As it happens, that character’s coming out was the perfect subplot for a book about secrecy. Coming out is a move from secrecy to openness, from isolation to community. Secrecy doesn’t ever seem to have made anyone straight, but it’s made a lot of people suffer. In The Secret Year, coming out is ultimately a move toward honesty, self-confidence, and happiness. The main character’s secrecy isn’t about sexual orientation, but when he finally faces the limits of his own secret world, he already has a model before him of a more honest way to live.
It’s an interesting question, though: Why does a given character have to be gay? In one sense, a writer knows that every detail we reveal about a character should be both true to the character and relevant to the story. But another natural answer to that question is, “Why not?” YA GLBTQ literature is moving out of the “coming-out” phase, and into the phase of the “incidentally gay” character. While coming out will continue to be an important theme, it is, after all, only one part of a life story. Why can’t the characters—whom we’re following around because they’re solving mysteries or training for the big race or just coming of age with witty observations—also just happen to be GLBTQ?
In books like Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Peter Cameron) and Hero (Perry Moore), the characters’ sexual orientation is part of who they are, but the plots are about something more, or something other, than coming out. Gradually, our literature is coming to resemble more closely the real world in which we live.
Jennifer R. Hubbard is the author of The Secret Year (YA novel, 2010), the story “Confessions and Chocolate Brains” (in the YA anthology Truth and Dare, 2011), and the upcoming Try Not to Breathe (YA novel, 2012). She blogs at http://jenniferrhubbard.blogspot.com/ and is @JennRHubbard on Twitter.
We were both really pleased to be asked to write a blog post for Gay in YA and we decided that what we most wanted to talk about were our favorite books. There are many wonderful novels for teens and adolescents with GLBT characters, but if you are a fan of fantasy and the paranormal — as we are — the pickings are slightly more limited. With every year, there are more offerings, but there are also older titles that we come back to again and again.
We selected mostly books published as YA to discuss, along with a few adult books that we feel have crossover appeal. And, although we tried to concentrate on books with GLBT protagonists, we did sneak in two books with secondary GLBT characters that we couldn’t not mention.
1) SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner
Cassie says: I like this book because the relationship between Alec and Richard is complicated and dynamic and interesting and messed-up, but messed up in the way that all human relationships are messed up sometimes. Despite the fact that both of them are flawed characters, you root for them and you want them to be together. Neither is a stereotype — Alec is a dashing student with a death wish, and Richard is the best swordsman in the city. Their relationship is treated with absolute matter-of-factness in a society where everyone’s sexuality is fluid
Holly says: To me, Swordspoint remains one of the few perfect novels I’ve ever read. Beautiful language, wit, and a majestic sense of place sweep you along into the tale. Plus the book features two of my favorite characters ever, ever, ever — the half-mad scholar, Alec, and lethal swordsman, Richard. Alec and Richard begin the book living together, and all the complications of the story impact their existing relationship, which makes for a very different tension from the more familiar tension of a couple just beginning to fall in love. I love this book beyond all reason.
2) ASH by Malinda Lo
Holly says: I have long been a fan of fairy tale retellings and this one manages to both use the original Cinderalla story as it’s spine and still leaves the reader guessing at what will happen next. Lo’s beautiful prose perfectly sketches out the story of a girl coming to discover who she really is, of daring to dream of a different life, and of finding true love with a woman as enigmatic and fascinating as herself.
Cassie says: I adore Ash. I also have to throw out a recommendation for Huntress by the same author, which is just as good, and the perfect blend of magic/adventure and romance between two extremely likeable female characters
3) GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray/HEX HALL by Rachel Hawkins
Holly says: The Gemma Doyle series, which includes Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing, features four Victorian girls discovering their own power and chafing against the limitations imposed on them. We see different sides of Felicity over the course of series as she becomes someone with whom we sympathize intensely. Her love for her best friend Pippa is not her most dangerous secret, but it’s certainly up there.
Cassie says: Hex Hall is a lot of fun and one of the great additions to the cast is the main character’s roommate, Jenna, who is a vampire, and a lesbian. That she is a lesbian is incidental — it’s a part of her, but not the whole part. She’s a great, well-rounded character, and her love life is given the same treatment as all the other characters’: no less important or nuanced.
4) KISSING THE WITCH by Emma Donoghue
Holly says: Told in a series of thirteen linked fairy tales about girls and women that meld into one another, Donoghue takes old tropes and remakes them into lyrical, feminist stories. Not all of the characters are queer, but many are, and all the stories are both lush and stunning.
5) CYCLER by Lauren McLaughlin
Cassie says: Lauren Mc Laughlin’s Cycler is a tale that seems screwball on the face of it, but explores interesting issues of sex and gender underneath. The main character “cycles” back and forth between being male and female, Jill and Jack — the same person, but distinctly differently personalities. Add in Jill’s bisexual boyfriend, one of the few bisexual male characters I’ve encountered in YA fiction, and Jack’s attraction to Jill’s female best friend, and you have rich territory to mine.
