The Next Big Thing in Queer YA: Beyond Gay
YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.The idea of the “next big thing” in LGBT YA has to be taken with a grain of salt for a couple of reasons. First, unlike fantasy, paranormal, or historical fiction, LGBT is not a genre. Unlike graphic novels, LGBT is not a format. Instead, it’s a group of books united by a single common trait: they feature a character who’s either not straight or not cisgendered (or both). Unlike titles in a single genre, then, LGBT YA is less affected by the sales of single blockbuster (ahem, dystopias). Additionally, LGBT YA is a very small subset of all published YA. There are 55 queer YA novels being published in in 2012, meaning that queer YA is just 1.6% of all YA coming out this year. In such a small category, “the next big thing” develops more slowly and is harder to spot. But there’s a trend emerging, and it’s an exciting one!
The next big thing in queer YA is just that: queerness. Characters in this year’s queer YA are less likely than ever to fit clearly into categories like gay or lesbian. That’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen the term “queer” for the title of this post. Sometimes labels like gay or lesbian don’t adequately encompass YA protagonists’ sexuality. YA novels will begin to feature more characters who have complicated and fluid sexualities and gender identities. A recent surge in novels about transgendered characters (Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills, Happy Families by Tanita Davis, I Am J by Cris Beam, and Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, to name a few) is just the beginning of this trend.
In addition to transgendered characters, there’s been an increase in androgynous or other non-traditionally gendered characters. ilike merey’s A + E 4ever portrays the friendship between two teens who don’t fit into traditional binary conceptions of gender — nor does their relationship fall cleanly into a category like friendship or romance. In David Levithan’s recently-published Every Day, the genderless protagonist A wakes up every day in a different physical body. Usually content to remain invisible and anonymous for the single day spent in each body, A falls in love with Rhiannon and, for the first time, starts to want something. The novel explores what it means to love someone and what role our physical bodies play in romance, attraction, and love. Brooklyn, Burning, written by Steve Brezenoff and published last fall, also features a genderless protagonist. Unlike A, Kid remains in the same body, but Kid’s refusal to live within strict social expectations about how that body should look and act and who that body should love result in Kid’s homelessness.
While some queer YA protagonists challenge gender norms, others exist outside of firm categories of sexuality. These characters are also part of queer YA’s next big thing. A.S. King’s Ask The Passengers tells the story of a girl with feelings for another girl. Astrid’s dated boys before, though, and she isn’t sure that her feelings for Dee make her a lesbian. Malinda Lo’s Adaptation puts a queer twist on the standard YA love triangle: the protagonist, Reese, is a girl, and her love interests are David and Amber.
These titles are just a few of the ever-expanding, ever-diversifying world of queer YA. Since queerness, complete with complex, nuanced approaches to gender and sexuality, is the next big thing in LGBT YA, I know we have lots more to look forward to!
–Emily Calkins, currently reading Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet