I’m not a young adult librarian, but I’m a longtime reader of young adult fiction, particularly stories that feature lesbian characters. As a reader, I can confirm that we’ve come a long way since the days of having to (as recently described by Mary at Queer Books Please) scour mainstream books for some hint of queer content. My coming of age and coming out was largely done in pre-internet days, when often the best you could do was manufacture your own subtext. Although it’s still inconsistent and problematic, YA fiction is increasingly diverse. According to the book Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens, five to six percent of American teens identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and eighty percent of teens know someone who does. For questioning teens, the public library should be a safe space in which they can to find stories and resources to help them articulate their identities.
Unfortunately, librarians have not always made it easy to find information. Censorship–in the form of simply not purchasing materials that might be considered “controversial”–has always been a problem. People often take it upon themselves to challenge books with any queer content in the name of protecting “the children,” which can bring negative publicity to a library. In addition, catalogers have the option to make items more or less discoverable in a library catalog, depending on the subject headings they choose to add to an item’s record. For teens, who are among the least likely to approach a librarian, being able to find books for themselves is extremely important. Items having to do with sex and sexuality are often among those that are used (not to mention stolen) anonymously at the library–read clandestinely and not necessarily checked out.
I don’t mean to sound as if the situation is dire and there are no LGBTQ resources to be found in most libraries. However, I do believe that there is more that librarians AND library patrons can do to improve the quantity and visibility of these materials in library collections.
Use your local library!
Request materials. Let your librarians know–through purchase requests, in-person recommendations, or even through the items that you are getting via interlibrary loan–that there is a demand for these materials.
Donate your old, unwanted, and duplicate copies of LGBTQ fiction and other materials.
Give someone a gift by donating a book to the library in their name. A friend of mine donated a copy of Leah Petersen’s book Fighting Gravity to my library to thank me for something I had helped her with. You can support both the library and worthy authors this way.
Participate in library events, such as the summer reading program.
Support your library if and when it becomes involved in a public book challenge. Write an editorial to your local newspaper, if you have to!
Order those materials! There are plenty of well-reviewed, award-winning books that you can purchase for the library. Purchase items to meet a variety of needs and interests, even if you haven’t seen any evidence of them. These teens may not speak up, but they exist in your community, and the materials should be there when they look for them.
Create displays that showcase the items in your collection, making it clear that the library is a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ teens. Actively solicit suggestions for purchases of new materials.
Read some of these books! If you don’t have the time to read, check out reviews here at Gay YA or at other sites like I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?, Queer YA, and Rainbow Books. Be prepared to offer recommendations.
Have your policies and your Request for Reconsideration form ready to meet any challenges. Train your staff on how to respond to complaints. Preparation and justification is the best defense in a challenge situation.
Public librarians have a professional responsibility to make these materials available to everyone, not just the at-risk teens who need them the most. Community members with an interest in having these materials available to teens have a responsibility to let the library know that they’re wanted and needed in the library. Together we can make it happen!
Anna Mickelsen is a public librarian and enthusiastic reader. You can find her on Twitter (@helgagrace) or at her blog, Title and Statement of Responsibility. She also reviews lesbian fiction at The Lesbrary.
Being a teen is painful. You’re no longer a kid, you’re not yet an adult, and no matter who you are, you’re not quite sure it’s okay to be yourself. In library school we learned about the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets for Teens, which tells us that an extra caring adult in the community, someone who is not a parent, can make a difference for teens by helping to bolster them during this difficult time. I thought back to my own teen years, which were painful, and I thought about those few teachers who were there when I needed someone. A kind word could go a long way, even if I was feeling miserable. I strive to be that person for the teens in my library. If they’re gay, if they’re an artist, if they want to go to college, if they don’t want to go to college, they can tell me, whatever it is, and I’ll listen. If something is really wrong, I will help them find help. Most days, it’s just regular teen stuff, for that I’ve got a smile, and I can always recommend a book.
I have empathy and compassion for a lot of different teens. I feel that way about some of the fictional teens I read about as well. I thought I’d share a few books featuring some of my favorite gay or questioning characters. These are characters I find interesting, inhabiting stories I find compelling. That they are gay or wondering if they might be, is a fact about them, not the main idea. These are books I keep in mind to recommend, to gay teens, who might see themselves in these characters, and to straight teens, who might see someone who’s not so hard to relate to after all.
Totally Joe by James Howe
We first meet Joe in Howe’s anti-bullying book ,The Misfits, but he comes to life more fully in this sequel told in journal entries as he writes his “alphabiography” from A-Z. Joe loves cooking, and he loves his friends and family. More than anything, Joe is young and goofy. His coming of age/coming out story is somewhat predictable, but the fact that he’s doing this in middle school makes this a great book for younger teens.
