Young adult fiction is often a reflection of the times, and as such, is always growing and changing as it morphs to accurately represent the population it features. It’s a voice for younger people who are discovering and developing their identities, has recently seen an overdue and welcome expansion of representation. Previously under-represented populations are being featured in books of their own, and such is the case with the LGBT+ community. Publishers Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf – who work heavily with YA books – say that while they don’t keep track of the number of books with LGBT+ protagonists, they have observed an increase over the past several years. This is backed by stats compiled by YA author Malinda Lo. In 2011, she began tracking the number of books released by mainstream publishers that had a LGBT+ protagonist, and she counted 32 in 2012. In 2016, there were 79 books published. This may not seem like many, but it’s a huge change from 1969, when the first LGBT+ YA book (I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan) was published. In fact, between 1969 and 1992, only about 60 LGBT+ YA books were published.
How LGBT+ protagonists are treated has also changed dramatically. Early LGBT+ YA books usually ended in tragedy, likely a result of attitudes towards the LGBT+ population during the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, positive portrayals of same-sex/same-gender love became more mainstream. As mentioned before, YA literature is a lens through which cultural shifts can be examined, and I’ve little doubt that this change is due in part to attitude shifts towards and within the LGBT+ community. This is huge for LGBT+ youth, as readers want to see themselves represented in what they read. YA literature is obviously geared towards teenagers, many of whom are at fluid and fragile points in their lives. For LGBT+ YA readers, the pervasive positive portrayal that’s now found in YA fiction and mainstream media as a whole is an affirmation of who they are. Perhaps because of this, LGBT+ YA books make up some of the most popular YA books over the past few years.
One example is Becky Albertalli’s award-winning debut novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Published in 2015, it follows Simon Speir, a closeted gay high school junior whose life just got much more complicated. After someone known as “Blue” posts on the unofficial school Tumblr about being gay, Simon begins talking to him via email using the pseudonym “Jacques.” As they correspond, Simon and Blue grow closer, but when Simon forgets to sign out of his email, a classmate named Martin finds the emails and uses them to blackmail him. If Simon doesn’t get Abby, one of his closest friends, to date Martin, he will release the emails and out Simon. Now, Simon has to navigate this mess without compromising himself, alienating his friends, or losing a chance to meet Blue.
At first glance, this book seems devastating, like many early LGBT+ YA books. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is actually a very fast-moving and witty book, though. A coming-out story might not be overly original, but a cast of authentic and relatable characters makes for an engaging story that touches on various important themes while still focusing on the protagonist. Perhaps what’s most impressive is how effectively Albertalli is able to engage the reader’s emotions. This book made me laugh, cry, and want to throw it across the room in righteous anger. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a book that teens can relate to and adults can learn from as readers watch Simon navigate his relationships, deal with bullying and homophobia, and learn to accept himself.
If you’d prefer a LGBT+ YA book that’s less serious and has more pictures, I recommend the Lumberjanes series. Created by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Waters, and Brooke A. Allen, these graphic novels follow the adventures of five young ladies at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. Initially, it seems April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are attending a normal summer camp. However, they soon encounter supernatural phenomena and begin solving mysteries surrounding the camp.
Part of Lumberjanes’ appeal is the whimsy and relaxed feel of the graphic novels. Their brevity makes them easy to pick up and set down, and they’re good for a chuckle on tough days. The diverse cast of characters is what sets these books apart, though. The Lumberjanes come from a variety of backgrounds, and more than one of them identify as LGBT+. STEM expert Jo is a transgender girl who lives with her two dads, while music-loving Mal and archery expert Molly are both lesbians who have been dating since the first book. Even more refreshing is the fact that none of the Lumberjanes are fazed by Jo being trans or Molly and Mal dating. They’re focused on solving the next big mystery and enjoying summer camp. Since this series is geared towards middle schoolers, one can hope that younger readers will embrace not just the acceptance shown by the heroines, but also their confidence, ingenuity, and “friendship to the max!”
Since the publication of the first LGBT+ YA book, options for readers have expanded greatly. A Google search of “LGBT YA books” will return over 30 books to scroll through at the top of the page, and below, readers can find various websites touting their lists of must-read LGBT+ books. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Lumberjanes are both available at JTCC Libraries, in addition to other LGBT+ YA books. If you’re interested in checking them out, please stop by either campus’ library or contact us online. We’d be happy to get them checked out to you!
“The rise of young adult books with LGBTQ characters – and what’s next,” NBC News, published March 10, 2019,https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/rise-young-adult-books-lgbtq-characters-what-s-next-n981176
“A Brief History of Queer Young Adult Literature,” Medium, published August 3, 2016, https://medium.com/the-establishment/the-critical-evolution-of-lgbtq-young-adult-literature-ce40cd4905c6
“LGBTQ+ Diversity in YA Novels is Getting Better, But Queer Girls are Still Being Left Behind,” Bustle, published March 28, 2018, https://www.bustle.com/p/lgbtq-diversity-in-ya-novels-is-getting-better-but-queer-girls-are-still-being-left-behind-8572422