Posts tagged ‘fiction’

Introduction to the Fiction Section

General Themes in LGBTQ Literature for Young Adults

The first novel written specifically for young adults featuring a LGBTQ protagonist was I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan, published in 1969. This novel tells the story of two boys who fall for each other, are discovered together and through a tragedy, are scared straight.  While this storyline does not seem the most enlightened in the 21st century, it was a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the time which suggested that homosexuality was a disorder which could be fixed (Martin & Murdock, 2007, p. 84).  Fortunately a greater amount of LGBTQ young adult fiction was written in the 1970s and 1980s, but these books were typically “problem novels” in which the protagonist grappled with the “issue” of homosexuality.  Often, the difficulties of coming out were the focus of these novels and took precedence over character development or plot.  It is in the 1990s that more nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ characters began to appear, and by the 2000s new “forms, faces, genres, themes, voices [and] narrative strategies” were commonplace in novels for young adults (Cart & Jenkins, 2006, p. 128).

Our Project Focus

We wished to look at novels which are most applicable to the experiences of teens today and did not present LGBTQ identity primarily as a problem, yet at the same time acknowledged that coming out still remains a central issue among LGBTQ teens.  Additionally, 75% of the LGBTQ literature from the 1970s and 1980s featured only gay boys (Martin & Murdock, 2007, p. 85), under-representing or ignoring the experiences of lesbians, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals as well as most racial minority members.   For these reasons we chose to focus our reviews on literature from 1990 to 2011, hoping for more representative and complex portrayals of LGBTQ young adults.

In the Fiction Review Section we have chosen a number of titles that represent some of the best works of LGBTQ young adult fiction over the last two decades.  These novels tell the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning teens from a diversity of racial and cultural backgrounds.  We have examined how they experience “coming out” and highlight these profound and diverse experiences, some of which are uplifting and some heartbreaking. We hope that through expanding our knowledge of this literature, we will be in a better position to assist LGBTQ young adults who come to the library most in need of these stories.

Chronological List of Reviewed Titles

References

Cart, M. & Jenkins, C.A. (2006). The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004.  Toronto: The Scarecrow Press.

Martin, H.J. & Murdock, J.R. (2007). Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

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Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher (2009)

Almost Perfect

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher is a story told by Logan Witherspoon, a high school senior in small-town Missouri.  He is upset about – and borderline obsessed with – the recent breakup with his ex-girlfriend, Brenda.  Then Sage Hendricks moves into town and changes his world: she is tall, vivacious and beautiful in her own quirky way.  Sage and Logan hit it off immediately, but she is not allowed to see him outside of school, and sometimes she reacts strangely to his touch.  Sage is obviously keeping a secret from him.  They finally kiss, and Sage reveals the truth: she was born a boy.  Logan reacts with anger, and treats Sage badly for weeks.  He is confused: if he was (and still is) attracted to a male, does that make him gay?  Does anyone else know that Sage is really a boy?  Logan eventually realizes that Sage desperately needs a good friend, so he decides to reach out to her and rekindle their friendship.  He cannot help but see Sage as a girl, and he finds himself falling in love with her.   Almost Perfect is an honest exploration of an uncommon relationship and a topic that is seldom discussed.

Throughout the course of the novel, very few characters know that Sage was born a boy, and they have a variety of reactions.  Logan is angry, and later finds himself cycling through feelings of love, disgust, and fear.

Why couldn’t she just be a real girl?  Our lives would be great.  She was so close to the real thing.  But close didn’t count. (p. 285)

Sage’s parents are permissive, but not supportive: they only allow her to live as a female because of a suicide attempt.  They forced her to be homeschooled for several years and moved to another town so that no one would find out her secret.  Sage’s sister Tammi is loving and very protective, but she feels guilty for encouraging Sage to become a girl: Tammi knows how much easier Sage’s life would be as a normal boy.  Logan’s sister is immediately accepting: she thinks Sage is a wonderful person, and could not care less that Sage was born male.  An unnamed college student has an unfortunately violent reaction: Sage is badly beaten and left for dead.  Will this incident convince Sage to go back to being a boy?

Katcher, B. (2009). Almost Perfect. New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Not the Only One: Lesbian and Gay Fiction for Teens, edited by Jane Summer (2004)

Not the Only One

Not the Only One: Lesbian and Gay Fiction for Teens is a collection of short stories edited by Jane Summer.  The stories generally do not deal directly with “coming out,” but the reader still sees the consequences of coming out (or not, as the case may be).  Perhaps “coming out” is too complicated a theme to discuss within the confines of a short story.  Below is the discussion of two individual stories.

“Fooling Around” by Claire McNab

“Brett – how could you?”

“Mum, we were only fooling around.”

“Fooling around?  Fooling around!”

“Give me a break –” (p. 53)

Brett has been caught kissing his friend Steve, but he isn’t ready to admit to his parents that he’s gay.  Brett tells his mother that it was no big deal, that they were drinking and it didn’t mean anything.  Besides, Brett has a girlfriend.  Brett’s mother is very upset, and concerned about what everyone will think when they find out that her son was fooling around with a boy.  Martin, Brett’s father, arrives home mid-argument.  His reaction is surprising: he doesn’t seem even remotely affected by the news, and he advises Brett to make a joke of it.  Martin later reveals the truth: he himself is gay, but decided that it was better to get married and have a family than to live as a gay man.  Brett admits to Martin that he wasn’t just fooling around, and the reader is left wondering whether or not Brett will make the same decision as his father.