The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare
While flamboyant, “freewheeling bisexual” warlock Magnus Bane is often the focus of gay commentary on this popular urban fantasy series, it is his love interest, the quiet, messily dressed, Alec Lightwood that I think of as the relatable one here. Alec is very mature in his role as the eldest sibling, and as a soldier in the world of the Shadowhunters, but he is still young emotionally. He is inexperienced in romantic relationships and often unsure of how to express himself. The duality of this makes him very human in the midst of the series’ high action supernatural events.
Huntress by Malinda Lo
Lo’s more recent book, Adaptation, has a great protagonist who is interested in both sexes, and some steamy scenes, but Huntress sticks in my mind because high fantasy is not a place you find many gay characters. The cross between Chinese mythology and British fair folk makes for an interesting and diverse setting. Kaede is the archetypal hero, the one you’ve read about before, the one you root for and kind of want to be. She falls for Taisin, who is in training as a sage, a sort of magical monk. The two are poised to save their world, but it may cost them their relationship to do it.
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Astrid Jones is the kind of cranky intellectual I hope walks into my library. She professes her love to strangers who will never know about it and talks to Socrates. Her stubborn insistence that she thoroughly work through issues that confuse her: her sexuality, her budding romance with her co-worker, and her feelings about her family, before she discusses them is as endearing as it is frustrating.
The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan
Levithan’s lyrical writing is a draw for all of his books, The Realm of Possibility, a novel in verse, stands out because it shares different struggles in a variety of teen voices. The magical Jed, a boy who seems like someone we all used to know in high school, who appears, and gives gravitas to small moments, is the thread that weaves these stories together.
Pink by Lili Wilkinson
Ava is tired of being an ultra-liberal, black-clad, intellectual. She’s tired of her parents’ celebration of how edgy she is, and she is becoming tired of her girlfriend, Chloe. She thinks it might be time to try something new, so she dons a pink sweater and joins stage crew for the school musical. Stage Crew is populated by some strange and interesting people. Ava finds herself becoming a part of their group, but doesn’t necessarily figure out exactly who she wants to be. The ambiguity of the ending might be the best part of this book.
Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers
You don’t get a lot of books about teen cross-dressers. In fact, I can only think of this one. After the death of his father and a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse, Johnny tries to start over by moving in with his Uncle. He meets a girl, he listens to music, and he falls in love with both. He finds inspiration and comfort in Blondie, and finds himself wanting to emulate their tough, beautiful, lead singer Debbie Harry. With the support of his girlfriend he finds the courage to step out, in heels.
Erin Daly is a Youth Services Coordinator at Chicopee Public Library. Find her on Twitter: @ErinCerulean
One of my favorite ways to discuss diverse literature is with the concept of “mirrors and windows”- which is to say, some books will reflect one’s experience, while others will open the reader to a new perspective. Mitali Perkins describes it well here. A lot of times, I see people misusing it as a dichotomy; either this book will be a mirror of your own life, or a window into someone else’s. That ignores what I think are the best books, which- as Mitali mentions- are the ones that manage to do both. Seeing aspects of yourself in a character largely unlike you is maybe the best way to gain empathy you hadn’t ever realized you lacked.
I relate to characters for a wide variety of reasons. I’m not going to say that the gender of romantic interests, particularly in relationship to the gender of the protagonist, isn’t on that list of reasons at all, or that it shouldn’t be, but it strikes me as profoundly sad that there often seems to be an assumption that that’s all that’s necessary: if you’re a queer kid, you’ll relate to queer lit, and if you’re a straight kid, you’ll learn about a new life experience through it.
Well. No. Sorry, but no.
I connect with characters because of who they love and how they love and who they don’t love and why they don’t love them. I connect with characters because of how they approach romantic relationships and sexual relationships and familial relationships and platonic relationships. I connect with characters because of their interests and their talents and their skills and their flaws. I connect with characters because of choices they make and choices they don’t make, because I would make those same decisions or because I would make the opposite ones. If you remove any aspect of that, how can the characters seem real enough to be relatable?
I like stories about queer characters, and stories that deal with queerness, but I am over stories that reduce characters to nothing but sexuality. Those stories are neither windows nor mirrors. They’re black holes. And to say to any reader who falls outside prescriptive heteronormative standards that they should read queer lit for better self-understanding is missing the point.
I’d like to say this is a double standard- “You wouldn’t just shove any book with boys and girls kissing at a heterosexual kid and think they’d relate, would you?”- but the truth is, yes. Many people would do just that. Which is an issue in and of itself, but that’s an issue for another, equally long post.
The problem is that a lot of books with straight protagonists reduce their characters’ relationships to the interactions of non-matching genitalia, which assumes- well, many things, not the least of which being that biological sex and gender are the same thing. But that means that somehow people have books are queer-friendly when they reduce characters’ relationships to the non-heteronormativity of their sexual encounters.
