How a New Generation of LGBTQ Young Adult Books is Reshaping the Literary Landscape

by Lauren Emily Whalen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday March 28, 2021
Originally published on March 27, 2021

How a New Generation of LGBTQ Young Adult Books is Reshaping the Literary Landscape
  (Source:Getty Images)

I remember sitting in the back of my parents' car at age 16, reading the novel that would change my life. First published in 1995, Francesca Lia Block's young adult (YA) fantasy "Baby Be-Bop" featured the first gay protagonist my small-town Catholic self, who wouldn't come out as bisexual for two more decades, had ever encountered. Now, I write YA fiction focusing on LGBTQ characters and experiences, not only for teens on the verge of self-discovery, but for the broader book market that's seen significantly increased sales in the past year.

According to books industry analyst NPD Bookscan, more than half of 2020's top 10 books targeted kids or young adults. Studies have shown that more adults read YA books than teens. And for LGBTQ adults, YA books present an opportunity to revisit their own narratives.

"I and probably a lot of people, especially queer people, are constantly relitigating our own teenage years because...our teen years can be shaped by the closet," says Adib Khorram, whose second YA novel "Darius the Great Deserves Better" was a 2021 Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Award of the American Library Association (ALA) honoree. "I think it can be very therapeutic to read about outcomes that are maybe different from the ones we experienced."

Ari Gofman, chair of this year's Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Award committee, has noticed a strong adult readership of YA. They're not surprised: fresh perspectives invigorate. "I find YA books engage earnestly and sincerely with the world," Gofman says. "For the teenagers who tend to be the main characters in these books, most life experiences are new... and there's a lot of possibility in that."

In recent years, YA series like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" have been adapted into blockbuster films and spawned rabid all-ages fandom. However, LGBTQ YA has its own rich history, including sleeper hit films like "Love, Simon" (adapted from Becky Albertalli's novel "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda"). Since John Donovan's "I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip"—considered to be the first gay young adult novel—debuted weeks before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, LGBTQ YA fiction has evolved significantly and can appeal to anyone who, like Khorram, is "still a little bit of a teenager at heart."

Why 'Darius the Great' Lives Up To Its Title

Why 'Darius the Great' Lives Up To Its Title

"I fell in love with YA from reading it," says Khorram, whose children's book about Nowruz, the Persian New Year, was released on February 16 and is penning a third YA novel with a spring 2022 publication. After completing a degree in technical theater and a year of film school, the once-aspiring screenwriter who'd penned "Star Trek" fan fiction since middle school decided to try his hand at a novel. "As I started taking writing more seriously, I started reading books more seriously," he says. While literary fiction proved unsatisfying—"I read three books in a row about sad-sack white men going through divorces and getting celiac disease"—Khorram was moved by YA's honesty.

At first, he "wrote a bunch of really bad books," but while visiting his Iranian relatives in 2015, inspiration struck. "I started working on a book about someone like me, a half-Iranian, depressed queer person," Khorram says. "It was the first book I had ever written that wasn't about white people."

This book became "Darius the Great is Not Okay." Khorram's 2018 YA debut garnered positive critical reviews from The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly and graced a host of yearly best-of lists, including the Wall Street Journal. Though Khorram never planned on a sequel, a reader's inquiry led to "Darius the Great Deserves Better," which follows the title character—who came out in the first book—through family relationships and first love.

In writing both "Darius" books, Khorram revisited his closeted teenage experiences from the perspective of a now-out adult. "I try to let Darius give voice to things I thought about when I was that age but was too nervous to say aloud," he says. "One of Darius's constant refrains is, 'that's normal, right?' as he thinks about his body, the way he feels about other boys, [and] his existence in this white supremacist patriarchy we all live in, that he feels oppressed by, in some ways and privileged in others."

Khorram adds, "When I was that age, I felt like I was always treated like a child and expected to act like an adult. I feel like there's a lot of tension there, and Darius gets the chance to interrogate that."

Decolonizing YA Queer Literature

Decolonizing YA Queer Literature
Ari Gofman  (Source: Anna Miller)

Gofman raves about "Darius the Great Deserves Better," calling the book "heartwarming, thoughtful and beautifully written" and praising the plot, which both embraces queerness and expands upon it.

"It moves beyond the coming out story," they say. "He's exploring his relationship with his first boyfriend. He's really close with his family, especially his little sister, and supports her as she experiences racism. His father talks bluntly about mental health and depression. He has queer grandmothers." Even the book's discussions about sex are unique, Gofman says, in that they're about "consent and joy, and what it means to really want things."

