When David Levithan wrote the YA novel Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003), he faced a precedent in which books with LGBTQ characters were issue-based: focused on the angst of coming out in a hostile world. “We were tired of the misery plot, and wanted to re-write it,” Levithan recalls. “I wanted to write a romantic comedy.”
Today, that “misery plot” is no longer the norm and 2016’s children’s books and YA novels depict a wider range of LGBTQ experiences and family dynamics. Increasingly, the central conflict has little to do with being gay.
Such is the case with Levithan’s upcoming YA novel You Know Me Well (St. Martin’s Griffin, June), which he co-wrote with Nina LaCour, about the burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl – both comfortably out, and both navigating the uncertainty of imminent adulthood.
“Nina and I wrote the book because we really wanted to show the common ground between a lesbian character and a gay character,” Levithan says. “Part of that is navigating romantic relationships, which is hard no matter who you love.”
Levithan, who is also editorial director and publisher at Scholastic, notes the characterization of queer characters has become far more nuanced. “Authors are really delving into what it means to have this identity,” he says. For instance, Jane B. Mason’s Without Annette (Scholastic Press, Jun.) depicts the growing tension between two girlfriends as they maneuver through the politics and elitism of a new boarding school.
“Without Annette is about navigating love,” says Levithan. “The fact that they’re girls attracted to girls – there’s obviously something specific to that, but it doesn’t define their love.”
Similarly, in Kody Keplinger’s Run (Scholastic Press, July), the main character’s bisexuality doesn’t define her. “Certainly a decade ago, if these characters existed, the whole story would be about that facet of their identity,” Levithan said.
Characters are increasingly certain of who they are, so there’s less drama around the search for identity. This assuredness is evident even in some middle grade novels and picture books. Sara Cassidy’s middle grade book A Boy Named Queen (Groundwood, Aug.) is about a boy who flouts convention and sees no need specify his orientation throughout the book.
“The story for every child isn’t going to be about coming out as LGBTQ,” says Groundwood president and publisher Sheila Barry. “In [A Boy Named Queen], the kid is very confident in every aspect of his being.” Similarly, in the picture book Big Bob, Little Bob (Candlewick, Oct.), by James Howe and illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson, Little Bob, who dresses in girls’ clothes and wears flowers in his hair, is perfectly comfortable with who he is and what he likes.
Family and Friends
While there’s still a place for stories about understanding sexual orientation or gender identity, those narratives now show a broader range of relationships within friendships and families.
“We’re seeing more situations that haven’t really been depicted before,” says Jaye Robin Brown, author of the YA novel Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit (HarperTeen, Aug.), about a teenage girl who is proudly out in Atlanta but moves to a less open-minded town because her radio minister father has just re-married. To placate his conservative new in-laws, he asks his daughter to keep her orientation secret, and she reluctantly agrees.
In Donna Gephart’s middle grade novel Lily and Dunkin (Delacorte, May), Lily, a transgender girl, has a supportive mother and sister, but her father is convinced she’s going through a phase. “[Gephart] was trying to take different points of view, based on different family dynamics,” said editor Krista Vitola. “She wanted to show a lineage of how a person’s perspective is based on the experiences they had growing up.”
And in Beast (Delacorte Press, Oct.), author Brie Spangler depicts the burgeoning romance between a misfit boy and a girl he meets in his group therapy class, whom he doesn’t realize is transgender.
Many of the upcoming releases with LGBTQ characters are explicitly celebrations of family and friendship. In the picture book Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton, illustrated by Dougal MacPherson (Bloomsbury, May), a boy named Errol and his teddy bear, Thomas bike, work in the garden, sit in a treehouse, and have tea parties. After Thomas nervously becomes Tilly, the book ends with Tilly and Errol doing the exact same activities they always did.
Kar-Ben Publishing releases its second LGBTQ-themed picture book this fall, The Flower Girl Wore Celery by Meryl G. Gordon and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown, which follows young Emma as she gets ready for her aunt's wedding to another woman.
And in Carrie Firestone’s The Loose Ends List (Little, Brown, June), a girl and her diverse extended family, which includes two gay uncles, take an end-of-life cruise with the family’s matriarch. “It’s a very loving family, though they’re all at each other’s throats sometimes,” says editor Lisa Yoskowitz.
