Co-authored by Nina Mauceri and Lisa M. Stulberg
Nina’s Story about Stories
When I was a kid I loved books. I would get lost in their pages, lost in the lives I could have had. I remember going to the library and eagerly searching out new books, new stories, new information on whatever I was interested in. In first grade, or maybe it was second, my mother decided it was time to teach me about sex and reproduction. She shared a book with me. I remember the male and female bodies intertwined and thinking it was simply magical that god figured out a way for one body to complete another. In the third grade I decided to play baseball. As the only girl on my team, I wanted to be prepared. So I got a book and read and learned all I could. In the fourth grade, I fell deeply in love with Judy Blume. I don't remember why, but what I do remember is devouring every book of hers that I could, learning about my female body through the eyes of Margaret and being thankful that I could get questions answered without having to ask them.
The books continued and I continued to devour them and I grew. I grew into an adolescent and I grew into my sexuality. And slowly but surely I started to recognize my attraction towards other girls. It was for me alone to know. Something I kept to myself and then slowly something I shared in late night kisses with myself and my secret. Sometimes the secret was in my mind and sometimes the secret was of flesh and blood. But it was always a secret. I tried to tell people. But I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to tell them.
My mother – the one who gave me the sex book and the sex talk, the one who explained everything to me and the one who didn't even flinch when I came home from school one day and innocently asked, "Mom, what's a blow job?" – my mother, didn't have any answers. She didn't know what to say.
I said, “I think I like kissing girls.”
“What do you mean,” she asked.
“I don’t know. I like the feeling. I want to kiss them. Something about me likes holding a girl better than being held by a boy.”
So, she did her best. She told me about her best friend and how sometimes we can confuse love for attraction. She explained that she loved Paula and that I shouldn’t feel bad because it is natural to love your best friends. But what she didn't see was that I wasn't upset about my closeness to a friend. I didn't understand how to be who I was.
Up until then there was a book I could turn to – a book I could read that would be my guide, my teacher, my hope, and even my salvation. But I had none now and I moved on and I did drugs and I kissed girls and I fell in love and I called myself bisexual and I told her I loved her and then I overdosed. And then my grandfather died. And then we got his books. And then my mother remembered.
She remembered the book my grandfather had given her when she was a teenager, before she had any kids of her own and before anyone knew that some day she would have a lesbian daughter. He gave her – and then she gave me – The Well of Loneliness.
And by now, I was clean for almost a year and I had a “best friend” who was really my love, and I read the book and I smiled. And I cried. And finally, I finally saw myself represented in black and white on words on a page. I was 20 years old before I saw anything in print that normalized who I was.
Lisa’s Story about Stories
I read the most random assortment of books when I was a kid. I think I just pulled anything off the shelf and devoured it. These books provided me almost no view into my own world. They were friends of convenience, but they were loyal friends who were always there when I called. Why had I read most of Ernest Hemingway’s body of work by the time I hit puberty? I have no idea. I have a vague memory that my dad was a Hemingway fan. Maybe one of my parents took a Hemingway class in college and kept his novels around. P.G. Wodehouse? I barely remember who this guy is, but I know his books were readily on hand and that I consumed them hungrily. Gone with the Wind? I had absolutely no connection to the characters or the setting of this book, but I vividly remember challenging myself to get to the end of this massive tome because it was the longest book I had ever seen. I remember it was 1206 pages long, though a quick online search cannot confirm this. I finished it proudly and really felt that I had accomplished something.
I endured a fair amount of low-grade teasing and bullying as a young kid – infractions that did not even rise to the level of parental involvement. Maybe it hit me harder and stayed with me longer because I was a sensitive kid and because I kept it to myself. I did not fit very easily with either the boys’ or girls’ crews in my early elementary years. I got teased for strange things like having big eyes or walking with an unusual bounce. I had no confidence. I was small. I was quiet. I was smart. These little things added up to make me a target. Not a big one, but one just big enough for those trusted friends on my parents’ shelves to shield me. Books were a refuge and a protection, something I could get lost in and have control over, even if I hadn’t quite found the right books yet.
And then I found The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger gave me Holden Caulfield and so many more disaffected, lonely, weird characters to keep me company through my adolescence. And, yes, those Judy Blume books! They were sometimes hidden away with giggling friends in closets or under stacks of decoy books, but they were there, nearly memorized, at least the juiciest bits. Blume’s characters were struggling with their bodies, with love, with sex, with friendships. The books I began to read on my own as a young teen – and then beautiful writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker who were introduced to me by amazing college professors – contained voices and stories that, at last, resonated profoundly with me. These books kept me company when no one else would. These books gave me plausible scenarios in which the outsiders won, and these outsiders had communities around them that celebrated them for their quirkiness or their difference. These books put beauty around me when I did not feel beautiful and strong voices in my head when no such voice was there in my throat.
