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Malinda Lo


10 LGBTQ Young Adult Novels To Make It Better

Posted: 07/19/2012 8:55 am

Earlier this year, an article in the New York Times described recent neuroscience research that showed that reading enables us to better understand and empathize with other people. Dr. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, told the New York Times: "Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life."

Of course, any dedicated reader (or writer) could have told you the same without the research, but it's lovely to have the facts to back up our instincts.

The ability of the printed page (or the ereader) to act as a doorway into another world, where I can vicariously experience someone else's life -- safely, freely -- has always been the reason that reading is one of my favorite activities. For teens (or anyone, really) who is living in a real world where they're unable to be themselves, or where they're struggling to figure out who that self is at all, reading can be a wonderful way to imagine different possibilities. That's why books can be so important to teens coming to terms with their sexual orientations, particularly if they're not in environments that are supportive to them.

When I was asked to compile a list of ten young adult novels about LGBTQ characters for The Huffington Post's series on anti-bullying (to combat the negative ideas about being gay that bullies often spread), I reached out to a group of librarians and bloggers who are working on the Queer Bookshelf, a comprehensive bibliography of LGBTQ YA fiction. I wanted to make sure that this list was representative -- as much as possible -- of all the letters in the QUILTBAG spectrum. So this list contains books about lesbians, bisexual girls and boys, gay boys, transgender teens, and queer and questioning teens. I focused on books with a positive outlook, and I aimed for a mix of "classics" and new books while also seeking out characters of color.

I hope that queer teens will find a book for them in this list, and if they don't (or even if they do), I highly recommend they stop by their library and talk to the librarian, because there are many more books about LGBTQ teens being published today than can fit in a list of ten. Thanks to Michael Cart, Elizabeth Chapman, Erica Gillingham, KT Horning, Daisy Porter, Nancy Silverrod, and Lee Wind for their suggestions. The final list was made by me. Happy reading!

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  • 'Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe' by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2012)

    In the summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas, 15-year-old Mexican American Aristotle Mendoza, known as Ari, meets a boy named Dante Quintana at the local swimming pool. Ari is closed up and often angry, and struggles with his family's secret: his brother is in prison, and his parents never mention it. Meanwhile, Dante is sensitive and intellectual, with a family he loves. As Ari and Dante's friendship develops, Dante falls in love with Ari. As Publishers Weekly noted, "It's a tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality, and a passionate reminder that love--whether romantic or familial--should be open, free, and without shame."

  • 'Beauty Queens' by Libba Bray (Scholastic, 2011)

    In this satirical novel, a plane full of Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant contestants crashes onto a desert island, where they must struggle to survive in the face of giant snakes, a sinister Corporation (that has suggestive ties to the Miss Team Dream pageant), and an Elvis-obsessed dictator named MoMo B. ChaCha. It's all in the name of sending up our cultural obsession with beauty, and the diverse cast of crashed beauty queens includes lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters. The New York Times declared, "Beauty Queens is a madcap surrealist satire of the world in which [Libba Bray's] readers have come of age--reality TV, corporate sponsorship, product placement, beauty obsession--but ultimately, it's a story of empowering self-discovery."

  • 'Boy Meets Boy' by David Levithan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

    When high school sophomore Paul meets Noah -- a newly arrived senior -- at a bookstore, Paul falls into immediate crush. In some YA novels, this kind of experience would be followed up with coming-out issues, but there's no need for that here, because Paul has known he was gay for a long time. "I've always known I was gay, but it wasn't confirmed until I was in kindergarten," Paul explains. "It was my teacher who said so. It was right there on my kindergarten report card: PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF." From the book's first pages, it's clear that Paul's world could be called a "gaytopia," in which it's way more than okay to be gay. This groundbreaking novel is a modern classic.

  • 'Boyfriends With Girlfriends' by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2011)

    Sergio, a bisexual teen, meets Lance, a gay teen, online, and the two arrange for a date at the local mall. Each brings a friend with them; Sergio brings his lesbian best friend Kimiko, while Lance brings his straight (or is she?) friend Allie. In this fast-paced, soapy story, Kimiko falls for Allie, who realizes she might not be as straight as she thought she was, while Lance struggles to accept Sergio's bisexuality. In a starred review, Booklist stated, "Sanchez [has] written another innovative, important book that explores, with empathy and sympathy, largely ignored aspects of teen sexual identity. While lip service is routinely given to these aspects in the acronym GLBTQ, there have been only a handful of novels that so plausibly and dramatically bring the nature of bisexuality and sexual questioning to life."