In truth, those stories aren’t friendly. They’re antagonistic. They’re reducing human beings to secondary sexual characteristics. We say so often that we want queer kids to be treated the same as straight kids, but maybe the answer is that we need to treat ALL kids like people.
This is hard. I get that. Adults want nothing less than to treat teenagers and children like people, because people are complex organisms that have opinions we disagree with and do things we wouldn’t do and aren’t moldable. It’s so easy to say that their brains haven’t fully developed and their interests are nothing like ours and it’s our job to help show them the way. But in the process, I think we’re relying too much on the idea that there is a single way to be shown.
In my life as a full-fledged adult, I know a lot of grown-ups. Some are straight. Some are gay. Some are bi. Some are trans*. Some are aromantic. Some are asexual. Some are queer without any further detail, because they don’t want to share it with the world or none of the terms quite fits or they don’t feel comfortable with labels. And for many of these people, I have absolutely no idea which (or how many) of these categories they fall into, because it has nothing to do with my daily interactions with them.
But media teaches us that most teenagers are obsessed with sex (particularly if they self-identify as male) and romance (particularly if they self-identify as female). Even if they have other interests, their primary focus is on romantic or sexual relationships. In fact, characters who aren’t obsessed with the secondary-sex characteristics of their desired partners are often seen as immature. I just don’t believe that that’s true.
I thought about a lot of things in high school. I thought about the gossip circulating my classes, and how not to be the subject of it, and whether my best friend was intentionally avoiding me or if we just hadn’t crossed paths. I thought about homework that I didn’t want to do and why my teachers were so mean and what sadist came up with gym class. I thought about how exhausted I was and whether marching band practice would end early and whether I’d be home in time to set the VCR for new episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Frankly, with all of that, I didn’t have TIME to devote as much energy to thinking about sex as most fictional protagonists seem to do. And I wasn’t even working as a spy, never mind living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where every move could be my last.
Am I saying avoid these things in stories? Of course not. Romance can be important. Sex can be important. There’s both a need and a market for stories primarily about queer romantic and sexual relationships, and there always will be, the same way there will always be one for heterosexual ones. But that doesn’t mean that is the only choice when it comes to talking about queer characters. If interest in romance and sex doesn’t vary by character and by situation, something is wrong- no matter where on the gender or sexuality continuums anyone falls.
A lot of the queer stories submitted to me try to course-correct the default of straightness by doing exactly the same thing, but with same-sex couples. I understand and empathize with the urge; everyone wants their experience to be normalized. But this kind of normalizing excludes a different reader, while simultaneously making the story far, far less than it could be. It’s great to think about a gay Twilight or a gay Looking for Alaska or whatever. But what I look for when going through submissions is a story that’s wholly its own, about characters who feel like real people, not a clever re-characterization of something that already exists. Too often, it feels like rich straight white characters get the story first, and then everyone else has to follow.
When there are enough stories that don’t take into account the way you live your life, even if individually they may be great, collectively they are neither windows nor mirrors. They become a single, monolithic brick wall. But one of the things I love about YA literature is that we aren’t content to just let it stay that way. Authors are writing vivid, complex characters, many of whom don’t just fit the dominant paradigm but have their adventures anyway. It’s slow, but it’s happening, and it’s valuable every time.
When I was in grad school, I spent a lot of time thinking about how queerness was portrayed in children’s literature. It’s exciting for me to be in publishing now, and not just see the change sweeping the field, but be a part of it.
By the time this post goes up we will know who won the Lambda Literary Award in all twenty-three categories in which it is given, including the winner for Children’s/YA LGBT Fiction.
In announcing the finalists for this year’s award, the Lambda Literary Foundation explained that for the fourth year in a row there was a record number of books nominated and a record number of publishers represented in those nominations. For the first time this year, the judges were encouraged to choose more finalists in categories that drew a large number of submissions.
I am absolutely thrilled that Personal Effects is one of the ten finalists
in the Children’s/YA LGBT category. But I am ecstatic that there were so many outstanding YA and children’s books nominated that the judges could chose ten finalists.
We talk a lot about the need for strong YA novels with lgbtq characters, books for kids on every part of the spectrum of coming out and living out, and for allies, and would be allies. We talk about the need for lgbtq kids to see themselves and their worlds in books, and books with hope and heart and depth. We talk about moving on a continuum to a place where lgbtq characters in books are common and ever-present. And we often have these conversations from the perspective of looking at how far we still have to go, how much more we wish was out there.
And yet the Lambda Literary Award has ten finalists for the award for children’s and YA literature precisely because of the number and strength of the nominated books.
Lambda Literary’s mission reads, “The Lambda Literary Foundation nurtures, celebrates, and preserves LGBT literature through programs that honor excellence, promote visibility and encourage development of emerging writers.” This year that includes ten nominated books for children and teens. Books that I have read and loved and discussed and re-read. Books I hope you will read and love and discuss and re-read for many years to come.
