What is a romance book for tweens, anyway? Certainly, they are very different from young adult romances. Most of the time the book ends in a (very tame) first kiss. Sometimes there is no kiss at all, just a realization that maybe two characters like like each other.
In most of these tween romance books, suitable for ages 9-12 (grades 5-7), the middle school romance is secondary to stories of friendship and self-discovery. However in each tale, a first love, or crush, is central enough to the protagonist's journey that I was able to include them in a "romance" book list.
Are these "clean" romance books about young adolescence? Setting aside the fact that other types of romance books aren't "dirty," then sure, yes, they are.
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Wish and Mix Book Series
Two notable series marketed at tween girls (but can be enjoyed by tween boys as well, it must be said) are Scholastic's Wish series and Aladdin's Mix series. Both series includes dozens of titles which focus on middle school life and first crushes.
I obviously didn't read every book in either series, but did pick up a couple to test drive. They are very readable, and even if grown-ups may find them a bit too saccharine, there's no doubt in my mind that they are popular.
The titles I checked out from the library had obviously been checked out and read a lot. Each series can brag that it includes talented authors and diverse characters (Wish more so than Mix) in their line up. I've noted which books on this list are from Wish or Mix.
Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date by Paul Acampora
This book made me smile so much. I loved Danny's funny commentary about the events unfolding around him. Danny's best friend, Natalie, left their small town in Maine years ago and became a famous film actress. Over the years, they lost contact but one afternoon, the sister of his friend sends an email to Natalie for him asking for a date to the Halloween dance. Lo and behold, she accepts! Danny is understandably nervous but when Natalie gets into town, the two rekindle their friendship. Hijinks ensue involving Danny's mom who is also the mayor, but all the friends come together and Danny and Natalie eventually get their unconventional first date. Adorable. Ages 9 and up.
Shug by Jenny Han
If your tween has been watching (or begging to watch) The Summer I Turned Pretty, hand them Jenny Han's middle grade novel, Shug. 12-year-old Annemarie Wilcox, aka "Shug," is going through some things. Her dad isn't around as much anymore and her mom is not coping with things very well. Not to mention her best friend Elaine is too interested in being popular. Also, Annemarie has a soft spot for Mark, the boy next door, who appears to remains oblivious to her charms. And then there is Jack, who may not be all that Annemarie thought he was. Charming times ten. Ages 10 and up.
Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai (companion book to Keep It Together, Keiko Carter) by Debbi Michiko Florence
This excellent book for tweens, with a protagonist who undergoes a complex and emotional journey, is one of the best on this list. Jenna works on the school paper, but so does her newly ex-boyfriend, and so things are a bit awkward. Furthermore, her teacher assigns her an article she doesn't want to write. She starts hanging out at a Broadway-themed diner after school where she meets Rin, who both annoys and interests her. The author has several books in Scholastic's Wish series of romance themed books for tweens, including, This Is How I Roll. Ages 9 and up.
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Callie wants to be in her school's latest production but she doesn't think she can sing so instead she helps out as the set designer and is determined to create a Broadway-worthy show. The "drama" of the book's title could easily refer to the friendship and romantic entanglements of the middle school crew (when is middle school not melodramatic?) as well what happens on the stage. Ages 9 and up.
Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
After her parents separate, Marley spends the summer with her dad. She's disappointed to learn that he's arranged for her to spend her days babysitting twin girls. Marley is drifting away from her two best friends, but meeting the boy next door sets her heart aflutter. She and Jack start a friendship which grows over the course of the book and turns into something a little more. Ages 10 and up. Lovely.
Crush (series) by Svetlana Chmakova
Crush is the third book in Chmakova's Berrybrook Middle School graphic novel series. Tween readers familiar with the misadventures that come with social media use will relate to the experiences of Jorge and his friends. Jorge gets tongue-tied whenever he's around Jazmine. However his friend Garrett writes something rather ill-advised on the internet and Jorge gets blamed for it. I loved Jorge's character, who is a loyal and warm-hearted boy just trying to figure out the complications of having a middle school crush! Ages 10 and up.