Increased LGBTQ visibility in YA has long been Gofman's passion. In 2018, the Boston area-based librarian and a group of colleagues developed the website, Queer Books for Teens, which Gofman describes as "an almost comprehensive bibliography of books with queer representation for teen readers [that] is searchable from about 50 facets." Over the years, Gofman says, "it's been beautiful to see the explosion in terms of quantity, and to see how many facets are added in terms of intersectional identities."

Beginning in 2019, Gofman served a two-year appointment to the Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Committee, which honors books written for readers from birth to 18 years old, and has 13 ALA members, including its chair. Gofman led a subcommittee to develop the first-ever rubric, providing more details to the award's charge "to [recognize] English-language books of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience."

Though the rubric itself is not public, Gofman shares the purpose behind it. "It's important [honored books] be from the point of view of a queer or trans person...not from the straight best friend, not about a gay uncle," says Gofman. Whether the book is "ownvoices," a YA industry buzzword meaning the book's author is publicly the same marginalized identity as its narrator, is not a dealbreaker. "We want the publishing industry to seek out people of marginalized identities... but any one individual doesn't have to out themselves," Gofman says.

The committee also explores each book's "treatment of queerness, how it is integrated into the plot. In [an outstanding book], it might have a significant role and a complex, healthy romance plot," Gofman says. Other factors include quality of writing and development of LGBTQ characters, diversity and representation "on axes other than gender and sexuality," and appeal to target age group.

This year, the committee screened over 400 titles—any book with LGBTQ content is eligible for consideration—and through a "team effort" involving what Gofman calls "the world's most elaborate spreadsheet" as well as 15 hours of Zoom conferencing over three days in place of in-person meetings, selected one award winner—the children's book "We Are Little Feminists: Families"—and four honorees, which included three YA titles penned by authors of color: "Darius," Leah Johnson's "You Should See Me in a Crown" (the first YA pick for Reese Witherspoon's Book Club), and Kacen Callender's "Felix Ever After," which was acquired by Amazon for a TV adaptation.

From Trauma to Triumph

From Trauma to Triumph

While LGBTQ YA has come a long way, there's still progress to be made.

Though a 2016 study indicates that more than half the LGBTQ population identifies as bisexual, biphobia is still prevalent in the LGBTQ community, which contributes to lack of representation known as bi erasure—and when representation does exist, there's pressure for perfection.

Historically, YA fiction has had "so little [bisexual representation] ," says Dahlia Adler, founder of the popular book blog LGBTQReads and author of the upcoming YA romance "Cool for the Summer," about a bisexual teen girl who wrestles with feelings for both a longstanding male crush and recent female fling.

In the past, "there were so few [bisexual] titles that it felt like it had to be 'ideal,'" Adler says. "Heaven forbid we brush up against a single trope or stereotype, even if we were living it ourselves!"

"It feels like we are constantly taking two steps forward and one step back," says Khorram of LGBTQ YA's evolution. "We have seen a growth in... all kinds of queer identities. We've seen a growth in who gets to be included in queer narratives, especially in regards to race and visibility." However, he says, "We frequently see white people saying coming out stories are so tired, but just because white people are tired of it doesn't mean kids of color don't need coming out stories."

Here's where LGBTQ YA can educate adult readers, Khorram says. "I think many adult white queer people...don't always see the intersectionality of the queer existence or conceive what queer liberation looks like, especially for people of color." Thanks to organizations like We Need Diverse Books that promote representation of marginalized identities, he says, "YA is asking these questions a lot more frequently than other categories."

LGBTQ YA is not just about trauma; happiness and fun are paramount in many titles. "You Should See Me in a Crown" features a romance between two girls—with a happy ending—at its core. Kosoko Jackson's just released "Yesterday is History" incorporates science fiction, time travel and whimsical comedy. For those craving a light LGBTQ YA read but don't know where to start, a recent Book Riot quiz jokingly matches childhood attachment style with new releases.

Both Gofman and Khorram emphasize the importance of joy in LGBTQ YA. "I'm a really big believer in... queer fluff," Gofman says. "I think it's important for young people and queer adults to... have fun with a piece of media and see ourselves in it, and see that it's possible to be queer and have a good life."

"Issue books were quite frequent in the past, sad endings were frequent in the past, in the last several years there's been a whole lot of joy that has come out," Khorram adds. He also praises the optimism in YA fiction. "Young people are always going to be making the world better in ways that we as adults can't imagine."

Lauren Emily Whalen is a writer and performer living in Chicago. Her second novel, "TWO WINTERS," a queer YA retelling of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," will be released by Bold Strokes Books in September 2021.

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