As I write this post on Sunday, June 2, 2013, we don’t know which book will win. And I am truly honored that Personal Effects is a finalist with so many amazing books. Books I respect and am happy to celebrate.
Whichever book receives the 2013 Lambda Literary Award, it represents a growing body of lgbtq work for adolescent readers that is worthy of hope and celebration, as is Lambda Literary and all it does to support that growing body of work and those who create it.
Congratulations to all of the finalists, to the winners, and to Lambda Literary Foundation for a job well done and truly appreciated.
** Personal Effects (Candlewick Press, 2012) is E. M. Kokie’s debut novel. As a lawyer, she loves a good story and a good debate. She likes to have the last word. She can be found online at www.emkokie.com , Twitter, Tumblrand Facebook.
I was absolutely thrilled when Gay YA asked me to write a guest blog for their fantastic site (though baffled as to why they asked me- I’m just a regular blogger), and then even more thrilled that they gave me a second chance after I completely spaced on the deadline. Sorry about that, guys!
So they asked me to talk about reviewing in general as well as spotlighting GLBT books on my blog. I’ve been doing this for almost 6 years now; I started June 23, 2007 and have been going ever since, moving from Myspace (yes, remember that?!) to Blogspot in 2009. It’s been a wonderful journey and I hope to keep going for many years to come. I absolutely love being a part of the children’s book community and getting to talk books online and in person at book events with other book-obsessed people. It’s fantastic!
I love sharing my thoughts on all kinds of books with my readers through my blog. While I do mainly review Young Adult, I have also ventured into picture book, middle-grade, adult, and non-fiction territory. Luckily, my readers go along with me on those posts too.
Since the beginning, I’ve definitely kept my eye out for GLBT YA though I will admit I haven’t spotlighted it as much as some other blogs. I do the best I can, and I have run two GLBT-themed weeks over the years on my blog, featuring reviews and guest posts (One such week can be found here- http://bookchicclub.blogspot.com/search/label/GLBT%20Week; the other is on Myspace and therefore no link since I didn’t tag anything).
Spotlighting GLBT YA on my blog is something I love to do when I’m able to do it, and not only by just posting a review but also interviewing the author or have them writing a guest post. I’ll be reviewing Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg soon (absolutely loved his debut, Out of the Pocket), which I’m really enjoying so far. I also have Nora Olsen, whose new book Swans and Klons is out now, doing a guest post, which I just got in my inbox today, so cannot wait to post that.
As a young gay man, GLBT YA is very important to me. I was a happy teen for the most part and never really had the struggle that many teens do with their sexuality (though I was not out until college) and with being bullied, but I did feel the loneliness every so often. I wanted what so many of my friends had- a relationship, someone to really confide in and be with, even if it was fleeting as so many high school romances are- and still do to this day (I’ve been single for a few years now).
Reading the debut books from David Levithan, Brent Hartinger, and Alex Sanchez helped me feel less alone and were released during my high school years. I had to kind of sneakily check them out from the public library so my parents didn’t see. No joke, I didn’t know other gay people existed anywhere near me until I was a junior in high school and there was this gay boy in the summer theatre program I worked Stage Crew for (and then of course 4 high school friends came out to me after I graduated high school). I loved those books and cherished them so much. And while the world is getting better, it’s not totally perfect when it comes to GLBT people and their rights, so I feel there is still a need to push any new GLBT book into the hands of teenagers to help them get through these years. I feel good whenever I post a review of a GLBT book or let a GLBT author sound off on my blog because it feels like I’m doing something to help, even though it’s just something very minor. I have the hope that it’s helping someone somewhere, which is also what I want to do with my own writing someday.
Thanks again, Gay YA, for letting me take over your blog for a day and ramble on about random things. I will be constantly checking for comments so feel free to leave any questions for me!
Author Guest Blog: Catherine Ryan Hyde
I’m not sure how many people are aware of the fact that I just published an ebook sequel to my 2006 LGBT YA novel Becoming Chloe. It’s called Always Chloe and Other Stories. This time Jordy gets to have a boyfriend. Actually, a husband. Jordy reunites with his old flame Kevin, and they decide to marry.
While I was writing the first draft of the novel, the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Good timing! Well, it would have been good timing whenever they decided it, but it was a lovely opportunity for the book. So I happily wrote that in. Then came Prop 8, effectively reversing that decision. But I didn’t exactly write it back out again. I was so sure marriage equality would be the truth in California soon enough that I left it alone. If nothing else, it’s a snapshot of where things stood at the time.
Because of all that, I want to talk a little about marriage equality. I’m sure it goes without saying that I’m all for it. But marriage equality and full equality are not the same thing. I think it’s best if we look that fact right in the eye.