Crushing It (Aladdin Mix series) by Joanne Levy
I loved Levy's book Sorry for Your Loss, so it was fun to read this breezy friend-to-crush story with a Cyrano twist. Kat's best friend is Tyler, the boy next door. One summer he comes home from summer camp and suddenly he is cute! The problem is Kat's other best friend and cousin, Olivia, has a crush on Tyler. Olivia and Tyler have nothing in common so Kat reluctantly agrees to tell Olivia what to say to him. The fun in this book lies not in the suspense (there isn't any, really) but in the development of the characters. Ages 8 and up.
Lily B. on the Brink of Love by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
Eighth grader, Lily Blennerhassett, is an advice columnist for her middle school paper. She is excited for her new job as an assistant to Ellis Parsons, a novelist whose son Lily crushes on. At the same time, she is working on friendship issues and maybe realizes that she and her crush don't have much in common after all. Lily hopes to be a writer and her fun, over-the-top narration is punctuated with her attempts at romance fiction. Ages 8 and up.
Pizza My Heart (Wish series) by Rhiannon Richardson
Maya's family moves from Brooklyn to a small town in Pennsylvania, where they open a pizza parlor. She's having trouble adapting, and it doesn't help that a pizza delivery to a cute boy goes haywire. It turns out that cute boy also goes to her school and is super rude. The two keep crossing paths, and his dad is the interior designer for the pizza parlor, which makes everything more complicated. Not to mention that Maya wants to join the art club, which interferes with her pizza responsibilities. Don't worry! As with most romance books, things end just the way you want them to. Ages 8 and up.
A Batch Made in Heaven (Wish series) by Suzanne Nelson
Nelson wrote a handful of baking-themed tween romance novels with punny titles for the Wish series. In this one, Mina starts an apprenticeship at a cookie shop. She is hoping to win a contest so she can use the prize money to help her father start a restaurant like the one he ran in India before immigrating. While working, Mina learns a secret about the inventor of the shop's famed cookie recipes. A secret that also involves a cute boy who makes Mina's knees go wobbly. Ages 8 and up.
Stargirl (series) by Jerry Spinelli
The new girl, "Stargirl," as she calls herself, was formerly homeschooled and not like anyone else in Leo's high school. She does everything differently. She has a pet rat, roots for the opposing team and wears crazy clothes. But Leo is hopelessly in love with her. Unfortunately, Leo thinks Stargirl should conform to everyone else's version of "normal." Stargirl, who returns Leo's affection, tries for a time to do so, but ultimately, the experiment is a failure. A touching book that will leave readers with questions about bravery and the value of conformity versus individuality. Ages 10 and up.
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya
13-year-old Arturo works part-time in his family’s Cuban restaurant. But then a sketchy land developer, Pipo, wants to buy the lot next door and convince the city to let him develop a huge project with no room for the restaurant. Arturo, with the help of his friend Carmen, who he's starting to have feelings for, work to undermine Pipo’s plot. The plot is primarily focused on Arturo's journey to save the restaurant. Also available in Spanish. Ages 10 and up.
Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
In this remake of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the Snow White figure, Aza, is not a princess, nor is she pretty. Instead, she has the most beautiful singing voice. At the castle, the king's beautiful new bride, Ivi, forces Aza into a Cyrano situation in which Aza must "throw" her voice so that everyone thinks that Ivi is melodic, as well as lovely. Aza is amazed that the prince is falling in love with her since she doesn't think anyone could see beyond her looks. The opportunity to obtain a pretty face with the help of a magic mirror creates a dilemma for Aza who has to decide what her most valuable qualities actually are. Ages 8 and up.
Sweet Treats & Secret Crushes by Lisa Greenwald
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
Seventh grade friends, Olivia, Georgia and Kate, are excited for Valentine's Day but a blizzard is threatening their plans. They decide to make fortune cookies in Georgia's family restaurant. They believe the fortune cookies have a little magic and they pass them out to neighbors in the apartment building. The narration alternates among the girls, who talk about boys a lot, but interact with them much less, and ultimately decide that a great day with friends is a good Valentine's Day, too. Ages 9 and up.
The Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale
Hales Books ofBayern series (The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born) start with a fantastic reimagining of the fairy tale, "The Goose Girl." Each book in the series focuses on a different protagonist tied to the country of Bayern who has a special power they must learn how to control and use effectively. Each plot also contains a developing romance. The third book, River Secrets, has a male protagonist, the other three books center on a female protagonist. Ages 11 and up.