Holly says: Cycler is such an interesting book, doing what the best fantasy is able to do — take something like gender, which we often discuss in certain ways and along familiar lines and tell the story of gender, but tell it slant, so that we see it with new eyes.
6) BABY BE-BOP by Francesca Lia Block
Cassie says: Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat cycle, of which this is a part, can best be described as magical realism. Baby Be Bop explores the origin story of Dirk, a character we first meet in the book Weetzie Bat, and his origin story: from first realizing he’s gay, to dealing with homophobia and finding love, all told in a dreamlike and beautiful manner.
Holly says: Block brings Los Angeles to life in a fever dream as she tells the story of Dirk coming to terms with a broken heart, his own anger and fear, and being badly hurt. His Grandma Fifi, family stories of self-acceptance and the promise of future love get him through, so he can become the Dirk we know from Weetzie Bat and the other books in the series. No one uses language like Block and here she crafts a slender jewel of a book.
7) VINTAGE: A GHOST STORY by Steve Berman
Cassie says: A shivery ghost story in which the main character, never named, happens to be gay. He falls in love with the ghost of a boy he meets walking along a lonely road in New Jersey late one night. The romantic outcome may not be what you think, but it is satisfying.
Holly says: Written by my long-time critique partner, Vintage is always going to have a special place in my heart, but it’s also a fantastic book. The narrator and his best friend, Trace, visit cemeteries, watching funeral after funeral, waiting for something to happen. But when the narrator stumbles on a real ghost and that ghost follows him home, he discovers that romanticizing death has a price. A deceptively sweet ghost story told with realism, humor, and haunting beauty.
8) THE LAST HERALD MAGE TRILOGY by Mercedes Lackey
Holly: This is a series that readers either love or hate. Like Cassie, I read this when I was pretty young, and I loved it. Rich and haughty Vanyel comes to be tutored by his aunt in a high fantasy world where Heralds have magical powers and bond to intelligent steeds called Companions. Vanyel starts out miserable and somewhat obnoxious, but gradually lets down his guard as he falls in love with shay’a’chern Herald trainee Tylendel. The first book is Magic’s Pawn, followed by Magic’s Promise and Magic’s Price.
Cassie: I read these books when I was really young, but I remember they made an impression on me as they were literally the first fantasy with a gay main character I’d ever come across. I think that’s the case for a lot of people.
9) TRIPPING TO SOMEWHERE by Kristopher Reisz
Holly says: When Gilly and Sam run away to the Witches’ Carnival, they only know that they have to leave everything behind. That seems like it’s going to be easy for them, since there’s nothing in their Alabama town that they think they’ll miss. But as they go on this adventure together, it becomes more clear that leaving everything is harder than it seems. This is a beautifully written, incredibly honest book, with magic that seems numinous and real. And the relationship between the two girls is just as honest, sometimes painfully so. A truly magnificent contemporary fantasy.
Cassie says: I love a road-trip book, and this one is rich with the elements of fantasy America, especially the legendary Witches’ Carnival. The relationship between Gilly and Sam isn’t like anything else I’ve read in YA. A dark and sometimes brutal book, with flashes of beauty.
10) BOY MEETS BOY by David Levithan
Cassie says: I would call this magical realism, like Baby Be-Bop. It paints an achingly lovely picture of a world we all wish we could live in, where tolerance is the rule of the day, and the high school’s homecoming queen is the cross-dressing Infinite Darlene. The passages where main character Paul proves his love to Noah, the object of his affections, by spending seven days making seven romantic gestures, like decorating his locker with flowers, are adorable.
Holly says: Set in a small New Jersey town that’s just on the border of the world we know, in a place where Paul’s high school homecoming queen is also be the football quarterback, this novel defies categorization. Paul is absolutely comfortable with his sexuality — and has been supported by teachers and parents his whole life — but still struggles with changing friendships, maturity and first love. Fantastical worldbuilding creeps in at the edges, as in a scene in a graveyard where instead of flowers, this town attaches books to headstones, so that visitors can write to the deceased.
We interrupt this program to bring you… a chance to add your voice to the conversation!
I hope you have been enjoying our fabulous bloggers thus far. We have been honored and astounded by the outpouring of support from authors and readers alike. Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Our “Gay in YA” blogathon will be wrapping up at the end of the week. We are thrilled to say that we will be able to continue featuring some incredible authors and bloggers throughout the next several weeks, and we have decided that it’s time to take the next step. We’d like to open up this blog to submissions from you. The LGBTQ story includes everyone & touches everyone, and it’s going to require everyone to get where we’re trying to go.
So straight, gay, lesbian, or questioning*: wherever you are on your journey, we invite you to add your unique voice to the conversation and join the outcry for acceptance of Gay in YA.
We will accept whatever’s on your mind, so if you already have an idea skip the rest and email maria@gayYA.org with a little bit about yourself, a link to your blog (if you don’t have one, a writing sample will also suffice) and the topic you’d like to write about. If not, we have our handy dandy….
List of Specific Things We’re Looking For:
Tell Your Story: Creative Nonfiction Submissions
Multimedia – We strongly believe it’s important for people from diverse subcultures to support each other in the fight. We are open to featuring film, music, comics, and visual art provided it relates to the topic at hand.