In championing marriage equality, we jumped over the fact that it’s still legal to fire someone for being gay in 29 states. Also to discriminate against them in housing. For being transgender, make that 34 states. Those seems like some pretty important walls of discrimination to leave in place. And a lot of our transgender brothers and sisters feel they were thrown under the bus with the decision to ask them to “wait for their rights.” I don’t blame them.
An awful lot of people have been waiting an awfully long time already.
I still think marriage equality is a great idea. If nothing else, because we’ve seen a healthy pattern in states that now allow gay marriage: nothing happened. I mean, gay people got married. But nothing bad happened. Every time someone wants to block gay marriage, they claim terrible things will happen. I guess because it’s really hard to just stand up and say, “Don’t give that person their rights because I’m not ready to let them have them.” How would that sound as a reason? So they claim it will erode the very fabric of our society. But of course it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, people get used to the idea and stop being so afraid. And this can only be good.
But I still think we’re doing things in the wrong order.
I think the priorities should be ordered as follows: 1, no one should be beaten to death just for the way they choose to express themselves. 2, no one should lose a job or be kicked out of their home because of their sexuality or gender expression. 3, everyone should be able to get married.
First things first.
I’m not a fan of watching people barter and bargain over what voters or congressional representatives are “ready for.” As I’m fond of saying, “What part of liberty and justice for all don’t you understand?” When it comes to all people being equal in the eyes of the law, I feel it’s a ready-or-not situation.
The simple fact is that none of us is free until all of us are free. As long as anyone can be made to pay a price for being who and what they are, we are all oppressed.
I still cheer loudly when marriage equality earns big victories. So I’ve been doing a lot of cheering lately. I just hope we can all be honest with ourselves. Until we pass an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, until adoption is equally available, until we have to cancel Transgender Day of Remembrance in November because we have no names to read, we have more work to do. And when people are being murdered, being fired, being left homeless, that’s no time to tell them to wait for what’s rightly theirs. For what everybody should have had all along.
In summer 2010 I had the best idea. It was one of those times when it feels as if the universe has just lobbed a gift directly into your brain, and within minutes I was madly scribbling down notes. The notes, which can still be found on a page in one of my notebooks, look something like this:
Ancient warrior (soul? spirit?) trapped in blade for centuries.
Heroine accidentally releases? Sets magic/curse in train…
Blade belongs to… heroine? Heroine’s FAMILY.
Warrior heroine – sword-fighter, like a manga heroine. OMG JAPANESE!
British born Japanese heroine. Ancestral katana! Forbidden!
Kitsune, nekomata, yokai (OMG)
Contemp London setting!
Ensemble cast… heroine, hero, best friend, others…
Best friend – Goth, ass-kicker. Gay? Jack…
That last note was significant in a number of ways.
Firstly, because I’m one of those writers who mostly gets to know my POV characters through the actual writing of their story. I prefer writing in first person – but synopses and that sort of thing are in third person. The result of this is that my POV characters tend to feel pretty blank and featureless until I get to work on the first draft. When I’m planning and researching a story and outlining it, the characters I feel most attached to are the secondary main characters. The rest of the ensemble. The ones who are seeing the adventures and angst and excitement from the outside, the way that I am at that point. Those guys come into focus incredibly sharply, right from the beginning, and they get a special place in my heart.
So straight away, I had a fondness for the mysterious Jack, whose name just appeared in my head like magic. The name brought with it an image of bleached white hair with multicoloured streaks, and, for some reason, a tendency to make jokes about obscure eighties pop culture. Even though Jack was not destined to be the POV character of the book, I knew that Jack would be my voice of reason in this story, the one asking all the questions the reader wanted answered.
That note was significant in another way. When I began work on my Big Secret Project – later to be named The Name of the Blade Trilogy – I quickly realised it was going to be a huge undertaking for me, my very first trilogy, and also my very first novel with a contemporary setting. As such, I wanted it to display all the things that are most important to me as a writer. Reflecting the beautiful diversity of the real world (not a bland, straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered version) is really high on that list. My previous books had all been high fantasies, where I created an imaginary universe for my characters to inhabit. I was well aware that bringing diversity to a book with a real setting would be a different kind of challenge because readers would bring a different set of assumptions and stereotypes to a book that took place in their world. Maybe that’s why I knew straight away that Jack would be gay – more than that, Jack would be out and proud.
The thing is, even though I knew all this about Jack right from the start, the one thing I didn’t know was what sex or gender Jack would be.
That was a stumper.
Jack’s role in the story, snarky sense of humour, and complicated romantic subplot, would be unchanged regardless of hir gender. So how was I supposed to make up my mind?
