Books featuring characters with marginalized identities often highlight pain and adversity, treating identity as a burden. By contrast, several of this season’s YA novels spotlight queer love, many through BIPOC protagonists. While struggle and survival are important themes to explore in literature, the authors and editors say, so too is joy.

Philline Harms, debut author of Never Kiss Your Roommate (Wattpad, June), emphasizes the necessity of books that validate queer identity. “Especially for teenagers like me, who live in a small town and don’t have exposure to the community, seeing characters thrive in fiction is so affirming, and reading these kinds of stories was so crucial to my self-acceptance journey,” says Harms, who is 19 and grew up in Germany. “You can be queer and have a happy ending; the two aren’t mutually exclusive.” Her plot focuses on two couples at an exclusive boarding school, including roommates Evelyn and Noelle, and plays with campus novel conventions. “LGBTQ fiction doesn’t have to be heavy to be meaningful,” she says. “Fun, trope-y stories that center queer joy are just as powerful and important.”

In Jay’s Gay Agenda by Jason June (HarperTeen, June), Jay Collier relocates from his small town to Seattle and finds a sex-positive and accepting culture at his new high school. He can now check off all the things on his romance to-do list—his gay agenda. “Jay experiences his first love, his first hookup, his first heartbreak,” says Megan Ilnitzki, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. “I want readers to know that LGBTQ love is beautiful and layered and so worthy of being talked about in books and stories.”

Other new and forthcoming releases also aim to convey this complexity: in Some Girls Do by Jennifer Dugan (Putnam, May), Morgan, an openly gay track star, falls for Ruby, a closeted, bisexual teen beauty queen; in The Sky Blues by Robbie Couch (S&S, out now), a promposal goes all wrong when Sky Baker, an out gay teen in a small town, asks his crush, Ali, to the big dance.

Fake it ’til you make it

Several BIPOC authors are taking on the fake dating trope—a beloved rom-com hallmark—and making it their own.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids, June) concerns two Irish Bengali girls, one Indian, the other Bangladeshi, both comfortable in their sexuality. Popular Hani, who has never dated a girl before, wants to prove to her disbelieving friends that she’s bisexual; nerdy Ishu agrees to a sham relationship because she thinks it will help her campaign to become head girl.

The book also offers a rarely represented story about the diversity and complexity of the South Asian diasporic experience. “I like writing that happy ending, because not all of us can get that happy ending,” Jaigirdar says. “I’m also excited for people to learn about Bengali culture.” Her characters speak different languages at home —Sylheti and Shudh (or Standard) Bangla—and have distinct family experiences, she explains. “I hope readers connect to these characters who are very different, but also very Bengali.”

In Emery Lee’s debut, Meet Cute Diary (Quill Tree, May), Noah Ramirez—who, like the author, is Black, Latinx, and Asian—is a transgender teen whose blog, a collection of fictional trans meet-cutes, is believed by his readers to be true. After a troll threatens to expose the stories as a ruse, Drew enters Noah’s life, offering to fake-date him to save the popular website.

Like a Love Song by Gabriela Martins (Underlined, Aug.) kicks off when Natalie, a Latina pop star, is dumped on live television. Her PR team engineers a fake boyfriend: William, a bisexual British indie actor. Eventually, the faux relationship leads to real love. “The discovery of a safe space where queer kids, Latina kids can be joyful and fall in love—that’s so compelling for readers,” says Hannah Hill, associate editor at Delacorte Press and Underline. “The author’s first priority for the story is to create a protected space for these characters to grow and be celebrated.”

With Love & Other Natural Disasters (HarperTeen, June), Misa Sugiura adds another emotional layer to her fake dating/summer romance plotline: the main character, Nozomi Nagai, grapples with her Japanese American grandmother’s disapproval of the queer community. “It has heaviness, but it’s also a fun, light book that centers four girls that’s just about the hijinks and the shenanigans and crushes, and normalizes queer love and romance,” Sugiura says. “It also says that maybe we can’t always have the dreamy love story that we’re hoping for, but we can find a way to be okay with that.”

All’s well that ends well

Like Sugiura’s rom-com, other forthcoming romances featuring BIPOC characters address weightier themes while making space for the happily ever after. In The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons (Dial, June), Spencer Harris, who is Black and a talented soccer player, enrolls at a new high school where no one knows he’s trans. When a discriminatory law similar to many in the news forces Harris’s coach to bench him, Spencer has to address coming out (again) as well as a burgeoning romance with a classmate.

“Isaac has said that his goal is to foster empathy through joy and not pain, and that’s really evident in this book,” says Ellen Cormier, editor at Dial Books for Young Readers. “But it doesn’t shy away, or put an unrealistic gloss on, how difficult it can be to be a queer or trans person in cis/het society, where the world and the rules are not made for someone like you.”

Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa (Skyscape, June) is set in Corpus Christie, Tex., where social conservatism and machismo run deep. High school senior Julián Luna keeps his sexuality a secret until a drunken tweet outs him; Mat, who slides into Julián’s DMs, helps him navigate a new life that is openly gay. “In my author’s note, I wanted to be upfront about the fact that the book deals with heavy topics, but also that much joy is written into it,” Garza Villa says. “The main characters find support in each other; their connection is really pure and hopeful.”

Garza Villa notes that they’re particularly happy to share shelf space with other books about BIPOC queer teenagers. “I love that these books aren’t just from a white-written gaze or a cis-written gaze,” they add. “There are so many different viewpoints. It’s beautiful and encouraging that we can grab all of these books now.”

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.

Below, more on kids' LGBTQ books.

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LGBTQ Kids’ Books 2021: Q & A with Margot Wood
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