Note to Authors: If you have an LGBTQ book you are interested in promoting, we don’t take ads but we would be happy to consider publishing a guest blog. Please contact email@example.com for details.
If you have questions, leave them in the comments!
Tomorrow we will return to your regularly scheduled programming with a visit from the lovely ladies Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.
* or bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer…. you get the idea.
Scott Tracey is the author of WITCH EYES, a modern, gay Romeo & Juliet with witches, coming in September. He can be found on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/#!/scott_tracey and his blog at http://www.scott-tracey.com.
When I started fleshing out the idea behind WITCH EYES – back when it was just a concept rather than a story, I knew I wanted it to be different. I read a lot of urban fantasy/paranormal, so I knew that’s what I wanted to write. As a reader, there were a lot of great books, but there weren’t a lot of books that would speak to ME. Me as I am now, or even the me from high school.
So I decided I’d write what I’d want to read. Something that hit all the key elements that would have made a teenage me pick up that book without hesitation.
It had to include:
- magic and/or witches
- manipulation and game-playing (think Cruel Intentions)
- characters who happened to be gay, who were not defined by their sexuality
People have said to me “Oh, I didn’t know this was a gay novel.” And my response is always some form of “That’s because it isn’t. Well it IS, but it isn’t.” The main character is gay, unapologetically, and a relationship starts to form over the course of the book. But at the same time it isn’t, because it’s a book about a feud, and a town full of secrets, and near death experiences, wayward spells, and demons.
One of the most important parts of that, for me, was having the story be about the story, rather than devolve into the character’s angst about their sexuality. There’s this belief that novels about gay characters fall into two categories: the coming out story, or the tragic story. And don’t get me wrong, both of those kinds of stories are incredibly important – if you’re struggling with coming out, reading a book with characters who are going through the same thing can help you. It gives you someone to relate to, when you might not have someone in your real life who can do so. Same with the tragic story – sometimes we want to watch a movie like Brokeback Mountain. Sometimes that’s something that we need.
But what about the rest of the time? One of the things I really wanted, but couldn’t find enough of, was novels that were identical to their straight counterparts – novels featuring gay characters where their sexuality was inconsequential, where the emphasis was still on the story. In the majority of YA that’s out there, straight characters don’t have to struggle to accept their sexuality, and I thought it would be nice to read somewhere where the gay characters didn’t, either.
So where are the books like that for gay kids? If you look at YA as a whole, there is a LOT of representation. Gay characters appear in many bestselling series, or as side characters in beloved books. But there’s a lot fewer novels that focus specifically on the gay characters, in which it’s there story being told.
Especially in the genre of paranormal/urban fantasy, where most gay characters are still on the sidelines. Side characters, rather than the leads. But I think that’s changing. Even in just the past couple of years, we’ve gotten Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, Shadow Walkers by Brent Hartinger, and Hero by the late Perry Moore.
It’s becoming more normal to read about gay characters in novels. They’re everywhere from Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instrument series, to Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon Lexicon series; many people even talk about how Alec or Jamie are their favorite characters.
I think we’re coming to a point where we’ll start to see more and more novels that push “gay YA” novels from being “issue oriented” to becoming much like everything else: plot and story focused. Where the character could be straight or gay, and the story would be exactly the same. Because at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter.
Speaking of Malinda Lo, she wrote this fantastic piece on her blog entitled, “How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?” I think it’s still tough, to a certain extent, but getting a book published, period, is tough. This may just be a little more tough, but when you get into this business you know that the odds are against you.
The reason? Publishing is a business. If you go out and buy books featuring LGBT characters (whether they are the focus of the story, or simply part of it), more books like that will get published.
Gay characters in YA are only as normal as we make them. That’s why I think it’s important to HAVE gay characters in novels, but it’s the same issue with not falling into character clichés, whitewashing characters, etc. It’s important to have all kinds of representation, but the trick is to not give in to tokenism.
It’s one of the reasons I think we’ll start seeing more and more novels come out where sexual identity is inconsequential. Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, it’s all about the story.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of numerous books including Pay it Forward and the upcoming Don’t Let Me Go. She can be found at her website or tweeting under @cryanhyde.
As recently as the 90s, when my first novel saw print, things were different in LGBT publishing. Authors worried about the positioning of books that contained LGBT characters. No one wanted publishers to perceive their books as being only for the niche “gay market” instead of the wider mainstream one. Authors always felt their work had that indefinable “broader appeal,” and didn’t want to be put into a smaller gay publishing box.
Which, if you think about it, contains the inherent silliness of assuming a straight person can’t or won’t read about a gay one. Well, they can. But, I guess the question is, would they?
Now, at least in YA fiction, I think we have our answer.
Suddenly LGBT YA is a phenomenon. A force to reckon with. And, more and more, I pick up (on Twitter and in the blogosphere) that lots of straight readers enjoy the genre.
This little post by no means claims to sum up how and why this sea change happened. It’s just a reflection on one aspect that resonates most with me.
