Favorite LGBT Teen Fiction (and Yes, I Meant All Four of Those Letters)

The world of LGBT-friendly fiction for teens and young adults is slowly growing, and certainly we expect most newly-published teen fiction to avoid homophobia, though heteronormativity and transphobia are both alarmingly common in the genre. Unfortunately for LGBT teens, though, most of these books, even the “friendly” ones, are written about LGBT teens but for straight readers, with an emphasis on promoting tolerance, or displaying the struggles against bullying, or otherwise trying to illuminate the minds of straight kids to the lives of gay kids. Tropes abound, and I’ve only found a few LGBT YA novels that I really think do a great deal in promoting not just tolerance, but show acceptance of LGBT teens not just as factors in the straight kids’ lives, but as complex, complete characters in their own right. Because April is LGBT Awareness Month, I decided to share some of my favorites.

Cover Art: Boy Meets Boy / David Levithan

Boy Meets Boy / David Levithan

David Levithan describes Boy Meets Boy as a “hippy dippy happy gay teen book,” and writes:

With Boy Meets Boy, I basically set out to write the book that I dreamed of getting as an editor – a book about gay teens that doesn’t conform to the old norms about gay teens in literature (i.e. it has to be about a gay uncle, or a teen who gets beaten up for being gay, or about outcasts who come out and find they’re still outcasts, albeit outcasts with their outcastedness in common). I’m often asked if the book is a work of fantasy or a work of reality, and the answer is right down the middle – it’s about where we’re going, and where we should be. Of Boy Meets Boy, the reviewer at Booklist wrote: “In its blithe acceptance and celebration of human differences, this is arguably the most important gay novel since Annie on My Mind and seems to represent a revolution in the publishing of gay-themed books for adolescents” – which pretty much blew me away when I read it.

The high school in Boy Meets Boy isn’t like other high schools, and neither is his community: both spheres are much friendlier to LGBT students than those in the surrounding area (and, outside the novel, far different than most people’s experiences).  There are gay and straight characters who interact naturally, and a young trans woman named Infinite Darlene who is simultaneously homecoming queen and the football team’s starting quarterback. Those who refuse to recognize Darlene’s gender identity or who use her former name are shunned by the other students at the school, rather than the reverse we are so used to hearing.

The book is funny, poignant, and most of all real. I highly recommend it.

Boy Meets Boy was the 2003 recipient of the Lambda Literary Award.

Cover Image: Ash / Malinda Lo

Ash / Malinda Lo

I borrowed Malinda Lo’s Ash from my friend Susan. I found it on her guest bed during a visit last fall, next to a stack of Neil Gaiman novels and instructions to read all these books immediately, including the one about lesbian Cinderella.

“Lesbian Cinderella,” of course, is Ash, but to call it that hardly brushes the surface of the remarkable world Lo spins in the novel. In addition to the retelling of the classic fairy tale, we find sub-plots of magic and mystery, of the intricacies of life in an aristocratic country, and, most tellingly, a casual acceptance of non-normative sexuality and gender roles that creates something unique. Though Ash’s romance with another woman plays an important role in the story, it somehow slides just out of focus, making the fairy-tale retelling the primary story and the changed romantic aspect just a detail. The irony of this review, of course, is that I’m raving about an aspect of the book that is really present in the story in the same way the sky is blue.

Not only is there a lesbian romance, but despite challenges to Ash’s life on many fronts, the culture and history of her fabled country are full of mythologies including lesbian, bisexual, and cross-dressing characters. After reading some of the reviews of the book, Lo wrote an amazing piece on her views of cross-dressing on her blog. I won’t even pull a quote; the entire post is fantastic.

This is not a book about the struggles of being a young lesbian in our world, but one about what it might be like if all of our stories were as comfortable with the possibilities of non-heterosexual relationships.

Cover Art: Huntress / Malinda Lo

Huntress / Malinda Lo

A companion to Ash, Huntress is set in the same world but far in the past. Though Ash read like a retold fairy tale, Huntress is a unique story, pulling in the legends Lo only touches on in her debut novel.

Huntress is also more explicitly romantic. Rather than having the romance as a subplot, there are romantic colors overlaid on most of this story. The book discusses these romances, both queer and straight, in light of the slightly different circumstances of its time setting and the roles of its characters. There is physicality in the love stories, though nothing explicit. With all that, the sheer acceptance Malinda Lo wove into her first book is definitely maintained. Never does a character question the likelihood of a particular romantic arrangement, and only in a few cases is the political practicality of one questioned, though this happens to each of the various pairings that crop up.

In both Ash and Huntress, I have been incredibly impressed by the level of storytelling and world creation Lo has undertaken. It takes a particular level of imagination to spin a world where the non-standard becomes standard and make it believable. Malinda Lo has definitely been successful in doing so.