My first instinct was to think that the sort-of-masculine-sounding name was giving me a hint, and to make Jack a guy. My last book, FrostFire, had featured a lesbian couple, so it seemed only fair to swap for this book and feature a guy instead. But some part of me resisted the ease of that decision. When it came to books with contemporary settings, I had an uneasy feeling that while all parts of the QUILTBAG community were horribly under-represented, the gay male experience was still probably more likely to make an appearance than any other. I thought about all the books I’d read recently with a contemporary setting (and which weren’t about the experience of coming out or coming to terms with sexual orientation) that had featured a gay character. Sure enough, the characters were all boys. When was the last time I’d read a book which had a gay girl in it who was just hanging out, being a friend, having adventures, falling in love? They seemed unfairly rare.
However, very aware that I hadn’t read All The Books, I realised I might be extrapolating based on wonky evidence here. So I decided to ask my readers what they thought. I posted this question on my blog and waited for the response:
Do you think my heroine’s best friend should be a gay GUY, or a gay GIRL? Either way they are extremely fierce, smart and protective, are a little bit Goth, and end up having an extremely complex love life throughout these books.
I wasn’t sure that anyone would care enough to answer my question, but it turned out I was completely wrong. The response was overwhelming – in fact, I don’t think I’d ever had that many responses on a post before (at least, not a post where I wasn’t giving away free stuff). And almost everyone wanted to see me write Jack as a girl. Most wanted this because they said they’d hardly ever or never read a YA book or an urban fantasy book with a lesbian character in it, and they thought it would be different and interesting. I also got some some comments – and some moving private emails – from young gay women who said they’d kill to see more fun, realistic lesbian characters – girls like them! – in works of urban fiction.
There were a few votes for a male Jack, which I was fine with – until I read the comments that went with them. Some of the voters said they felt a gay male best friend would be ‘more loyal’, ‘more helpful’, ‘stronger’ and ‘better as a straight girl’s bestie’. I’m still not sure where those commentors are coming from. Are girls not loyal, helpful and strong enough to be best friends with? Is a guy friend always better? Perhaps this attitude is a little revealing as to why the gay gay-friend has become such a trope.
Anyway, the response to my question made Jack’s identity solidify in my mind. As I got to work writing the first book of the trilogy – The Night Itself – I felt all the pieces click into place. I loved writing about a really strong and important friendship between two girls – Jack and my heroine, Mio. I loved writing a lesbian character who was modern and funny and real, and whose love life was a mess not because she gay but because she was too busy kicking ass and saving the world to notice she was falling in love. Basically, I just loved Jack, and wished I could make her my best friend in real life. I think that’s the way all the best characters make you feel, and that’s how you know you’ve done a good job as a writer.
Hopefully when the book comes out (on the 4th of July this year) all my readers, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, will feel the same way about Jack as I do.
Zoë Marriott is an award-winning British YA fantasy novelist who lives on the east coat of England with two rescued cats, a spaniel known as The Devil Hound, and a growing library of over 10,000 books which will inevitably bury her alive one day (totally worth it). You can follow her on Twitter at @ZMarriott, check out her blog at thezoe-trope.blogspot.co.uk , or peruse her website www.zoemarriott.com.
Author Guest Blog: Laura Lam
Caveat: What I reveal about characters in Pantomime does somewhat “spoil” a “twist” that is revealed 20% into Pantomime. Some people have enjoyed being surprised, but if you’d prefer to read the book without knowing, please skip this post! I will say that I don’t think knowing this going in unduly colours the reading experience, but then again it’s impossible for me to know, as I can never read the book I’ve written for the first time.
Another note on gender pronouns: I use the pronoun the character identifies as at the point in the story.
When I tell people that the protagonist of my novel Pantomime is intersex, quite often I get blank looks. People sometimes think it means asexual, or transsexual, or just aren’t sure. When I tell them, sometimes I’ve been asked: isn’t that a myth?
I find it odd in a world where pretty much everyone knows the meaning of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, so many still aren’t sure what intersex means. I didn’t know the correct term until I was 19 and started researching for my book: I thought the term “hermaphrodite” was still politically correct. Why has intersex and non-binary gender somehow become the last taboo, both in society and, therefore, in young adult fiction?
I know I’m preaching to the choir, but diversity in YA is vital in order to widen people’s minds. Teenage years are when people are deciding who they want to be, what their core beliefs are. So many books I read during that time had an indelible effect on me, and going back and reading them will give me a feeling of nostalgia of just what I was going through in the week or two I read it. I remember reading books and thinking “I’m not alone,” sometimes when I was the loneliest I’d ever been. In the case of intersex and gender variant (not identifying as either solely male or female, regardless of physical sex) teens, they might not know anyone in real life who is going through what they are. Through books, perhaps they can learn and understand more about themselves, and accept themselves. And, as fiction always does, readers can put themselves in others’ shoes, and take the “othering” aspect away from the Other.
