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.
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.
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.
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.