For the purpose of illustration, I call it The Brent Effect.
It was only a little more than a year ago that a gay teen named Brent started the book blog Naughty Book Kitties. Fairly soon after, he emailed me, interested in an ARC of Jumpstart the World. I poked around on his blog, as I always do in cases like that. Not because there’s some special blog standard required before I’ll submit a book for review. More because I’m always curious about why someone wants to read something of mine. I also love discovering new blogs. We emailed a couple of times, and I asked Knopf to send him an ARC.
Just a couple of days later a Facebook friend posted a link to my wall. It was a post by a gay 15-year-old who publicly blasted his school librarian for refusing to stock LGBT books, which she said were “inappropriate.” Brent went viral, because, in my opinion, he was spot on. Here was a kid who needed to read about people like him, and was told that people like him were inappropriate reading for people his age. Suddenly “age appropriate” was called out on the carpet and boldly labeled discrimination. Which, of course, it was. Had been all along. Somebody just had to say it. Eloquently. Loudly.
Maybe Brent wasn’t the first to say it, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. But he was the first to break into my awareness with this message. He was my first exposure to the new breed of out gay teens.
I think it affected me so deeply because I wasn’t that brave when I was Brent’s age. I was not an out gay teen. In my defense, it was 1970. A number of factors had to fall into place to make that kind of honesty possible. The more honesty is shouted out, the more factors fall into place to allow even more honesty. Then, with any luck, you have a full-on revolution. Or, as they call it on Fox “News,” the Gay Agenda. And we all know what the gay agenda is, right? To be seen as human and treated with respect. To be ourselves and pursue our own happiness. Oh, wait, that’s everybody’s agenda, isn’t it?
Let me not get too far off track.
After meeting Brent (we’ve been friends ever since), I’ve also met John of Dreaming in Books. A very different, but also very out, young gay book blogger. I’ve met Craig of Craig’s Gay Word, a teen athlete who helps teach his entire school how to treat LGBT students. I even got a great review of Jumpstart the World from a young woman named Maggie who essentially came out as “closer to bi” or “at the very least questioning” during the review. I told her I thought that was important and good, because every person who does so makes it easier for the next. She told me she had wrestled with it and come to the exact same conclusion.
The more people speak up, the more people speak up.
Say what you will about social change, but you cannot, in my view, devalue these contributions. Sure, you have to multiply it by all the Brents and Johns and Craigs and Maggies, including scores I don’t know about. But coming out in itself is a force to be reckoned with. And blogs have embraced outness (as Brent would say, pretend that’s a word) in a way that’s changing the landscape.
When I was young, people actually made the ridiculous statement that they didn’t know, that they’d never known, someone who’s gay. The joke was on them, of course. Sure they had. They just didn’t know it. I believe intolerance finds its roots in fear. Humans are (like?) animals, wired for survival. Our brains tell us to fear the unfamiliar, and, when few dared come out, gay remained unfamiliar.
Now we have the beginning of a trend: straight teens who are perfectly happy to read a gay love story, if it’s a good story. So as an author of (among other things) LGBT YA lit, my hat is off to the new out gay teens.
Expect a snowballing of the Brent Effect. And celebrate it with me. It’s long overdue.
Tiffany Trent writes dark YA fantasy and can be found online at tiffanytrent.com
I find it so odd—all the buzz of including or not including gay characters in YA. To me, the fact that any of my characters at any moment are gay is a given. I don’t have to work to include them or sit and decide that one of them will be gay. Some of them are; some of them aren’t. These are the facts. I’m always delighted whenever a character shows him or herself to be LGBTQ, and I work very hard to make sure that I get it right. The one thing I continually note when speaking to gay friends about what they’d like to see in books is just that gayness is a fact of life just as natural as eye or hair color. One lesbian friend said it would just be so refreshing to read something fun, romantic, and gay-positive rather than either the typical coming-out story or tragedy. For myself, I love the notion of gay paranormal or gay YA horror—Steve Berman’s Vintage is an outstanding example of what I long to see more of.
Thankfully, it seems that the publishing industry is becoming more and more receptive to books that view gayness as an intrinsic lifestyle wherein being LGBTQ is not just about sex but also about love, romance, the joys and difficulties of finding the right mate, and ultimately about finding one’s true identity. My husband told me that just today, in fact, Bret Hartinger’s Shadow Walkers, a YA sci-fi novel with a gay protagonist was featured on NPR.
All of this is very happy-making news, considering that my own previous attempts at writing gay or lesbian characters were met with resistance by former publishers and editors. I knew in my heart that one character of mine was lesbian, though I also knew that she was an intensely private person. What I did know was that she wasn’t inclined at all toward men and was fiercely protective of the few female friends she had. I hadn’t planned on any lesbian romantic scenes, but I knew instinctively that heterosexual romantic scenes were not for her, either. In the end, I caved, and she was presented as staunchly heterosexual. It was heartbreaking to make that compromise, but I did it because I didn’t feel I had any other choice. I know differently now, and I’ll never make that same mistake again. It’s too important.
