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