Can YA be happy and gay?
The LGBT community is a vibrant one: full of quirks, humor, the best parades around, and a passionate fight for civil rights. But YA literature published today doesn’t always represent the full spectrum of that community or the full amount. The author Malinda Lo, who does a yearly survey of the number of YA books published with LGBTQ main characters, points out that there’s really not that many LGBTQ YA books published every year. This year? 55 out of the 3,325 new releases had LGBTQ main characters. That comes out to comes to 1.6%.
It’s not a huge number and, in my experience, it’s not always the most joyful. Two of my new favorite LGBTQ books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and The Sin-Eater’s Confession, were amazing, but they weren’t necessarily beach reads. Of course coming out can be a huge undertaking, and just like coming of age for any teen, it can be difficult. So in some ways this angst that comes naturally to the genre works well, but the teens I have worked with and talk to want more. They want LGTBQ characters who are true, rich, and unique. Yes, they want to read coming out stories because that is something that they are struggling with, but they also want to read stories where gay is okay, where gay is great and loved. Some teens may feel that while there are issues to be solved, they are loved and happy. They want books to reflect their loved and happy status.
As a straight, cisgendered person, I know that I will never understand the struggles of LGBTQ teens, so I sincerely hopes that I don’t offend any by talking about these issues as a sort of “outsider.” But I have heard them talk about how they want their literature to represent them and all of their struggles, but also to have the sort of variety that is exhibited in books that are geared toward straight teens — or at least that have all straight teen characters in them. I want these brave, amazing, goofy, LGBTQ teens to have the same type of books that they straight teens do: vampires, werewolves, sci-fi, steampunk, and all the genres. I want them to find joy and silliness in what they read if they want that, just like everyone else.
So here’s a list of books on my radar lately that, while they may not be 100% happy, happy, joy, joy all the time, are more positive than not.
Boy meets Boy by David Levithan could be described as a gay fantasy: everyone is accepting and celebratory over teens’ sexual preference. I hope that this is not just a fantasy, but a prophecy, that someday we will all be so goofy about young love — no matter who is loving whom — that we get all weird and mushy about it. Levithan can always be counted to have great LGBTQ characters, and Boy Meets Boy is just one. Most of his books are positive as well, like Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written with the always tear-inducing and yet so life-affirming John Green. Even Every Day, which totally had me crying at the end, was a warm, amazing look into a possible life. Levithan is a good bet for some happy and contented LGBTQ teens.
Freak Show by James St. James, a 2008 Best Book for Young Adults: Silly Billy the gay pirate, floundering in the swamps of Florida, is unflappably hilarious and unique. Even when he’s the victim of a vicious attack and is left in a coma for months after a particularly spectaculr drag ensemble at school, Billy is resplendent in his self-awareness. James’s book doesn’t skim over the hard issues but shows that you can have some serious flair while living through them.
I won’t talk too much about Openly Straightby Bill Konigsburg, since Chelsea just did so earlier this week. I’ll just say it’s a different kind of coming out story riddled with humor and warmth.
Tessa Masterson Will go to Prom by Brendan Halpin and Emily Franklin is, yes, about the titular Tessa coming out and fighting for the right to go to her small town’s prom. But it’s her friendship with Luke and the ups and downs of that relationship that really emotionally centers the book. This is exactly the type of book it seems like my teens want: being gay is a big issue, but other things are important, too.
My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger is a story of the Red Sox, first loves both gay and straight, and whole heck of a lot of musical theatre. Augie, one of the three main characters, can’t get enough of it and the honest way he lives into his sexuality through the stage is over the top but in a good way.
Finally, The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to their Younger Selves is a a must-read not just for LGBTQ readers but for anyone who wishes they could go back in time and tell themselves everything will be okay — or for someone who is wishing for a visit from that bright future where all is, if not bright and happy, a lot better than the now.
What about you? What do you give to readers when they ask you for happy YA?
(Many thanks to library page extraordinaire Caroline M. for help in writing this post and for tipping me off to Malinda Lo’s YA Pride blog posts.)
— Anna Tschetter, currently reading The Little Friend by Donna Tartt