It took attending this year’s Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) (www.scbwi.org) Midwinter Conference panel about LGBTQ in middle-grade and YA for me to realize that I’m not wrong or alone in my desire to represent gay characters. Blogger and author Lee Wind , agent Jim McCarthy, and Penguin/Putnam Executive Editor Ari Lewin had some fantastically encouraging things to say to those of us want to write more LGBTQ work. Ari reinforced the notion that editors are, in fact, seeking stories that push beyond the coming-out story and into refreshingly new and fearless territory. She even encouraged me fiercely and with great passion to write something fun, a gay romance filled with laughter and sweetness and JOY. What a concept, right?
That panel alone was worth the entire conference and all the travel headaches. It gave me confidence in a character I’d been afraid to write—a gay blacksmith in a post-apocalyptic Appalachia. I can’t wait to get back to him once I finish the current revision, and I’m even more excited to share him with my readers who may have been hoping for just this sort of thing.
And so, for what it’s worth, I’m passing on this message. Go. Write your stories with your LGBTQ characters. Make their stories about more than coming out. Make their stories about what it means to be human and in love in this ever-changing world. Editors are waiting hungrily for your words. Pass it on.
Small intro: Ana Grilo is a geek and a book smuggler. You can find her, along with Thea James, blogging at www.thebooksmugglers.com and on twitter @booksmugglers
I was ecstatic when we were invited to take part of the Gay YA blogathon: it is a worthy cause and we love to be part of worthy causes. Then it came the part where I had to decide which book to review. All I knew is that I wanted to review a book where the main character was gay and although there are a good number of YA LGBT stories being published right now, this number is nowhere near ideal. Not to mention that sometimes I feel like there is a choice to be made when picking a LGBT book to read: as unfair as this impression might be, the stories seem to be either “issue” stories, in which a character has to deal with the outcome of his coming out and with homophobia, or they are “fairytale” stories, in which a character’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter and homophobia doesn’t exist in the context of these stories (hence the “fairytale”). Just to clarify, I have absolutely nothing against either, as the truth is quite the contrary. Both are important in their own way: the former, because issues like homophobia are unfortunately part of our reality and something a lot of kids have to go through every day; the latter because “fairytales” represent the world as it should be and are, if anything, inspirational.
Having said that, there are stories out there can do be both and I wanted to pick one for this review. I believe Vintage to be a great example of what I was looking for – it is a contemporary ghost story with a heavy romantic arc (a “fairytale”), and it never loses sight of the hardships that its main character faces as a gay teen, but accomplishes this without making “issues” the central theme of the book.
The story follows a lonely gay teen that is a bit of a goth and a high-school dropout who works at a vintage shop. After his parents discovered he was gay and dubbed him a “sick child,” he has run away from home and lives with his aunt. Scared that his aunt might react in the same way as his parents, he’s never told her the reason why he has shown up at her door – although he is not ashamed of his sexuality. Rather, he has wholly accepted himself and found a close circle of friends that offer the external acceptance that has been denied by his family. He is lonely though and on the lookout for a boyfriend whom he could do boyfriend-y things like going out to his favourite café together and you know, make out and stuff.
One day, walking alone in a deserted road, he meets this very hot guy (in vintage clothes) who later turns out to be the ghost of a gay boy who died in the 50s. At first he is ecstatic to have found someone to share things with but soon it becomes clear that the situation is not exactly ideal, not only because the guy is dead but also because he doesn’t seem to be looking for a healthy relationship per se (leading to many scary scenes). To complicate matters even further, our protagonist starts to fall in love with his best friend’s brother, amplifying the tension considerably.
The ghost story is perhaps the central aspect of this book: it is what moves the narrative forward as it frames both the plot and the main character’s arc. With regards to the plot, Vintage is a highly effective traditional ghost story (with Ouija boards!) which is both scary and sad, and the novel progresses as the boy and his friends investigate the death of the ghost and his past. But the plot also provides a mirror of sorts for the character to realise certain things: part of falling for a ghost comes from wanting to fall in love, but also from wanting to escape reality. Having to deal with a living boyfriend on the other hand, means getting out there, potentially getting hurt, having to come out to his aunt and everything that he had been trying to avoid. I appreciated how the reactions of his parents were extremely hurtful to him and have become an essential part of who he is and an essential part of his story, but that hurt, although present and acknowledged, is not the most important nor what defines him. Instead, we get this sweet guy, who just wants to love and be loved.
In the end, the rewards are awesome to the main character and also to the reader. The romance turns out to be sweet and cool and heart-warming with the added bonus of very hot making out scenes. There is much to love about this book, and love it I did.
by Debra Touchette
I’m a straight, white woman. Plenty of books cater to me, reflect me, although, if I’m being honest with myself, most were written around 1900. Old fashioned is one of the nice things people have called me. I’m single and over 30, a former teacher, an assistant librarian (with the black framed glasses) and graduate student. (Spinster is the other name I get, but what evs.) Like I said, there are plenty of books geared towards me.
But here’s the thing. Not everyone is like me. It’s shocking, I know, but true, and it’s my job to find the best books for the kids who come to me for readers’ advisory and to guide students to literature in which they can have an authentic connection. It’s not only my job, it’s my pleasure.