Ash / Malinda Lo. Little, Brown, 5 October 2010. U. S. $16.99 (hardcover)

Huntress / Malinda Lo. 5 April 2011. U. S. $17.99 (hardcover)

Boy Meets Boy / David Levithan. Alfred A. Knopf, 10 May 2005 (reprint). U.S. $8.95 (paperback)

Cover images from Amazon. Post image from my personal collection, taken at the 2008 London Pride parade. Persephone Magazine is an Amazon Affiliate; purchases made through the links on this post will support this site at our current affiliate rate.

17 replies on “Favorite LGBT Teen Fiction (and Yes, I Meant All Four of Those Letters)”

Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series (starting with Luck in the Shadows) is not classified as YA per se, but there’s nothing in ’em that would deter a YA reader. Language & style are accessible, no graphic sex, themes & plot elements are universally appealing; there’s some violence because there’s a war going on, but it’s not explicit or grotesque. Actually, the fourth book might be a little iffy for YAs because it tackles the violence inherent in human trafficking, but it’s more sad than scary.

One of the main characters is a 17-year-old who surprises himself by falling in love with his mentor. It’s all very sweet and tasteful; a tender supplement to the main plots, which focus on political intrigue, travel to exotic lands, armed combat, magic, and so forth.

I’ll be honest, I expected more Francesca Lia Block in this list. The entire Weetzie Bat cycle is hugely gay positive.

However, as a lighter read, I would also recommend James St.James’s ‘Freak Show’ about a drag queen in high school and the boy he loves.
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I’ve read Boy Meets Boy and it was wonderful. The other LGBT positive books I’ve read never seem to have a fully accepting cast of characters which, while more realistic, is not something I want to be in every single book. I’ve always appreciated teen literature that involved gay characters while not placing so much importance on them. It creates an atmosphere that being gay is nothing strange and can simply be included as a theme in the background. For this sort of thing, Damien Maslin and Jack Twist from The House of Night Series come to mind.

Also, what is QUILT*BAG. I knew exactly what it stands for at some point but now I can only remember that it is connected to LGBT.

While including background characters comfortably is also important, it’s nice to have them be main characters without it feeling like the author wants a medal for writing them that way. When it’s made out like an example, it doesn’t read authentically, and you end up with character archetypes instead of dynamic characters in the story. The books here have LGBT main characters and secondary characters as well as straight ones, without the tokenism that often happens.

And QUILT*BAG = Queer-Intersex-Lesbian-Transsexual/Transgender (the * means both)-Bisexual-Gay.

Thank you for the wonderful recommendations! I’m definitely going to check out Ash and Huntress as soon as I’m finished exams. I stopped reading YA quite a while ago because I couldn’t find any novels that interested me. I’m very excited to give these a try and to do some more reading for pleasure!

I read Ash based on a previous recommendation on either your Tumblr or LP’s. I loved it, for precisely the reasons you mention here. The general story is wonderful, and the fact that the main romance is between two women is just a small detail that no one in the novel cares two hoots about. So refreshing. I also bought Huntress as an ebook (no way I could get it otherwise in Argentina, I’m afraid – yet another benefit of ebooks) the day it was released, and devoured it in a day. I look forward to checking out Boy Meets Boy.

Last year during Banned Books Week, we held a community event and Bossman read an excerpt from The Geography Club, which I thought was a really good book. It’s about a group of gay high school students who are closeted from the rest of the school and decide to start a support group – but they call it the Geography Club so no one else will joing because it’s the most boring thing they can think of. It takes on bullying – interestingly not bullying of the gay kids (although they’re afraid of what would happen if word got out) – not standing up for other people who are being bullied, and otherwise being different in high school. I really enjoyed it. And I LOVE that Bossman not only agreed to a Banned Books Week event but also read from the book and gave a little talk about it. I mean, mostly he drives me crazy, but sometimes I’m reminded of why I work for him.

And this is a tangent I didn’t mean to go off on. Sorry.

I loved Annie on My Mind growing up, and recalling it, now I want to read it again! This article also called to mind another book in the genre, and for the life of me I can’t remember the name. Two teen girls, they’re friends, they fall in love…one of them is definitely named Chloe. Or Zoe. And is a painter. Does this sound remotely familiar to anyone?

Ooh, relevant to my reading list!

I just read Boy Meets Boy last month, and I’ve been on the prowl for more LGBT books. I’m a heterosexual lady from a conservative community with a very small LGBT community. I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more LGBT YA for the sake of expanding my horizons.

I also read The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second recently. I’m curious if anyone else has read that and what they thought about it.

When I was a teenager, I read a book entitled Annie on My Mind about a girl who falls in love with another girl. I’m straight and was raised in a very conservative environment, and don’t think I even realized what the book was about at first, and yet, I remember finding it interesting, mind-opening, and enjoyable. And that it made the story really about love, in a way that was palatable for me as a kid who was raised to find distaste in same-sex love. I don’t know how it would read to a kid who was questioning their sexuality or who identified as LGBT, but anyway, that’s all I got. I think it may be kind of dated now though.

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