The American Booksellers Association’s 16th Winter Institute was a streamlined affair this year, with booksellers logging in digitally to the three-day gathering. But the conference’s single track of sessions opened with momentum—a keynote by former President Barack Obama—and that spirit carried throughout in events rich with energy, from presenters and attendees alike.
“I knew that we could easily talk for three hours and the fact that we only have 40 minutes, it’s just not fair,” Scholastic v-p and editorial director David Levithan joked while moderating the LGBTQ+ romance panel. Like many of the sessions, the free-roving conversation took its own shape, with authors emphasizing young adult romance as a particularly well-suited genre for stories with expansive LGBTQ+ representation.
Many of the panelists are young adult authors themselves, including Dahlia Adler, author of Cool for the Summer; Aiden Thomas, author of Cemetery Boys; Phil Stamper, author of As Far as You’ll Take Me; and Paul Rudnick, author of Gorgeous. They were joined by Alyssa Cole, the wide-ranging romance and speculative fiction writer, and Red, White, & Royal Blue author Casey McQuiston who quipped, “I am an author of—for now—adult romances. We’ll see in the future.”
Youth was a unifying theme in a conversation that was largely about how to represent difference, respecting the wide and varied experiences that are possible for LGBTQ+ characters in romance, as well as the connections with real life. For Adler, writing Cool for the Summer was a way to explore something she did not get to have as a teen. Adler came out as bisexual in her late 20s. In the book, she wanted to represent characters going through the self-discovery without immediately falling into neat categories. “What happens through that journey of realizing that you’re queer…, and specifically, not really being able to point back to signs up until you found The One?” Adler wondered.
Where questioning and uncertainty are at the heart of Adler’s work, Cemetery Boys author Thomas wrote from the vantage point of a transgender character who has a firm sense of his identity. That meant creating a character who endures the pain of being a teenager in love, but not a stereotyped experience of what Thomas called “suffering because of his trans identity.”
Just as importantly, Thomas said, “I really wanted to present a love interest for a trans boy where he doesn’t have to teach the love interest how to love him. It’s an automatic understanding.”
For Stamper, delving into complexity was synonymous with creating a world that does not yet exist. In his first book, The Gravity of Us, he sought out a kind of wish fulfillment, creating a world in which there is no queer-phobia and the teen boy at the heart of the story has enormous confidence in his own identity, even if he does not have it in other parts of his life. “What does that mean? That means you can actually fall in love rather quickly. And have a really nice whirlwind romance,” Stamper said, “and you still have a ton of conflict in there.”
For booksellers, the chat box alongside the panel created an opportunity to share excitement, tips, ideas, and even a few words with the panelists, who joined the chat throughout the session. Stamper shared a memory with attendees, writing, “My first job at 12 was shelving books in a library—getting locked in a bookstore overnight was my favorite fantasy, equal to getting locked in a bakery overnight.”
In opening remarks, bookseller Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Books reminded attendees of a business point about romance books; they generate well over $1 billion in sales every year. The brass-tacks numbers were never far from conversation throughout the conference, which necessarily focused on the challenging road ahead for booksellers. But for a few moments, romance and YA provided a different focus for readers and authors alike.
After Stamper said he was constantly looking for ways to have more kissing in As Far as You’ll Take Me, Rudnick took to the chat, writing, “There should be more kissing in all books, even nonfiction.” A volley of booksellers replied, “Always the kissing”; “More kissing”; “lolol more kissing? yes please!”