I just loved reading from minute one. I still do. Any day of the week, I would choose reading a good book over sleep one hundred percent of the time.
What YA We’re Reading This Summer
As Pride month comes to an end this year, we’re easing in to the summer from a busy school year, and we both have long reading lists. On those lists include a number of Young Adult (YA) books. Some of them we’re reading for the first time. Some of them are beloved, and we’re coming back to them, as we always have with books that are like old friends, for their beauty, their comfort, the people that live within them that make us feel that we have trusted, familiar company as we walk through and try to make sense of our worlds.
We believe that LGBTQ YA is a growing space where young people are depicted as far more than passive victims of abuse. They are at the center of the narrative, and they are given importance outside of their relationship to queer adults. They are afforded the space to be whole humans, complete with individual personalities, triumphs, and stumbles. They have their own stories that unfold within and outside of their queerness and they are agents in the composition of their own lives. For queer youth – and the adults that may have been queer youth at one point – who may not see regular representations of themselves in their real lives or in most of mainstream popular culture, reading LGBTQ YA can be one of the greatest tools for understanding and building their identity, just as literature can show all young people how to engage in and make sense of other possible worlds.
So, if you’re looking to extend Pride, and you’re a rapidly-graying grown up, a young adult, or a teen, here are some of our summer recommendations. This is list is by no means exhaustive. There are so many great books out there! Please share your own favorites by commenting below.
Some of Our Favorites
Why we love this book: Surprising and wholly of the modern age, so much of this story is told through email exchanges between the main character and his anonymous love interest. As people in our 40s (one of us just barely!) who grew up pre-email, pre-text message, and pre-Internet, we were reminded of our own note-passing in high school and struck by the level of anonymity and openness that young people today can have as if they want to hide their writing behind screens and digital media. This was part of the beauty of this book: seeing into the heart of characters that shared their most intimate thoughts and wondering if they would ever bring those thoughts out of the shadows of the Internet and into the light of day.
Why we love this book: This story is perfect for those of us who are huge fans of The Great Gatsby and all things LGBTQ. Not only is this an amazing reworking of Fitzgerald’s story from a modern day, female perspective, it also addresses themes such as class, teen sexuality, stereotypes, the gender binary, and allyship in ways that are poignant, humorous, and seamlessly interwoven.
Why we love this book: It’s so refreshing to read a story with a biracial, lesbian, teenage protagonist that was not primarily about being (or struggling with being) a biracial, lesbian teenager! Granted, the main character is a lesbian and, as such, the story does involve some young lesbian romance, but it is about so much more. It is about friendship and family, about finding your niche in the world, and about how our history – and family secrets – can impact our present.
Why we love this book: Logan’s first novel is part of a small but growing group of LGBTQ YA novels about gay, cisgender male athletes. This one is about James, a soccer player and a runner in Vermont who is coming out and finding love for the first time. In that vein, it explores the intersection of dominant forms of masculinity and gay male identity. This wonderful story not only introduces us to a gay male character that we don’t see often in fiction, but it gives us a glimpse of what small-town, jock allies look like.
Why we love this book: This is one of those books that as we approached the end, we found ourselves reading slower and slower just to make it last a little longer. At least one of us will admit to pulling an all-nighter with this one. It is so artfully written that the words on the page seem to perfectly symbolize the beauty of the artwork that the characters create throughout the novel. Here, too, is a tested but strong sibling bond. Here, too, is a beautiful setting (this time in small-town California). Here, too, is a family that is hurting and has secrets, and a sweet, almost redemptive, romance between boys.
Why we love this book: What we adore about Luna is the exploration of the sibling relationship between Liam and Regan. As Liam begins to transition to Luna, Regan is the only person Luna can trust with her secret. The dialogue between the siblings is so authentically done that at times we felt like we were eavesdropping in on real conversations. Luna is not only about a transgender teenager’s struggle, it is about self-empowerment, self-acceptance, self-love, and the strength of sibling bonds when those bonds are tested and are most needed.
Why we love this book: A friendship blossoms into a romance between two teenage Mexican American cisgender boys, Ari and Dante, who live in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. This beautiful story stands out because it explores the unconditional love and acceptance that can exist between parents and children, even when their relationship is tentative and strained. It also demonstrates that stories featuring LGBTQ characters are not just about gender and sexuality. The book explores intersectional identities and the complexity of developing friendships and connections across class, ethnic identity, and other family differences.
