Thanks to the amazing Amy Reed (You guys have read Beautiful, right?! It’s like Go Ask Alice but only 100 times better and less full of crap and more full of awesome writing.) I was alerted to the Huffington’s Post recent feature “13 Great Books For Gay Teens.” First, I want to applaud the Huffington Post for publishing such an article, it’s always good to see positive content about teen books in more “mainstream” sources. Also, kudos go to Jessie Kunhardt and Alexandra Carr, the piece’s authors, for putting together a good starter list of 13 titles.
But, wow, that list is old!
Ron Koertge’s The Arizona Kid was published 22 years ago. Jack, A.M. Homes’s story about a 16 year old who discovers his father is gay, was published 20 years ago. Jack, were he real, would be 36 today. There was even mention of the well-loved classic Annie on My Mind. But, believe it or not, Nancy Garden’s groundbreaking book was published a whopping 28 years ago.
Young adult literature has sure changed in 28 years and young adult literature about the LGBTQ experience has changed right along with it. Reading 13 great books for LGBTQ teenagers today would be scratching the surface of a field that is rapidly expanding and contains, frankly, some of the best young adult literature being published.
As many of you probably know, research and writing about LGBTQ teen books is my first love, so I decided this Huffington Post list was the perfect opportunity for me to compile my own list of “Great Books” and include some of the newest, lesser known, and what I consider really special books in this genre. Almost all of these books were published in the last two years, but there were a few that were just tooo good, so I set my limit at five years. With the way this genre expands, re-invents, and grows, even five years was pushing it!
Gosh, I’m so excited this is a whole freaking genre. What a long way we’ve come, huzzah!
- Gay America: The Struggle for Equality by Linas Alsenas (2008)
In my opinion, EVERY public and middle/high school library should own this book. Perhaps more than any other, it speaks to the giant leaps in publishing we’ve seen in this area. This non-fiction title covers not only the history of LGBTQ life in America but on the struggle for equality and civil rights. Alsenas incorporates personal narratives and historical documents to make perfectly clear to teenagers struggling with their sexuality and gender identity that not only are they not alone but that, as a community, they have a rich cultural and historical legacy and they are, and have always been, part of America’s story. So far the only book of its kind, but we can hope for more!
- Of All The Stupid Things by Alexandra Diaz (2009)
A good read-alike for fans of The Bermudez Triangle, this is another story of three friends dealing with coming out. Tara, Whitney Blaire, and Pinkie have always been best friends, but bow Tara is discovering feelings for her marathon-training partner and new girl in town Riley. What I liked about this one was the realistic way Diaz dealt with all of the friends coming to terms with how Tara’s new relationship changes their interactions, there’s complications and negative reactions and all kinds of realistic things teens in this situation might face from friends. Pinkie and Whitney Blaire must really examine their assumptions and weigh them against their life-long friendship. And, nicely, Tara and Riley have a charming, interesting romance.
- Mariposa Club by Rigoberto Gonzalez (2009)
What’s the genre still missing? DIVERSITY. (shocker, that.) This book is a worthy heir to Alex Sanchez’s neo-classic Rainbow Boys. It tells the story of Maui, Trini, Isaac, and Liberace: four gay Hispanic teens who are best friends and who decide in their senior year to start their high school’s first GSA, which they dub The Mariposa Club. What I love about this book: the close-knit, supportive friendship between the gay teens (there’s token straight friends in this book!) and the wide diversity of gay identity presented. Just because they’re gay and Hispanic doesn’t mean they’re all the same. A under-the radar gem from Alyson Books! (But a better cover please!! Liberace, my favorite character, is an unapologetic fattie!)
- A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner (2010)
Sweet, funny, sad: this debut from Horner is a subtle, aching, sweet delight. The coming out and sexuality angst-ing is kept to a minimum and the focus is kept instead on the main character’s charming courtship. This story is a tear-jerker, though! Cass is trying to pick up the pieces after her best friend Julia’s tragic death and the last thing she needs is to start to feel drawn to her middle school enemy Heather. Cass and her friends are “putting on a show”, specifically the musical Julia wrote before she died: Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad and Heather has Julia’s part. It’s not so much that Heather replaces Julia (because Julia and Cass really were just best friends) in Cass’s life, it’s about how Cass learns that, even when it hurts, life goes on after death. I’ll probably write a longer review of this book later, but if you can read Cass and Heather’s climactic, romantic final scene together without sighing a little, you might have a heart of stone.