The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy
I'm really stretching it here with the "romance" theme, but that's okay, it's middle grade, after all. I adored this book about an Indian-American boy, Rahul Kapoor, who is trying to discover what he is best at and who he wants to be. He decides to try out Mathletes and finds a welcome home, but struggles with an invitation to the Sadie Hawkins dance. He's just not sure he likes girls. This is an intensely engaging and funny story about a boy dealing with identity, OCD and anxiety. A must read! Ages 10 and up.
The Language of Seabirds by Will Taylor
With his parents newly divorced, 12-year-old Jeremy is spending the summer with his dad on the Oregon coast. There he meets Evan, and the two spend time together exploring the shore and use the names of seabirds to develop a secret code. As their friendship develop, the two boys realize that maybe they have feelings that reflect more than just friendship. This is such a sweet story and captures the transition from childhood into adolescence with relatable and gentle storytelling. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: LGBTQ Books for Tweens
A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat
Santat's graphic novel memoir draws from his experience as a middle schooler on a school trip to Europe. Dan is unsure what to expect from the trip and isn't really looking forward to it. However, as he and his peers dive into new experiences (like drinking Fanta!) and get to know each other better, his negative assumptions about the trip diminish. He starts to have a good times, becomes brave enough to share his artwork with others, and even has a first girlfriend! Absolutely wonderful. Ages 8 and up.
Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee
In this book, eighth grader Mattie is playing Romeo in the class production of Shakespeare's classic. During rehearsals she starts to have more-than-friends feelings for her co-star, Gemma. Mattie is confused because just recently she had a crush on a boy. There's drama on and off stage, of course, but in general, this is a positive representation of a pre-teen learning about her own romantic leanings. Ages 9 and up.
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
I learned of this award-winning book by way of the film version (which I loved!). Set in the 1980s (I think? It's not specified, but it's at the beginning of the CD era), chapters alternate between the energetic and free-spirited Juli and the straight-laced Bryce as they tell the journey of their relationship from their first meeting in second grade. For Juli, she "flipped" at first sight. For Bryce, no so much. As events unfold, we read each character's perspective about what happened. In eighth grade, Juli decides she wants to save an old tree, setting both characters down a path of self-discovery that leads to the second "flipped." Bryce comes to admire Julie. At the same time, Juli decides maybe Bryce is not what she thought he was. Ages 10 and up.
The Chance to Fly by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz
Nat's passion is musical theater. Now that her family has moved to New Jersey, she finally has the chance to audition for the musical, Wicked. Nat gets a part in the show, makes new friends and learns what it's like to finally be on the stage. In addition, she and fellow thespian, Malik, have a budding romance. Author and Tony-award winning actress, Ali Stroker was the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway Ages 9 and up.
The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake
This lovely book will squeeze your heart. Sunny has recently gotten a heart transplant and has decided that she is going to live life to the fullest. That includes finding a best friend and kissing a boy for the first time. Her mother, who left when Sunny was four year old, returns and Sunny needs to figure out how to accept her back into her life. Then she meets Quinn, who is set to become her new best friend and now Sunny is not even sure she wants to kiss a boy. Ages 9 and up.
Braced by Alyson Gerber
Braced is based on Gerber's own experience growing up with scoliosis. Seventh grader, Rachel, is an enthusiastic soccer player but this year her doctor tells her she must wear a corrective brace for her scoliosis for 23 hours a day. Understandably, she is devastated by this. Rachel's journey to acceptance of her condition is touching and relatable as she works through relationships with her classmates, mother and Tate, who she thinks might like like her back. An excellent read. Ages 9 and up.
The Heartbreak Messenger by Alexander Vance
Quentin has embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and started a business delivering breakup messages. He wants to help out his car mechanic mom, who he thinks is struggling with finances. When Quentin is asked to deliver a message to his best friend, Abby, things get complicated. Having a first-row seat to so many break-ups, however, has made Quentin cautious about getting involved in his own romance, at least for now. I will say that I wasn't super-impressed with the lack of nuance over gender roles and diverse representation, but I liked the book's ending message about not rushing into romance at the age of 13. Ages 9 and up.