First, a bit of background info: babies born intersex are not that uncommon. The Intersex Society of North America states “If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life” (source). That makes it about on par with people with red hair, according to the BBC documentary Me, My Sex, and I. But how many intersex people do you know? Or openly intersex celebrities? Similarly, though androgyny is increasingly popular in mainstream media, such as in fashion and music (just take a look at David Bowie’s “The Stars are Out Tonight” music video—and, you know, Bowie’s entire career), characters in fiction that are unequivocally gender-variant are still uncommon. That means that many children who grow up intersex, or gender variant may have few people to look up to or identify with, and while they could find solace in YA fiction, there’s currently not a lot in the genre for them to find.
Micah Grey of Pantomime is intersex, and he evolved slowly in my mind over a couple of years. I knew I wanted to write about a character that was gender variant. Growing up, many of my favourite reads had aspects of subverting gender roles—such as The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce, which has the protagonist dressing as a boy so she can become a knight, or the Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling, where a baby girl is disguised as a boy to protect her from a mad king—but no one told her, and she’s raised thinking she’s a boy, Tobin. After nine books, the reader doesn’t conclusively know the gender of The Fool in Robin Hobb’s work, and I hope it’s never revealed. So as a result of that interest, and perhaps growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Micah came to life in dribs and drabs. I wrote other things for a while, worried that I wouldn’t be able to do this character justice, but then I decided to try.
In Pantomime, the boy Micah Grey was once Iphigenia Laurus, 16-year-old daughter to a noble family. Born both male and female, with neither gender the right fit, Iphigenia one night overhears her parents planning to “fix” her. Horrified by the prospect of surgery, Iphigenia flees and becomes Micah.
He joins R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic, but beneath its veneer of bright lights and fantasy, the circus is crumbling due to the ringmaster’s drinking, gambling, and rage. Just as Micah begins to discover his place in the circus, his past catches up with him.
When I was researching querying my book, there were very few other books with gender-variant characters, much less protagonists, and I wasn’t sure why. Since then I’ve heard of a few titles—I’ve heard Incarnate by Jodi Meadows and Above by Leah Bobet both have intersex secondary characters, though I’ve not yet read either yet. Are there any others?
Over at the blog Birth of a New Witch, Usagi and Ashleigh discuss Non-Binary in YA, and Usagi has gender dysphoria to some extent and Ashleigh is asexual. It’s an excellent article that says “yes, we want more YA with people like us,” and Usagi also found some recent sobering statistics on transgender youth in America. Overall, things are changing for the better, but it’s slow and we still have a long way to go. Having gender explored more in YA fiction could, in the long term, help this.
So I hope the trend continues and more authors and publishers decide to write about non-binary characters in YA stories. It’s important for gender-variant teens to be able to see themselves reflected in fiction. It’s important for those who have never been exposed to non-binary gender to see it in fiction to help prevent prejudices and ignorance. I’d love it for, in a few years, if I say “my protagonist is intersex,” most everyone just nods because they know what it means, and it’s not a big deal.
Laura Lam was raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside of the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams.She relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, whom she met on the internet when he insulted her taste in books. She almost blocked him but is glad she didn’t. At times she misses the sunshine.
Pantomime was released February 2013 through Strange Chemistry, the YA imprint of Angry Robot Books. The sequel, Shadowplay, will follow in January 2014. She can be found on her website, Facebook page, or Twitter.
When I approached Mark Probst, owner of Cheyenne Publishing, about releasing a young adult book for charity, I did so with no clear idea of what to expect—only a vision of the end result as my guide. To my delight, Mark was enthusiastic: if I could organize the authors, he would take on the book at Cheyenne.
Just the one snag. Organize the authors. If you work in the arts, you’ve heard it before: “Will you donate your time/talent for … ?”
Now it was my turn to ask, with nothing but a pretty-please and assurance that they would be contributing to a fantastic cause (supporting The Trevor Project). I had to find three young adult authors who were not only gifted writers and already active in LGBT-themed fiction for teens, but who also believed in our cause. Believed enough to say yes.
The final book would be an anthology of YA novellas, one each capturing a story of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. With a publisher ready and waiting, myself as the fourth author, and an amazing nonprofit working 24/7 to assist in crisis situations and prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth to benefit, the journey to build Awake began.
I started sending emails—wondering if I could ever get this project off the ground. Authors are incredibly busy, incredibly hardworking, often taken for granted artists. How could I expect them to go above and beyond in their own writing schedules with a long piece of fiction they could not profit from?
How foolish of me.
After some months, through many emails and discussions, I learned that there can be few groups of people as generous with their time, as welcoming, as committed to their work as the authors of LGBT fiction for young adults. I received the most genuine and gracious letters back, soon finding not only three amazing writers willing to embrace this project with us, but a foreword as well.
Nancy Garden, author for kids and young adults of classics like Annie on My Mind before there was such a thing as LGBT YA, would write our L story.