Generally, I don’t know what sort of book will pique a kid’s interest when I first meet her or him, what book will best reflect his or her experiences, what book will open new and wonderful horizons, so it is my job (and again, my pleasure) to read whatever I can get my hands on, to read broadly and diversely and to ask questions. I have my blocks. Every one does. I’m sorry, but I will not read another zombie book. I can’t take the dreams. But I will know where the zombie books are, and I will give them to you with my compliments.
I started to realize when I taught 9th graders that teens are diverse and have wonderfully varied life experiences, that they are smart and capable of handling complex texts, that even if they read brain candy novels, they crave good, meaty stories as much as, if not more than, we serious adults. And now that I’m in grad school, studying literature and adolescent literacy, I have the research to back me up. I have SCIENCE on my side (social science, sure, but the research articles are dense and formatted in APA, and that, my friends, is science). I recently read an article by Elizabeth Moje and Mudhillun MuQaribu, from the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (Nov 2003) called “Literacy and Sexual Identity” which cited heavy hitting theorists and educators like Peter Elbow and Nancie Atwood and Michel Foucault in evidence for including texts that address broader student experiences if we “expect students to write freely and openly about their experiences in the world…examine and critique the texts of their experiences …[and] focus on how individual experiences are embedded in larger contexts and experiences and on how experiences are either supported or subordinated by various power structures or discourses” (204).
If any teachers are reading this, I hope you cheered a little when you read that last paragraph. If you are a teen reading this, it means that we need to give you better stuff to read in order to really help you become critical thinkers, or generally awesome and responsible and curious and engaged adults. Sorry, I nerded out there for a minute. I really do get excited when something I feel in my gut to be right (i.e. give kids better books and for heaven’s sake, let them READ and TALK) is backed up by RESEARCH. It makes me feel powerful.
So. If you’re not getting the books you need, you have a few options.
1. Look to blogs like this and other awesome YA Lit blogs (check the blogroll).
2. Go talk to your librarians. We might get a little misty-eyed at how awesome it is kids want books and want our help, but we won’t make too big a deal out of it in public. Well, we won’t, like, hug you or anything. Probably.
3. Write your own stories. Not with the end goal of publishing in mind, but to create and to share. Write blogs and tell the world what you want and what you need from your stories.
4. Make yourself known and make yourself heard.
Debra is an assistant librarian, grad student, fledgling blogger and wanna-be teacher. She blogs about her reading at Library Lass: Adventures in Reading, and is @threelefthands on Twitter (but mostly just to see what shenanigans @maureenjohnson and @realjohngreen are up to).
All Those Who Default From the Default Will Be Punished (But I Personally Think They Will Be Awesome)
Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of THE DEMON’S LEXICON TRILOGY and can be found online at: www.sarahreesbrennan.com
So, let us discuss the most common fake fictional world of all. It doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves. It involves – well, rent a majority of mainstream movies and you can see it. It’s a world where everyone is a certain way – white, straight, able-bodied – and the really important stories are always a guy’s.
There mayyy be people who aren’t white, straight and able-bodied around in this world. I believe they live on the Isles of Issuelandia, and they are very seldom allowed onto the mainland where the adventures are at.
This is a fantasy world we’ve all been shown a million times over in our lives, so many times it’s had an effect on all of us, whether we know it or not. But most of us, if we stop and think about it, can put our experience of the real world up against the fake default-this-way world we get shown, and say ‘Whoa, these pictures are kind of different!’
So on one level this is a crafting issue. The fake default world is a more boring one, offering creators less chance to be exciting and interesting. Loads of people like a romance with conflict, or confusion: in Perry Moore’s Hero, the hero has a crush on a mysterious masked man, and the fact he’s gay and doesn’t know how to tell his macho superhero father is another layer of trouble for him and his already-troublous romance. Loads of books are about identity: in Holly Black’s White Cat and Red Glove, Cassel Sharpe doesn’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy (he’s inclined to think bad), he doesn’t know what his real surname is because his whole family are lying alias-using magical conmen. And he looks like a PoC: people speak to him in different languages, confidently, on the street. But he’ll never know about that, either: another layer for his fruitless noir-y search for identity.
On another level it’s a moral issue. It’s not just that it’s more interesting: it’s important not to exclude people, it’s important to represent everyone. As a nerdy book-loving (though not quiet… nobody will ever tell you I’m quiet) girl, I was able to see people like me in books, even if there was nobody quite as nerdy and book-loving in my real life. (For all the nerdy book-loving girls out there: Diana Wynne Jones’s House of Many Ways really rang my recognition bell. You’re welcome.) That was good for me, in a way I didn’t even recognise until years later. I don’t think any writer wants a reader to read their book, and think: ‘Well, I’m not there. Guess I’m on the Isle of Issuelandia. Oh man, not again. Kind of like always going to the Isle of Wight for your holidays. We never get to go out clubbing in Spain.’ It is wrong to banish people from the mainland!