  • 'The Difference Between You and Me' by Madeleine George (Viking, 2012)

    Fifteen-year-old Jesse Halberstam wears big green fisherman's boots, cuts her hair with a Swiss Army knife, and plasters the school with posters from NOLAW, the National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos. Jesse came out when she was fourteen. Emily Miller is student council vice president, wears cardigans from J. Crew, and is seeking out corporate sponsorship for the school's formal dance. Emily has a long-term boyfriend. The only thing Jesse and Emily have in common is every Tuesday afternoon in the library bathroom, where they make out in secret. Told in alternating chapters, this sharp, funny book explores love, politics, and what really makes us who we are. It's not necessarily sexual orientation.

  • 'Empress of the World' by Sara Ryan (Viking, 2001)

    Nicola Lancaster wants to be an archaeologist, and she hopes to focus on that when she attends the Siegel Institute Summer Program for Gifted Youth. But her first day there she notices Battle Hall Davies, a girl with beautiful blond hair who is also a dancer. Over the course of the summer, Nic and Battle's friendship develops into something more, forcing Nic, who thought she was straight, to question her sexual orientation. Written in the first person with excerpts from Nic's journal, Empress of the World realistically and sympathetically explores bisexuality and friendship.

  • 'I Am J' by Cris Beam (Little, Brown, 2011)

    Seventeen-year-old J was born "Jenifer," but J has never felt like a girl. He has always felt like a boy. This story about J's transition from female to male takes J away from his home to an LGBT high school and a transgender support group in Manhattan, where he finds a community of trans folk. In a starred review, Booklist described I Am J as "Easily the best book to date about the complicated condition of being a transsexual teen, not only sharing important information that is artfully woven into the plot but also creating, in J, a multilayered, absolutely believable character whose pain readers will share. Perhaps most importantly, the author brings clarity and charity to a state of being that has too long been misunderstood, ignored, and deplored."

  • 'It's Our Prom (So Deal With It)' by Julie Anne Peters (Little, Brown, 2012)

    High school senior Azure is recruited by her principal to turn their school's traditional prom into an "alternative prom" that will include everyone -- not just the popular kids who can afford to spend a lot of money on tuxes and limos. Azure invites her best friends, Luke, a theater geek, and Radhika, a straight-A student, to help out. One problem? Both Azure (who is an out lesbian) and Luke (who is openly bisexual) have crushes on Radhika.

  • 'Parrotfish' by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2007)

    When Angela Katz-MacNair comes out as transgendered, he chooses a new name: Grady. His family and friends struggle with his new identity, but Grady finds support in unexpected places, including a classmate who explains that parrot fish can change their gender, and a beautiful popular girl who seems to understand him. VOYA raved, "Peopled with wonderfully wacky characters and scenes, this narrative snaps and crackles with wit, even while it touches the spirit of the sensitive reader."

  • 'Wildthorn' by Jane Eagland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

    In this historical novel set in nineteenth-century England, seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove is locked into Wildthorn Hall, an insane asylum for women, and is told that her name is Lucy Childs. The mystery of why Louisa has been sentenced to the madhouse under this different name unfolds through flashbacks that I will not reveal here, but suffice it to say: Louisa's not straight. After an attempt to run away from the asylum, Louisa is moved into a ward for seriously insane women, and the only kindness she finds comes from an attendant, Eliza. Though the setup might make readers believe there can be no happy ending, Wildthorn is a rare YA historical novel written in the Sarah Waters mode -- which means yes, happy endings are possible, even for lesbians in nineteenth century England.

  • 'Huntress' by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown BFYR, 2011)

    Though the number of LGBTQ-centered young adult novels has increased significantly in recent years, there are still few YA fantasy or science fiction novels with LGBTQ main characters. For that reason (and because I'm writing this post!), I offer my second novel, Huntress, as #11 in this list of 10 titles. I cannot claim to be impartial on this book at all, so I will simply say this: This is a story for people who like high fantasy, complete with weapons and magic and adventure and save-the-world stakes. What makes it different is that it also includes a romance between two girls in a world where being a gay is totally normal. If you want your kick-ass girls to fall in love with other girls, this is the book for you.


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