Why we love this book: Nina met Jacqueline Woodson at a book signing when Nina was still an undergraduate in the process of coming out and has been in love with Woodson’s writing ever since. The House You Pass on the Way is at the top of our list because it highlights intersectionality in a way that is so powerful and rare in LGBTQ literature. The main character, Staggerlee, is female, cisgender, Black, White, southern, a teenager, a daughter, a cousin, a friend, and a girl that likes kissing girls. Somehow Woodson is able to weave all of this together into an identity that is not one of these things, but an honest, and at times difficult, composite of all of them.
Our Summer Reading List
Why we can’t wait to read this book: This is a beautiful story of two Iranian teenage girls, Sahar and Nasrin, who have been best friends – and more – since they were young children. We were drawn to this book because it adds more racial/ethnic diversity to our summer reading, and because it presents a complex examination of the boundaries and limits of friendship and the possibility of love when such love strains against such strong family and cultural norms.
Why we can’t wait to read this book: Although Julia is not an LGBTQ-identified young person, she is a strong, female protagonist who is a talented graffiti artist and who is deaf. She also happens to have two moms. Gardner has given voice to a character that is rarely seen in YA literature, a teenager who is the sole deaf student in her new school. We love that this story is not about having lesbian moms, but instead is about a fierce, artistic teenager who has her own story to live. We are also looking forward to an initiation into graffiti culture and viewing the black-and-white images from Julia’s notebook!
Why we can’t wait to read this book: While there is a growing (albeit small) number of LGBTQ YA books that feature characters who identify as transgender, there are very few stories that focus on the complexity of gender identity in which the protagonist identifies not as trans but as genderqueer or as non-binary. That is the case here. Riley, who identifies as gender fluid, is a suburban California kid with a Congressman dad. Riley suffers from anxiety and now endures the stresses of beginning a new school, working to make accepting and loving friends, and coming out – to both family and a much wider community.
Why we can’t wait to read this book: First of all, this book has illustrations that look just like they come out of a comic book. What also caught our eye about Linn’s creative, dynamic debut novel is that it is set in Texas, bringing much-needed geographic diversity to LGBTQ stories. Adrian, the gay boy protagonist, also seems to wield art for power and for change, which resonates with us and is a theme we hope that young people take to heart.
Why we can’t wait to read this book: For a long time we have been craving more diversity and stories that go beyond the White, American, middle-class, LGBTQ experience. Okparanta helps to fill this gap with a coming-of-age novel that is set in her home country of Nigeria during a time of intense conflict. Since seeing the powerful Broadway play Fela! years ago, we have been fascinated by this time period in Nigerian history and the ways in which such things as love, music, and art can be revolutionary. Under the Odala Trees tackles themes of love, politics, and cultural expectations by weaving a love story between two girls, Ijeoma and Amina, with the history and folklore of Nigeria, resulting in a rare, and welcome, addition to LGBTQ YA literature.
Why we can’t wait to read this book: For the past two years, Nina has been working with several Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) as part of her dissertation research. Coincidentally last spring two of the groups happened to be reading this book and couldn’t stop singing its praises. When a book comes so highly recommended from not one, but two diverse GSAs with a combined membership of almost fifty middle and high school students, we simply have to read it! Also set in the South, in Tennessee (the author’s home state), this story is part of a small but growing group of books with transgender protagonists. Here Amanda has transitioned and begun a new school and is navigating friendships, romance, and coming out. According to our GSA sources, this is one of the most compelling LGBTQ-themed novels they have read, not only because it centers on a strong transgender teenager, but also because Russo is herself a proud transgender woman.
Why we can’t wait to read this book: This book made our list because, of all of the LGBTQ YA literature we have read in recent years, we have not read many books with a bisexual protagonist. We also are drawn to the main character, Aki, as someone who identified as “hypothetically” bisexual because she had never acted on her attractions to other females. The complexity of identity and how we come to define ourselves internally and externally, with ourselves and with others, is something that we have discussed with each other many times, and we are excited to witness this process through the experiences of Aki, a young, Black, Christian, teenager.
Why we can’t wait to read this book: If it hasn’t been clear from our recommendations thus far, we are clearly interested in filling in the gaps in LGBTQ YA literature. We therefore are excited to read Golden Boy, a novel that is part of a small, but hopefully growing, group of stories about protagonists that are intersex. The main character, Max, is a popular, attractive, soccer player who gets straight A’s. However, he is also working through the fact that he and his family have kept his being intersex a secret throughout his life. He’s also grappling with how to handle his budding sexuality. We love that this is a story that gives voice to a complex character as he attempts to balance his gender and sexual identities with who he is as a part of his family.