Not every LGBTQ release has that celebratory environment. Some dive into darker waters – though that darkness centers around elements like crime rather than the existential angst of coming out.
Two forthcoming releases are mysteries involving girlfriends gone missing or girlfriends gone dead. Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig (Feiwel and Friends, Oct.) centers on a closeted teen boyfriend under suspicion; and Look Past by Eric Devine (Running Press, Oct.) focuses on the victim’s transgender boyfriend.
Placing LGBTQ characters at the center of YA crime novels – and not as victims – represents a social evolution. Longtime YA novelist Brent Hartinger couldn’t envision writing his upcoming locked-room mystery Three Truths and a Lie (Simon & Schuster, Aug.), early in his career. “Ten years ago, I don’t know if I would have written [Three Truths],” Hartinger said, referring to an eerie, sexual power dynamic that permeates his characters’ relationships. “Now, people can accept edgier, complicated, darker gay characters. I don’t have to worry that it’s going to be misinterpreted where people say, ‘When gay kids have sex, it’s a power trip.’ I’m not as guarded and fearful as I used to be, both as a writer and as a gay person.”
Blast from the Past
Hartinger isn’t the only writer feeling liberated by the changing environment. The picture book Home at Last (Greenwillow, Sept.), written by the late Vera B. Williams and illustrated by Chris Raschka, about a boy adopted by two fathers, was conceived 10 years ago. But back then Williams – who died last October – decided against bringing her idea to fruition. “She didn’t feel the time was quite right,” said her editor, Virginia Duncan. “But last year, she pulled it out and said she wanted to do it. She was inspired by changes in the culture to finally do it now.”
The situation was even less hospitable in the U.K. which, from 1988–2003, legislated against “promoting” homosexuality and gay family relationships. “The climate at the time was so different than what it is now,” said Liz Kessler, a novelist whose work includes the popular Emily Windsnap series. In the late '90s, she wrote the coming-of-age novel Read Me Like a Book (Candlewick), which finally saw release this year. The book follows a character whose same-sex attraction toward her teacher motivates her academically, while inspiring her personal growth. It was Kessler’s first novel, though she shelved the manuscript for many years because of anti-homosexual legislation in the U.K. (See our recent Q&A with the author.)
Despite the progress made in representing LGBTQ characters in children’s and YA lit, the publishing world is only beginning to take on intersectional representations – characters with overlapping identities that include sexuality, gender, race, or economic class.
When Anna-Marie McLemore started writing When The Moon Was Ours (St Martin’s Griffin, Oct.), a fantasy novel about a transgender Pakistani-American boy named Sam and a gay Latina named Miel who has roses growing from her skin, she initially tried to make the story less queer and intersectional by making Sam white and Miel straight, out of nervousness. But the story didn’t take off until she embraced the range of identities embodying her protagonists. “At the heart of this book is my belief that transgender characters, queer characters, characters of color, deserve fairy tales,” McLemore said.
McLemore’s book features a rare intersectional hero and heroine, there are, however, a handful of releases where supporting characters have multiple identities around gender, sexual orientation, and economic class.
In Fiona Woods’s Cloudwish, (Little, Brown/Poppy, Oct.), the main character’s friend Jess – who hails from a Vietnamese-Australian household and lives in government-subsidized housing – considers herself a lesbian-in-waiting. “She can’t own it until she’s an adult and out of her parents’ house,” said editor Farrin Jacobs. “They don’t even want her to be around boys.”
And singer-songwriter Simon Curtis is releasing Boy Robot (Simon & Schuster, Oct.), first in a trilogy about soldier teens fighting against their government creators, has a supporting character – a black transgender woman – who oversees a safe house.
But Michael Strother, who edited Hartinger’s Three Truths and Curtis’s Boy Robot for S&S, acknowledges that intersectionality is still very rare. “It’s something that I would like to see change, and I ask for it in terms of submissions. To not have more POC LGBT characters is doing a disservice to readers who identify that way, because they don’t get to see themselves in the stories.”