YA Romance Novels That Emphasize Self-Love and Self-Respect

by Laura Buchwald

Credit: Henglein and Steets, Cultura/Getty Images

Love: It’s one of our most basic needs. It has filled our stories and shaped our history since before the dawn of the written word. Yet its full breadth and depth remain largely unexplored in literature. One gaping hole? Happy, easy love. After all, uncomplicated feelings don’t make for great storytelling. And so literature often dwells instead on the frustration and pain of love, unrequited and otherwise.

The books listed here are rooted in this experience of heartache and heartbreak. They’re stories of loss and reinvention, of things not going as planned, and of finding hope in the darkest hours. They are tales of the dreamers, misfits, freaks, and heroes who find love in unexpected places. Every one of these books addresses a singular truth about this most confounding of emotions: You can never truly love — or be loved — until you learn to love yourself first.

  • The Sky is Everywhere

    by Jandy Nelson

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    Lennie’s whole life has been lived in her older sister’s shadow. So when her sister dies a tragic and untimely death, Lennie must figure out how to define herself in her own right, with no leading lady. While navigating her grief, Lennie finds herself torn between two unlikely suitors — Toby, her dead sister’s boyfriend, and Joe, the charismatic new kid in town. This is a heart-rending yet funny story of how sudden loss forces one girl to learn who she really is.

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  • Eleanor & Park

    by Rainbow Rowell

    Eleanor and Park are misfits. Eleanor is the new girl at school who, despite her bright red hair and flamboyant clothes, wants nothing more than to stay below the radar. Park is a slightly more well-adjusted guy who makes the “mistake” of being kind to Eleanor on her first day. Through a shared love of music and comic books, as well as shared bus rides, they end up connecting and learning that love means letting go of secrets and the things that hold us back.

  • The Start of Me and You

    by Emery Lord

    Paige Hancock knows that recovering from her boyfriend’s death and returning to a “normal” life requires first convincing the world that she herself is “normal.” So Paige makes it her mission to date her old crush, Ryan. But when Ryan’s cousin moves to town and takes a shine to her, Paige learns that the best-laid plans can have unforeseen results — and lead her where she was always meant to go. This is a book about staying afloat no matter what life throws your way.

  • Everything, Everything

    by Nicola Yoon

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    Madeline Whittier, the protagonist of Nicola Yoon’s captivating novel, is an 18-year-old girl who has spent her entire life battling a rare immunodeficiency disease and living in a plastic bubble. When a new family moves in next door, Madeline becomes smitten with Olly, the handsome, quirky, brooding son. The big problem is that, for Madeline, love is literally a matter of life and death. As their feelings for each other grow stronger, Madeline must ask herself: What’s the point of being alive if you’re not really living?

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  • Not After Everything

    by Michelle Levy

    Tyler is the quintessential popular guy: He has tons of friends, a beautiful girlfriend, and a football scholarship to Stanford. Then his mom kills herself, and suddenly none of that matters anymore. Now life is about survival, and survival means avoiding his abusive father and getting a job. He reunites with his childhood friend Jordyn, an outcast who, before the tragedy, had no place in his life. It is through Jordyn that Tyler finds the possibility of love, and also learns that even the worst trauma can yield to hope.

  • The Summer of Chasing Mermaids

    by Sarah Ockler

    Elyse is an extraordinary Caribbean singer with the talent to take her anywhere — until an accident robs her of her voice. Desperate to escape the prying eyes and opinions of her hometown, she accepts an invitation to a quiet resort on the Oregon coast where no one knows her name. There Elyse meets Christian Kane, an arrogant charmer who falls hard for her and challenges her to find the inner voice she never knew she had. Ockler’s newest book is about what happens when the things we think we can rely on are taken away and we must learn to love our true selves.

  • The Things You Kiss Goodbye

    by Leslie O’Connor

    Sixteen-year-old Bettina is ruled by a controlling father who rarely lets her out of his sight. When the handsome and popular Brady manages to win her father over and ask her out, Bettina experiences real fun and freedom for the first time. Things quickly go sour when Brady finds an easy target in Bettina and begins to manipulate and abuse her. She meets an older man, whom she calls “Cowboy,” and he morphs from protector to friend to potential lover. And then real disaster strikes and Bettina must come clean to her family while also re-examining her relationships with men. This is a stark and realistic look at the insidious ways abuse can define a relationship and how one character learns to stand up for herself.

  • Saint Anything

    by Sarah Dessen

    From celebrated author Sarah Dessen comes the story of Sydney, a teenage girl who has always played second fiddle to her older brother, Peyton. Things come to an abrupt halt when Peyton is involved in a devastating car accident and sent to jail and the family’s attention to him takes a dramatically different focus. Soon Sydney meets the Chathams, who are warm, loving, and able to handle life with humor and grace — the opposite of Sydney’s family experience. It’s the fun-loving Layla Chatham and her handsome, quirky brother Mac who see a side of Sydney no one else has, and who inspire her to see herself in ways she never thought possible.