Do you remember your first time? That first taste of love conflict, and lust in textual form, often right under your parents’ very noses? What I’m asking is: do you remember your first romance novel?
If you’re anything like me, maybe you don’t. I went through books like a moth in a trunk, consuming everything in my path. But in my word-hungry ravaging of any library I could gain entry to, there are a few books that stand out in my memory. The ones I read again and again in pre-adolescent wonder, hoping that one day I’d find a love as sweet or tender or fiery hot as the ones between the flaking pages in my hands.
Fifteen, by Beverly Cleary. I wonder if Beverly Cleary could have ever imagined that her sweet teen romance, between innocent Jane Purdy and “experienced” Stan Crandall would become so beloved to a 10-year-old Jersey City girl that she would read it every night before bed? Probably not. So many wonderful things about this classic novel: Stan’s job as a dog food delivery boy (and the resulting bitching set of wheels), Jane’s naiveté about life outside of her small California town, the moment when Stan slides the reassuring weight of his ID bracelet onto Jane’s wrist. *sigh* This book doesn’t have the angst of gravitas of its modern counterparts, but it’s a sweet, reliable, and relatable story of teenage love.
Anne of the Wild Rose Inn, by Jennifer Armstrong. I liberated this book from the book closet in fourth grade (thanks for pretending not to notice, Mrs. Fesken!). This middle grade Revolutionary War romance was my first taste of the joys of the historical (the genre I’m currently writing in alongside contemporary). The second in a series set in Marblehead, MA, this book follows young Anne Mackenzie. War between the colonies looms over everyone’s heads, and to top it off: Anne’s parents are trapped in a loveless marriage, her mother treats her like a fool who can do nothing right, and her twin brother John has gotten mixed up with smugglers. When she meets an Irish boy who makes her heart sing, she is shocked to discover that he’s one of the redcoats. Faced with betraying her family and her country or betraying her heart, Anne must choose who to trust.
Unicorns in the Rain, by Barbara Cohen Luckily for me, this book has been misclassified over the years—even now, the pretty unicorn cover has it being listed as a children’s book, despite the fact that it’s a dark dystopian young adult. The book, set in a world where drugs and sex rule the day and everyone carries a gun (hmm…), relies on the stranger on the train trope to bring our hero and heroine together. Troubled Nikki meets handsome Sam on a train and invites his invitation to come have dinner with his family. When she gets to their family home full of seemingly perfect couples, Nikki uncovers a disturbing truth: Sam’s family is collecting animals two by two. They believe the rains that have been falling won’t be stopping for a very long time…this book takes the tale of Noah’s Ark and throws sex, love, and unicorns into the mix to create a bittersweet and unconventional romance that has stuck with me for years.
Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden Whenever I see anything about the Cloisters, I think of Annie and Lizzie, the book’s protagonists. Given that I first read this about twenty years ago, that’s pretty impressive work by Ms. Garden. I bought this book on a whim, believing it was about the friendship between two girls. It is about that, and about the love that develops from that friendship. At its heart, the story is a rich girl meets poor girl story. Annie and Lizzie’s relationship has class as a baseline conflict, with sexuality thrown in just to make things even more difficult for the young lovers. It’s a great, sweet read that helped show me early on that love is love.
Of course, I was reading these books alongside the Jackie Collins and other adult romance novels that I was snagging from my mom, but these are the books that really laid the foundation for a lifelong love of romance, the ones that are in the “forever” section of the keeper shelf. What about you? What were your gateway romances?
Alyssa Cole is a Brooklyn-based science editor, pop culture nerd, and romance junkie. In addition to writing, she hosts a Romance Book Club and teaches romance writing at the Jefferson Market Library in NYC. She has two recent releases, EAGLE’S HEART, an erotic romantic suspense novel, and SWEET TO THE TASTE, an erotic short story. Visit her on twitter (@AlyssaColeLit) and at www.alyssacole.com.