It’s Twenty-Bi-Teen, Y’all
Finding representation in queer YA
By Abby Rauscher
I was born in 1996, so I was lucky enough to be a kid during the Harry Potter craze — Deathly Hallows came out in July 2007, just months before I turned 11. The summer of ’07 was also, incidentally, the summer Stephenie Meyers’ Eclipse released; right smack in the middle of YA’s expansion, a subset of publishing that has only ballooned ever outward over the past decade-plus. Yet for all of the enthusiasm, for all of the hundreds of titles published — I didn’t get my hands on a single book with a queer protagonist until I was 12, when I stumbled on a copy of Hero by Perry Moore at the library. I devoured it. I loved it. I didn’t find another book like it until I was 15, already long on the path of interrogating my understanding of my sexuality, and did some secretive research in the incognito tab of my phone’s web browser while hunched in the aisles of the nearby bookstore. I dug up Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress, David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. Not much else. I got what I needed — queer characters, queer narratives, queer romance — from fanfiction, mostly. (I see and appreciate you, Hugo Award-nominee AO3.) But it was always a furtive experience, like I was doing something wrong, or bad, or inappropriate. I needed a meal, and instead I had morsels so few and far between that it was barely better than having nothing at all.
The important thing to understand is that it wasn’t that queer YA didn’t exist. It did! Of course it did! There was just so very little of it, and what got published rarely got much in the way of marketing clout; bookstores didn’t feature it, and if you were lucky maybe your library carried it, and there was such an aura of shame around the whole experience of finding anything with a queer character that it took a font of bravery to even embark on the journey in the first case.
But let’s say you were much bolder than 15-year-old Abby was. (The bar’s not high.) You screwed your courage to the sticking place, and you stormed your local bookstore and you found every book with a queer protagonist you could get your hands on. Good work! The pile in front of you was probably mostly about middle-class cis white gay boys. Maybe one book about a trans girl. (You know, that one.) The plot was probably about coming out, and maybe there was a kiss at the end, but most likely it was about struggling to be accepted by a queerphobic family member or teacher or classmate. About changing the bigoted straight person’s mind.
There were a few outliers. In general, slim pickings.
The good news: that’s not the case anymore.
2019 is the most bountiful year for queer YA lit ever. Malinda Lo — queen of my heart, I can’t sing her praises enough — has a fantastic blog post about the statistics for LGBTQ+ YA; she hasn’t done the numbers for 2018 as of this writing, but suffice to say they’ve been rising steadily year over year. It’s well worth a read. Even better, we have more queer fantasy, queer sci-fi, queer romcoms. Trans girls and trans boys and nonbinary kids living their lives, dealing with school and crushes and fantasy political intrigue. We have more options now than we’ve ever had before.
The great news: it’s only getting better from here.
Here’s a list of titles that have come out recently, and titles coming out soon, to carry you through this our glorious month of Pride and beyond.
An excellent first stop for anyone — tweens, teens, adults — interested in learning more about the pure variety of options that the human experience has to offer.
A queer teen lost in love with her unfortunately straight girlfriend falls face-first into the drag scene on the other side of her small hometown. Funny, bright and life-affirming.
I Wish You All the Best begins with high school senior Ben de Backer getting kicked out by their parents after coming out as nonbinary. They’re anxious, insecure, and just trying to make it through the rest of the year in their new school. But then: Nathan. But then: love. Joy. Hope.
Hannah’s a teenage witch living in Salem, Massachusetts. When horrible dark magic begins to crop up over town, Hannah has to team up with her ex-girlfriend Veronica to try to root out the problem — and deal with her growing crush on Morgan, a ballerina who’s new in town. Action-packed, dramatic, and unapologetically fun.
Three queer girls team up to fight off the mysterious force that’s been devouring the girls of Sawkill Rock for decades. There’s a lot going on here: action, romance, horrifying eldritch monsters. Also: Zoey is asexual! Hell yes!
Set in a dystopian world where girls from rich families are sent to an elite boarding school, and upon graduation will later become sister-wives to a boy to either raise his children or manage his household. Dani Vargas has forged papers and a growing infatuation with her sister-wife-to-be; all the while, a revolution is brewing.
Morgan and Eric share a birthday: same day, same time. Birthday is told over the course of six birthdays they share, from ages thirteen to eighteen. I don’t know what else to say about this one except that it’s gorgeous, painful, soaring. (Russo’s debut novel If I Was Your Girl is also fantastic.)
An adorable rom-com about Nathan Bird, who has built many a wall around his heart, and his childhood best friend, Oliver James Hernández. Hilarious, breathless, heartwarming.
(Yes, I have a thing for rom-coms, LET ME LIVE OKAY.) Alice is a biromantic asexual girl who’s recently been dumped and has sworn off this whole “dating thing.” Enter Takumi: sweet and swoonworthy. It’s the perfect friends-to-lovers romcom.
The story of three teenagers in New York City in 1989, during the height of the AIDS crisis. A gorgeous coming-of-age story about friendship and romance and activism. So, so, so beautiful.
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera, out 9/17/19
Juliet is a closeted lesbian — at least, until she comes out to her family the night before she flies to Portland, Oregon to intern with her favorite feminist writer. Declared “F***ing outstanding” by Roxane Gay, which is good enough for me.
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, out 10/1/19
After her brother attempts suicide, Violet is packed off to live with her uncle for the summer. Once there, she’s determined to get her shit together: she shaves her head, swears off dating, tries to lose herself. Poets has one of the best depictions of life with depression that I’ve truly ever read.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power, out 7/9
A dystopian sci-fi, Wilder Girls is about an isolated all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine that has been ravaged by an infection that leaves its victims — the flora, the fauna, the girls — mutated and monstrous. It’s quick, sharp, vicious, and unrelenting — it’s a story of survival, of violence, of the fierce and hungry love that grows between fierce and hungry girls.
And more, and more, and more. Any titles you love, or books you’re excited to see out and proud in the world? Let us know!