Chea Parton grew up on a farm and still considers herself a farm girl. She has been a rural student, a rural English teacher, and is currently a visiting assistant professor at Purdue University where she works with future teachers through the Transition to Teaching Program. She is passionate about rural education. Her research focuses on the personal and professional identity of rural and rural out-migrant teachers as well as rural representation in YA literature. She currently runs Literacy In Place where she seeks to catalogue rural YA books and provides teaching resources, hosts the Reading Rural YAL podcast where she gives book talks and interviews rural YA authors, and serves on the Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature selection committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
YA is no stranger to love stories either, which has been a subject of some contention. On the one hand, authors like Maya MacGregor have discussed the important role YA love stories play in identity construction, representation, and allowing readers to dig into what is/should be considered (in)appropriate and (un)acceptable in relationships. In the piece linked here she writes, “Narratives that include romance, in particular, have a unique power to not only reflect back a reader’s identity and legitimize it, but also to establish the vital, priceless baseline of what is both normal and acceptable in relationships.”
On the other hand, teen readers like Vivian Parkin DeRossa have expressed frustration that YA love stories are unrealistic and don’t match with what most teens understand about love and what they’re looking for in their relationships. DeRossa writes, “YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever. Many epilogues show the main character and their love interest happily married. But that’s not how most teen relationships shake out. Long-term love just isn’t something a lot of teenagers think is realistic at this point. Sure, some of my classmates will end up marrying their current boyfriend/girlfriend but most will breakup before or during college. And they know this.”
I’ve read a few rural love stories recently, and they have me thinking about the role that place plays in these stories, especially in relationship to MacGregor’s point about its role in validating identities. Dating and romance in rural places are shaped by geography in specific ways. For example:
- Finding someone to date might be difficult. A family friend and I were trading engagement stories recently and she (partially) joked that she made sure she wasn’t related to her now husband before they started dating.
- Dating someone in another town can require significant travel time which limits dating before driving age, and depending on finances, after driving age.
- Finding things to do might involve farm chores or other geography-related activities. My mom and stepdad used to work together castrating hogs on/after their dates.
So, seeing these kinds of experiences validated in stories that feature romance in rural places helps to expand what rural young folks consider romantic. Hollywood and other popular media tell us that going out to a fancy restaurant and spending lots of money on dinner and/or a movie is what a “date night” is, but I guarantee that my mom and stepdad learned a lot about each other doing farm work than they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discover if all of their dates consisted of conversation over food. Not that you can’t learn about each other that way, too, just that you might learn different things important to rural life in the context of rural work and living.
And place layers with other universally important aspects of romance such as consent, sexuality, and ways and reasons to choose a partner—sometimes in ways that are affirming and at other times in ways that provide readers opportunities to be critical of how characters navigated their romantic relationships. Below are a few rural romances that I think are worth checking out and why.
Bend in the Road by Sara Biren allows readers to think about how place and rurality factor into relationships through the interactions between the main characters—they are both insiders and outsiders to the farm where the book takes place in important ways. Farm succession features heavily, which is such an important issue for rural agrarian folks and I was both surprised and tickled to see it handled so well in this book.
Grave Things Like Love by Sara Bennett Wealer features a main character trying to navigate which boy is the right boy for her. She makes some important mistakes and being privy to her experiences and thoughts as she works to learn from them helps readers see that we don’t always get it right—we don’t always pick someone who is best for us—but that we can learn through those mistakes. Our missteps help us to learn what is important to us and for us in a relationship, and sometimes (maybe often?) those important things aren’t what we find in popular media. This story features examples of what rural dates can look like, the conundrum of having to drive a bit to meet up with your date, and the visibility a romance can have in a rural space.
Someday We’ll Find It by Jennifer Wilson is one of those books that offers important opportunities for readers to point out the problematic and toxic things that can feed relationships and their longevity. In small populations, it is statistically logical to believe that you may not ever find anyone else, so staying with someone who is toxic or abusive might seem like it makes sense. This book provides important space to critique that. It also illustrates the double standard often experience by rural girls and women when it comes to relationships.
A Little Bit Country by Brian D. Kennedy does a wonderful job of highlighting some of the obstacles a queer person might face in a rural community. Kennedy does an excellent job of embracing nuance and complicating stereotypes about rural people through this book. A queer relationship might not be the only kind of relationship that a rural person might want to hide but visibility in small towns can make that difficult. It also captures the way that tourism—in this case related to country music, but agri-tourism is a growing industry—can complicate things due to the transience of outsiders in the community.
There are many more books that could be on this list—these just happen to be some that I’ve read most recently, so if you have recommendations, I’d love to hear them. I’m also going to keep studying on the role of place and romance in YA, so if you have thoughts about that, I’d love to hear them too.
After writing my way through these thoughts in this blog, I do think rural representation in YA love stories is important, and I hope you’ll consider picking one up yourself, using them in your classrooms, and/or recommending them to both rural and nonrural readers in your life.