It’s amazing to see people responding to the break with the default world. I remember having a room full of people tell me that Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel trilogy changed their lives. I’ve read people saying Holly Black’s Tithe or Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat changed the way they read, or wrote, or saw the world. I’ve had gay guys and girls at signings telling me, hey, awesomely done, you made us happy. (One gay couple who yelled out ‘Go Team JAMIE!’ during a discussion of teams, always makes me smile to remember.) My favourite fanletter, in all the world, was about me saying no to magically curing my disabled character Alan. And once off the Issuelandia Isles, readers who do conform to the default will see that characters who don’t can be fun and lovable, and will love them and want to see more of them.
So, the books are better and readers will love them! Why not do it? you may cry. Well, the second bit is debatable: in fact you will get much more harshly critiqued for reasons I will discuss anon, and moreover: because you will pay for it.
Some libraries won’t carry you. Some bookshops won’t, either. You might get banned. None of this might happen, but parents might whisk the book out of teens’ hands. I’ve had people tell me they wanted to buy my book, or order it at the library, and they couldn’t because of their parents. Saddest for the teens who can’t get to the books they want to read. But sad also for the writers whose sales, and thus whose chance to write the next book, suffers too. (That said. I loathe book piracy. I find it gross that people think it’s okay to for them to benefit from someone else’s work, who feel that person shouldn’t benefit from their own work, as if it isn’t work or isn’t important. But if there is a teen who wants to read mine, and who can’t get them because of their parents by any other means… Go ahead. Don’t feel bad. Your need is greater than mine, and you have my blessing, and all my good wishes for the future.)
Recently there’s been a big hue-and-cry over a YA anthology called the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, in which author Jessica Verday was asked to change her gay love story to a straight one. She said no, retracted the story, and said why on her blog. Many other authors took back their stories in protest, which made me very proud of my genre, and the anthology has been cancelled.
I will say this: the editor of the now-defunct Wicked Pretty Things anthology I know a little, and she’s always been lovely to me. She edited a story I had with an intersex character in it, and let me keep hir. She also obviously in this case defaulted to the fake-default-world, and we’ll never know why: maybe on her own, but very possibly because someone hinted to her, or flat-out told her, that she had to.
Which doesn’t make the whole publishing house bad, either. (Gosh no. The same publishing house is coming out with an anthology called Truth & Dare, which I am in – but more importantly, which Saundra Mitchell’s in with a gay main character, and Emma Donoghue with a gay romance.) It’s just that publishing isn’t a monolith. There are always going to be people who support breaking away from the default, and always going to be people who are against it, and you’re always going to have to deal with the mix. Unfortunately, it does just take one person to create a problem you have to deal with. Jessica Verday had to take her fight out in public, in the same way Justine Larbalestier had to when the girl on the cover of her book was a different race to the heroine inside, but let me assure you: everyone who ever breaks away from the fake default world has had private fights.
Said little fight I had – I will note, not with my editor for the Demon’s Lexicon books, who has always been solidly supportive. Another author, who wrote one gay romance which went fine, and sold well. And then in her sequel she had a steamier gay romance, and despite her awesome sales, the publisher flatly refused to publish it. The story ends well. She got another publisher. But it is not a pleasant thing to have happen to you! Another writer, who had her gay characters deleted from her screenplay. These problems always, always happen, at some point. It is exhausting to deal with them, and fight against the fake default.
I have one friend (and I swear, these are all authors I know, and true stories, and not secretly me – I’ll tell you when it’s me) who had gay characters in her book. Editor took them out. She put them back in. Editor took them out and took issue with her for her naughty ways. She swallowed hard, and put them back in. The book went out with them in.
Almost the first review we saw of the book online said ‘Huh, not enough gay, what gay there was, was problematic…’ And of course, that’s what the person thought, so they were right to say it! But holy Methuselah on a bicycle, after all the author had been through to get it out there, it was hard to read.
Another author I know was slammed for showing a girl feeling shame after an assault. And of course, no girl has a reason to feel that – but some girls do, and they deserve books to say you do feel it, and yet you have nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, the critic has a perfect right to say she felt uncomfortable with it, too. I’ve been dinged (see, told you I’d tell you when it was me…) for having a gay character be too stereotypical because he once wears a purple ‘LOCK UP YOUR SONS’ t-shirt his sister gave him to annoy a homophobe. Made me sad, especially considering the fact I had a little fight on my hands getting to keep my gay kiss in the same book. But people have to be free to call out stereotypes as and when they see them!
People are always going to criticise stuff. People are critical beings! I myself constantly criticise books, movies, and the existence of bananas on this earth. And people notice books that stray from the fake default world more, and are more critical of them, because we are all so accustomed to the default that stuff that’s not-default is very noticeable. Besides which, nothing should be exempt from criticism, and it is important to call out offensive things in fiction.
So this will always happen, until the world changes. If you write anything that’s not the default, you will pay for it, because of publishers or readers or both.
I’ve seen the white-straight-able-bodied attitude be criticised, but I haven’t seen specific books be criticised as examples of that attitude, for the simple reason it’s much easier to criticise something that’s present than to criticise the absence of something (since no book can contain everything). It’s easier to be invisible to the audience – to go the white, straight, able-bodied route, with the focus on dudes and their dudely charms.