Robin Reardon, author of A Secret Edge and Thinking Straight, among other YA novels, would take G. Her newest book, The Revelations of Jude Connor, was just released in April, 2013.
Jordan Taylor, myself, would pen B, so underrepresented in literature.
Brian Katcher, author of Almost Perfect and Playing with Matches, would write T.
And the foreword to Awake would be created by multi-talented YA and adult author Kathe Koja, known in YA for Buddha Boy and Straydog, among others.
Now, to write. Many months later, each of these amazing authors had turned in their work ahead of schedule. All had done an outstanding job, leaving me again taken aback by the magnanimous nature of these people: giving of their precious time and talents for a charity book.
With the help of our editor, Tracey Pennington, completed cover art, and press releases, Awake was released by Cheyenne Publishing in the summer of 2011, only a little over a year after Mark and I first discussed the project.
It’s been two blindingly brief years now and Awake is as fresh, as new, as exciting as it was the first moment I held the paperback. The novellas within are both modern and timeless, the messages powerful, while the emotion for the reader, from laughter to anger to tears, remains the driving force behind this book. The cause itself makes this remarkable experience all the more powerful.
Every copy of Awake sold means funds sent directly to The Trevor Project—for one more crisis prevention, one more suicide prevention. Each copy read, given as a gift, donated to a library, along with each passing day, brings us closer to a time when organizations like The Trevor Project are no longer needed. When LGBTQ youth are no more prone to depression or suicide than any other demographic. The day every child, every teen, regardless of gender identity or whom they love, regardless of where or who they are in the world, no longer fears being bullied, abused, shunned, or rejected.
A remarkably giving, talented, wonderful group of people made Awake possible. The readers, the greatest gift of all, continue to make the mission of Awake possible. Each and every one of you has turned a dream into a dream come true.
The publisher and organization:
The authors’ sites:
I was having a conversation with an author whose first book comes out next year, and he was worried that his book, written from a female point of view, wouldn’t be well received because he’s a man. We got onto the topic of writing gay characters and having gay protagonists, and he said something that echoed exactly how I felt before my debut in 2010. He didn’t want to be labeled a “gay author.”
I didn’t write Oliver Travers, my horny, teenage narrator from The Deathday Letter as heterosexual because I was worried about being a gay author, I wrote him that way because that’s how he popped into my head. However, as the book neared publication and I started working on other book ideas, I did worry about being pigeonholed. I wrote a gay character’s totally boring coming out into Deathday as a nod to my own painless coming out, but it was such a minor part of the book that I didn’t think most people would even notice. It was the next couple of books I wrote that I worried about.
Before settling on FML, I wrote drafts for a few other ideas. All of them included gay and lesbian characters in some form. Best friends, secondary characters, parents even. But none of them were protagonists. Back then, I told myself that it was because the YA publishing world wasn’t ready for a gay protagonist in a story that wasn’t about coming out. I think the truth was that I wasn’t ready to be a gay author. In the same way that literature about women or African Americans is often relegated to separate shelves in bookstores, I worried that my books would be thought of as gay first and everything else second.
I did take a step in the right direction. FML features the hijinks of an awesome gay couple. Ben and Coop are cute, loving, and accepted by their peers. Their storyline revolves around their quest to find a place to have sex for the first time. No one at Simon Pulse questioned my decision. My editor loved the couple, and I loved writing them. But I still felt like I wasn’t being true to myself.
I don’t write for teens. I write for me. I write the stories I would have wanted to read as a teen (and that I would have read as an adult if I hadn’t been the one writing them). So why hadn’t I written a book with a gay protagonist? The climate was right. Publishers and readers were asking for more books with characters who weren’t heterosexual. Books with gay, lesbian and transgender characters were starting to pop up more often. Something was holding me back.
It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being gay. In fact, I began to wish that I’d embraced my own uniqueness sooner. It was the fear that my story would be dismissed. That some people wouldn’t be able to get over a gay protagonist and appreciate the story. It was my fear of being a gay author. Except, I was a gay author, uniquely qualified to write a story featuring a gay protagonist. It was time to write a story that embraced that.
I sold The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley to Simon Pulse in March and it comes out in 2015. It tells the story of Drew, a young man who secretly lives in a hospital and falls in love with another boy who has secrets of his own. It’s my first book featuring a gay protagonist, and the book I’m most proud to have written. It’s not a story about coming out or about how difficult it is to be gay. It’s a story about secrets and loss, about grief and guilt, about how difficult it is to be a human being.
I think readers are ready for more books that feature gay protagonists in regular stories. Action books and magic books and paranormal books. Leading men and women who don’t fit the mold, kicking ass and being fabulous. I’m pretty happy that I get to share one of those stories with you.
I’m sure some people will label me a gay author. I’m sure some readers will refuse to read it because Drew is gay. I’m totally okay with that. The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is a special book for special people. You don’t have to be gay to read it, you just have to be awesome.