- Wide Awake by David Levithan (2006)
This was one I couldn’t leave behind. You’ll see plenty of “Best Of” or “Essential” LGBTQ teen lists that have Levithan’s ground-breaking Boy Meets Boy, but I think the real jewel in Levithan’s crown is this lesser known work. Set in the future, after America has just elected our first openly gay Jewish President, this is a book that takes Boy Meets Boy gay-topia premise and puts in a real world with hard choices and angry opposition, it makes makes it work. It’s a story of political activism, of choosing love over hate and fear, of finding your voice, and, of course, it’s a romance. Levithan’s best work by far, it’s moving, wrenching, and (best of all) a call to arms.
- Gravity by Leanne Lieberman (2008)
A Canadian title from Orca, this is another title I think deserves a wider audience. Lieberman’s story is, at first look, just another about a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality, but the “complication” here is that the main character, 15 year old Ellie, is an Orthodox Jew. Lieberman does an excellent job showing not just Ellie’s issues with her faith but the struggles of all the women in her family. And this isn’t just a story about a teenager who abandons her religion because of her sexuality, it’s much richer and more complex. Great writing, strong characters, a magnetic romance, and a completely original premise, what more could you want?
- Ash by Malinda Lo (2009)
Hey, you know what the teens these days just love? Fantasy. Mix that up with some epic-destined-drawn-together-by-irresistible-forces-big-swoony romances and you’ve got the next big thing. What else would be good? Ah, how about a retold fairy tale! Yeah! Oh, and don’t forget the strong female character who kicks ass! Totally! Yes, when it comes to what’s “trendy” YA publishing, Ash has it all! Except in this take on the Cinderella story, it’s not the Prince who is the dashing, magnetic love interest but the bold, brave Huntress. Lo’s writing is rich and very literally sensual. It’s so wonderful to have some LGBTQ leading characters in fantasy to add to the canon. (as an aside: this is a book that I’ve seen have lots of success with straight-identified teens: Strong females! Big romance! Fantasy! Faeries! Magic! it’s just the kind of book they gobble up.)
- grl2grl: short fictions by Julie Anne Peters (2007)
Another book I couldn’t leave off and another title from a widely read, widely loved author that I think gets too often neglected. Julie Anne Peters, justly well-known and loved for writing titles like Luna and Keeping You A Secret, outdoes herself with this collection of stories ranging far and wide in the queer teen community. There’s a little bit of everything in this collection from boi, a well-drawn, agonizingly immediate story about a teen wrestling with gender identity and gender presentation to After Alex, a drama-filled, passionate break-up story. I think Peters has particular talent as a short story writer and this is another book that gives a wide representation to the queer experience. I hope she works on another short story collection soon.
- Freak Show by James St. James (2007)
Believe me when I tell you: there is nothing like this on your YA shelves. This is because, really, there is no one in AY fiction like Billy Bloom, the utterly fabulous drag queen/”gender obscurist” who stars in James St. James’s novel. Billy comes to school in full drag, gives a book report as Zelda Fitzgerald, wears beehive wigs and glitter boas, and he never apologizes for who he is. He runs for Homecoming Queen and implores his fellow students to embrace their own inner freak shows. Funny, audacious, joyful, sweet, even! This is an essential YA novel about what it means to be an awkward teenager who longs for more, about finding that dreamy boy, about rising above fitting in, about “the universal freak show” within us all. (Please write another YA novel, James St. James!!)
- Kiss by Jacqueline Wilson (2010)
This British import is by Jacqueline Wilson, one of the grand dames of Brit kidlit, a writer who is exceptionally skilled at creating immediate, realistic stories about daily life. It’s an interesting take on the “straight girl has a crush on her gay best friend!” convention, particularly because the friendship, the look at how friendships change and last, is so carefully and truthfully rendered. I also have to mention that this is one of the very few titles with LGBTQ content that is suited for a middle grade audience. The main characters have only recently turned 14 and it is very much appropriate for a middle school audience. There’s a huge gap in the literature for books for this age group, so more are needed and always welcomed!
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR
- I Am J by Cris Beam, forthcoming in 2011 from Little & Brown, I just finished the ARC of this book. It’s an amazing, wonderful, powerful story about a FTM trans teenager. Gonna be a great addition to the canon!
- Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Mark Bieschke, forthcoming in October from Zest Books. More non-fiction, thankfully. (from the high quality non-fiction publisher Zest) This one looks great, it’s a bit of everything from an activist’s handbook to a dating guide. (Read about it in Zest’s Fall 2010 catalog)
And even after all this talk, I feel like I’ve only just begun! There are so many others I want to recommend. You know what that means … I’ll just have to make this a series.
So, until then, please feel free to chime in with your own new favorites and suggestions!