And some of those books are great. And I am a big fan of dudely charms, in general! But it has got to a stage where I will read a book that is otherwise good, and note it has the fake default, and I’ll feel a lingering sense of disappointment. I’ll never know if it was a consciously or unconsciously made safe choice – or just how the book turned out – or anything, really. No reader can know what the writer was thinking. All they have is the book, and their own conclusions.
Which is why I’ll add that I don’t like hearing ‘oh, some of my characters are gay, but I just didn’t mention it, it’s not germane to the plot.’ It’s disingenuous to pretend that the fake default world doesn’t exist, and that people won’t assume. It’s disingenuous to say it, if there are a bunch of heterosexual characters whose straightness was germane to the plot! I believe that it’s said in all good faith, and of course it’s nicer to hear than ‘Gay people in MY world, certainly not’ but hearing it (and I have heard it, oh gosh, at least twenty times from different writers) always saddens me. Put it in the book. All most readers will ever have is the book. The book is the important thing: the book could change a life, if you do it right.
And if you don’t believe that, why be a writer at all?
I always think of something I heard Karen Healey (Guardian of the Dead, heroine’s best friend is asexual) say at a panel once, talking about doing something that she knew would limit her audience and thus cost her money/potential future deals: ‘But then I thought, well, the cost of that is a lot less than the cost of thinking less of myself as a human being!’ (This is a paraphrase. Karen Healey probably said it a lot better!)
You will get pushback. And you won’t get praised. But it’s worth doing because it’s worth being a better human being, and a better writer
And maybe, the world will change, and it won’t be as hard for you, and–even better–it won’t be as hard for other people. Maybe, just a little, you’ll have helped.
Take a tiny hammer to the fake default world, and take the consequences of doing so. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. For more on authors interested in doing so: www.diversityinya.com
Malinda Lo’s first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her second novel, Huntress, was just published in April 2011 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Visit her website at www.malindalo.com.
In my two young adult fantasy novels, Ash and Huntress, the main characters are girls who fall in love with other girls. I admit there’s something different about the love stories told in my books, but it’s not that they’re gay love stories.
The difference is: in the world of my novels, being gay doesn’t matter.
What that means is that the characters are able to fall in love without dealing with homophobia. They don’t have to come out, because sexual orientation is never assumed in their worlds, and falling in love with someone of the same sex is seen as perfectly natural.
A lot of times, I get email from readers or come across reviews in which the lack of homophobia in my novels is described as refreshing or unusual, and I really appreciate that. I’m glad they find it a positive thing. On the other hand, it makes me realize that my approach to writing about same-sex romance is pretty much the exception to the rule, especially in YA.
There are adult novels in which coming out is no longer an issue and characters fall in love without needing to deal with homophobia — but often that’s because they’ve dealt with it already in their pasts. In YA, the characters are teens. They’re dealing with first love, and if their stories are set in our real world, homophobia is unfortunately a reality and coming out usually does have to happen.
But if the novel is a fantasy set in a secondary world, or a science fiction novel set sometime in the future, the author has the option from the get-go to write a world that is free from homophobia.
There’s no trick to this. The author simply has to decide: Are the people in this fantasy world homophobic? Or not?
If yes, then the author has to deal with that if she is going to be writing about gay characters. But if no, that means the gay characters don’t even need to identify as “gay” anymore. They can simply be human beings.
I think that sometimes people have a hard time wrapping their minds around how exactly one would write a homophobic-free fantasy world, because we’re used to thinking about gay identity being inextricably linked with homophobia. (Gay Pride parades can be, for example, positive ways to reclaim many homophobic stereotypes.) So here are a few practical tips I can give writers who are interested in writing worlds free from homophobia:
1. The characters do not need to come out to themselves or anyone else. That means that when they fall in love, they feel no shame about the fact that they’re falling for someone of the same sex; they only feel what a straight person might feel.
2. Nobody in the world needs to comment on the characters’ sexual orientations. When others notice that the character is falling for someone of the same sex, they would not comment on the same-sex aspect.
3. It’s helpful to insert some background characters who are in same-sex relationships, just as walk-on characters that help set the scene. But make sure that the description of those same-sex couples or relationships is presented as perfectly normal.
4. The words “gay,” “lesbian” or “bisexual” do not need to be used to describe these characters. This may feel very weird, but I believe it’s true. If nobody cares about sexual orientation, there don’t need to be words about it in the language, because essentially everyone would be potentially bisexual.
5. The existence or lack of homophobia is not necessarily related to the existence or lack of modern technology or sexism in the fantasy world. I think that sometimes people believe that a fantasy set in a medieval-esque world would automatically be homophobic and sexist, but that’s not necessarily true. It is within the author’s power to control all these elements; they are all part of world-building.
Personally, I want desperately to read more books in which homophobia is not an issue, but people still fall in love with others of the same sex. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m not surprised that I write those worlds and want to read about more of them.
Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.