love that went into their first kiss? Not a whit—their friendship is still just as infinite.
Since You’ve Been Gone, by Morgan Matson
While Matson’s original brainstorm for her novel certainly involved a breakup, she was determined to hold herself to also depicting a strong female friendship. Those stakes are made even higher when Sloane unexpectedly disappears, leaving Emily a bizarre to-do list. And yes, one of those items is to kiss a stranger, but even that is Sloane deciding that as a parting gift to her best friend, she’ll pull Emily out of her shell.
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl is sneaky about how it handles complicated friendships: Wren kicks off her and twin Cath’s college career by choosing to live with someone other than her sister; and Cath spends most of her first semester feeling put off and maybe even a little threatened by her roommate, Reagan. But even as romantic subplots—Nick the charming classmate, Reagan’s sweet ex Levi and his feelings for Cath, even Cath’s Simon/Baz fanfiction—propel the narrative, the most touching moments in the book are about Cath navigating her thorny relationships with these two women who are so different from her, yet care about her more than any guy.
This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales
Often, first love in YA acts as a catalyst for the protagonist’s emotional development, as she learns to open up and have confidence in herself. But for unpopular, awkward outsider Elise, her life-changing relationship comes in the form of three new friends: bandmates Vicky and Pippa, who adopt her into their group without any issue, and mysterious DJ Char. And the big love that catches Elise entirely unawares? Her love of (and talent for) DJing.
Someone Like You, by Sarah Dessen
In discussing romance versus friendship in YA, Matson cites Dessen’s classic as one of her touchpoints: Scarlett and Halley’s bond “is not a static, idealized friendship,” she writes. “There is deep affection between the girls, but they keep secrets from each other and let each other down and get in fights.” But there’s no place for secrets when Scarlett’s boyfriend dies, and she discovers she’s pregnant. Having always looked up to Scarlett, suddenly Halley must be the stronger friend. In this case, the romance was fatally cut short, but the friendship lasts for a lifetime.