Dealing with LGBTQ issues in young adult literature isn’t exactly new. It made its first appearance with John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip in 1969, and while the coverage has expanded and the material is less censored, the majority of teen novels covering queer experience has stayed firmly in the category of “Issue Book,” examining how you discover your own sexuality and how you and others deal with the Big Realization.
It looks like that’s starting to change.
In recent seasons, I’m hearing more and more about books that are pitched as science fiction thrillers or fictionalized memoirs. At the very end I’m told “Oh yeah, and the main character’s gay.” Even the books that are more traditionally about the gay experience are approaching it from totally new angles. I’d like to highlight a few of the books from this exciting new realm of LGBTQ that can be found on the shelves of a bookstore near you.
Proxy by Alex London
Here’s that science fiction thriller I was talking about. Proxy takes place in a dystopian future wear education has grown so expensive that the disenfranchised masses rent themselves out as proxies to the wealthy in exchange for tuition. These proxies must suffer punishments on behalf of their counterparts, no matter what the wrongdoing. While Syd has taken many a beating or work assignment when Knox gets into trouble, he’s not prepared for the deadly car crash that leaves him with the death penalty. Both boys go on the run in an attempt to escape the constrictions of their present lives and find a brighter future. Oh, and Syd’s gay.
Adaptation by Malinda Lo
This book opens with planes falling out of the sky after mass bird attacks and gets more dire from there. When debate partners Reese and David wake up in the hospital after a crash caused by those same birds, they know things are different now. Soon Reese is uncovering evidence of a vast government conspiracy. All while cultivating an exciting new relationship with punk girl Amber and maintaining her crush on David.
Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Hiding your sexuality, especially in the midst of a same-sex boarding school, is not exactly a new concept in YA lit. But in Openly Straight, the twist comes from Rafe’s motivations. You see, he’s been out to everyone he knows since the 8th grade. And everyone’s fine with it. But despite all the support, he still wonders what it would be like if he wasn’t “the gay guy” but just “a guy.” So when he’s transferred to a New England boarding school, he leaps on the chance to reinvent himself, and ends up having to discover himself all over again.
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davies
Twins Justin and Ysabel are superstars. Ysabel has a successful jewelry line that’s already getting acclaim in the art world. Justin’s performances in class, clubs and sports have him fast-tracked for the Ivy League. Sounds like it’s about time for one of them to be outed as LGBT and deal with the resulting fallout, no? So why is this book different? Because that’s not what happens. Their perfect family is turned upside down when their father comes out as transgender and leaves home to try living as a woman full-time. What follows is a look at whether all happy families actually do look alike.
The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
This is another book where the main character isn’t queer. But her best friend is a gay black man. And early on, she teams up with a Filipino lesbian in a wheelchair. Scotch herself is biracial–African-American/white Jamaican–which means she doesn’t fit in anywhere in Toronto. Her brother is an ex-convict. There are even three minor characters in a polyamorous relationship. That’s an awful lot of diversity, especially for a book plotted around a cataclysmic event that brings a dreamworld logic into our reality.
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
Nate isn’t gay either. Or maybe he is. He’s only thirteen, and the way he sees it, he’s got a lot of time to figure that out. But that’s not going to stop the kids at school from assuming he is (and taunting him accordingly). In turn, that teasing won’t stop Nate from pursuing his dream of starring in a musical on the Great White Way. Strictly speaking, this is middle grade, and a great way to start kids young on the concept of gender nonconformity.
Of course we continue to see more traditional coming-of-age novels about blossoming sexuality. Those books hold a crucial place in a world where teens (and everyone else) have too few spaces to safely explore their feelings. But it’s wonderful to see LGBTQ YA break the mold and branch out into other genres. Just one more step in the long journey to equality.