Happy February, my dear fellow readers, and welcome to the start of what, for many outside the romance community, is the kissing books month. For us in the know, that’s all year round, but for outsiders, this is a great opportunity to find out what really lies between the covers (pun intended) dispel some myths, and maybe even welcome some new romance readers into the fold. What’s a fun and easy way to help a new romance reader get their feet wet? In short, time to start playing around.
Let’s face it, even the most seasoned veteran romance reader can sometimes look out on our ever-expanding genre and feel lost when it’s time to pick a new read. For some of us, entire new genres have come and gone, only to return once again, on the indie market. The true OGs of the romance readership remember when the big question was, were the two most important distinctions historical versus contemporary, or category versus single title. Now? Now, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Imagine, if you will, that a baby romance reader has made it past the think pieces, written without much thought, it would seem, past all the references to heaving bosoms and ripped bodices (not the bookstore) broken out of an alternate universe where Fabio Lanzoni poses for every cover, Harlequin is the only publisher in existence, and every historical period is compressed into “regency” (small r) and all of the rest of the cliches that bloom this time of year, because, dangit, they cut through all of that, to find the heart of the matter (pun intended.) There are happily ever afters out there, and they want to read them.
The question is, where? Who invented romance novels as we know them? Jane Austen? Georgette Heyer? Kathleen E. Woodiwiss? Some unknown woman (or man) who had a love story burning within them, and had to get it out, even though it’s long since lost to the ravages of time? Even those only cover what we would now term historical romance, and if we’re going by that definition, we have to strike Austen from the list, because she did not write any historical romance novels. She wrote contemporaries. What would she think if she could pick up a modern romance novel and drop in on Elizabeth and Darcy’s great-great-great (and then some) grandkids? Who can tell? Anybody’s guess on that one, but even within the Austen canon alone, there are countless spinoffs and retellings, even reimaginings, of what may have been viewed, at the time, as “Jane’s little stories.”
Back to our baby reader, the one with the wide, eager eyes, the empty TBR shelf, the one who still can’t believe (in the good way) that there are entire subgenres of romance dedicated to motorcycle clubs/vampires/Amish people/whathaveyou. There they are, pen and paper in hand, ready to take down recommendations, only to come up with a blank when asked what kinds of books they normally like to read. Maybe the answer is something straightforward, like fantasy, or mystery, in which case, great. Paranormals are over there, romantic suspense is this way, but wait- grabbing any old book off the shelf (yes, yes, that cover is very pretty, and no, we would not kick that shirtless gent on this other cover out of bed for eating crackers, either, but that’s not the point) can set a baby reader off on the wrong foot. Longtime readers of the Texas Forever series (not a real series, made up for this post) have been in agony waiting for Sam and Chris to finally, finally get together, and if Baby Reader starts there, they’ll miss all the delicious buildup. Still, we want Baby Reader to have fun, and, truth be told, we’re ready for a little fun, ourselves.
Enter the reading challenge. Challenges can be extra fun when undertaken with friends, because A) a healthy spirit of competition never hurt anybody (Note, I said healthy) and B) even if the terms of the challenge are the same for everyone, the ways in which those terms are fulfilled can vary wildly. Quick, name a contemporary romance. Name a book with a blond hero. Name a book with a widowed heroine. Odds are, your list and mine will not be exactly the same (and if they are, can we take a moment and celebrate how we both have awesome taste in books?) which means that, guess what, Now we have more books to read, and discuss.
Case in point. This past week, I knew I wanted to have a fun reading challenge, geared toward my favorite subgenre, historical romance. I also knew that I didn’t have the time or energy to hunt down one that would suit my purposes, so, guided by the spirits of thousands of romance heroines who have gone before, I opened a bingo card template and filled the boxes with the first bunch of historical romance classifications that came to mind. Hit randomize, generate card, and, in a flash (drive) I have a new way to delve into my favorite genre. For Baby Reader, this could be the romance reading equivalent of a tasting menu, and, again, that’s just for historicals.
Maybe Baby Reader is all about the sexy stuff, or feels most natural among the paranormals. Maybe they’ve been inspired to look into inspirationals, or their parent would prefer they stick to YA for now. Maybe they want to sample some category lines, visit the graves of genres that are no more, or would love to delve into multicultural romance. Maybe they want to color with all of the crayons in the romance genre box, and find their footing that way. Challenges are a great way to get an overview of what’s out there, and what better way to up the odds of finding a new favorite, than to look for love in all the right places?
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Have you ever created your own reading challenge? What criteria did you use? Did you play alone, or with others? How did you do? Most importantly, what was the best book you discovered, in pursuit of your goal? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.