“Her Sister’s Wedding” by Judith P. Stelboum

Veronica has never told her family about her long-time girlfriend Leslie.  Her family has no inkling that she is a lesbian: they have always assumed that she would meet a nice man and get married.  Veronica is at her sister’s wedding, and is feeling the pressure to get married more than ever.  She gets set up with her new brother-in-law’s cousin, Buddy.  Buddy seems genuinely interested in her, and is obviously looking for a wife.  Veronica is not interested, but enjoys having her family’s approval.  Will she give in to the pressure and marry a man, or will Veronica be true to herself and tell her family that she is in love with a woman?  The story ends thus (p. 98):

She followed him outside, and he lifted his arm to wave goodbye.  And in that moment she realized she had to stop the panic attacks, the lying, the pretense.  If she didn’t do it now, there would be a million excuses not to do it later.  She turned back to the party and looked first for her brother, Terry.

Summer, J. (2004). Not the Only One: Lesbian and Gay Fiction for Teens. Los Angeles: Alyson Books.

So Hard to Say, by Alex Sanchez (2004)

Frederick is new to San Cayetano Middle School, and he immediately catches the eye of Xio, the beautiful, vivacious member of the self-proclaimed “Las Sexy Seis” (the Sexy Six). Any number of boys would want to trade places with Frederick, so he can’t figure out why he doesn’t feel for Xio the same way she does for him. Xio takes Frederick’s ambivalence for shyness and does everything in her power to accomplish that all-important first kiss.

While Xio pines for Frederick, Frederick notices Victor, the friendly, affectionate jock who invites him to play soccer after school. He finds himself drawn to Victor, and even, at one confusing moment, imagining what it would feel like to kiss him. Then there’s Iggy, the dimpled enigma who endures endless teasing in the hallways. Victor and his friends taunt Iggy, calling him “maricón,” and the Sexies also talk about the rumor that Iggy is gay when Frederick sits with them at lunch:

“Here comes Iggy!” Nora interrupted.

I followed her gaze across the lunchroom to the Mexican boy I’d noticed in the hall my first day—the one who smiled like he knew me. Dimpled Guy.

“You mean icky,” Carmen murmured, making a sour face. “I think maricónes are so gross.”

“En serio?” María put down her yogurt. “You really think he’s gay?”

I recalled the boys picking on him, but I knew that calling someone gay didn’t mean they actually were gay. It was simply a put-down, like: “That’s so gay. He’s so gay. Those French fries are so gay.” Everyone said it all the time.

Sanchez (2004), p. 39

Even at this point, Frederick is far from going beyond the questions he has about himself to being able to conclude that he, himself, might be gay. The taunts are taken with a grain of salt, as Frederick observes, because it’s simply “a put-down”—nothing more. Yet, when Carmen asks him if he is gay one day at lunch, Frederick gets very defensive. Xio observes:

I’d never really seen him mad before, but I couldn’t blame him. Everyone knows calling someone gay is just about the worst thing you can say to them. And asking them if they’re gay is like telling them you think they are gay.

Sanchez (2004), p. 83

Once Carmen asks him if he’s gay (even though it’s meant more as a “put-down,” than a sincere, though prying question), Frederick begins to wonder. If Iggy is gay, how did he know? He begins to research on the Internet and finds a story of a basketball player who has come out to his school. “He didn’t look gay,” Frederick thinks. “I mean, he just looked normal.” And so begins his journey towards self-discovery. Towards the end of the novel, Frederick has made leaps and bounds, though he hasn’t yet come out to his parents. Even the students at San Cayetano become a little more aware that their words have power. Switching perspective between Frederick and Xio, Sanchez’s book is a sweet story of thirteen-year-old kids—both gay and straight—coming to understand themselves, at the beginning of their young-adult years.

Sanchez, A. (2004). So hard to say. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lambda Literary Award 2004 Winner

Down to the Bone, by Mayra Lazara Dole (2008)

Down to the Bone

Laura Amores is a tortillera: a girl who loves girls.

In Down to the Bone, by Mayra Lazara Dole, Laura is a Cuban-American teen living in Miami. When her teacher (“Sister Fart Face”) reads aloud a letter from Laura’s girlfriend, Laura is abandoned by most of her friends, kicked out of her ultra-conservative high school, and banned from her home by her mother. Laura will only be allowed to come back home and see her younger brother if she changes and marries a man. Laura’s beloved girlfriend, Marlena, is forced to move back to Puerto Rico, where she decides to marry a man to appease her conservative Christian family. Laura has to decide between living a lie in order to regain her mother and brother, or being true to herself and possibly losing her family forever.

The characters in this book have one of two reactions when they find out that Laura is a tortillera: they are either fiercely supportive of her or violently opposed to her sexuality. When Laura is kicked out of her house, she goes to live with her best friend Soli and Soli’s mother: they are loving and nurturing, and encourage Laura to forget Marlena and date other girls. Laura also receives a lot of support from her new friend Tazer, who is “genderqueer” or a “boi” (that is, Tazer was born a girl but identifies as a boy; he does not want to undergo gender assignment surgery to become genetically male).

Many of Laura’s other close friends and family members abandon her when they find out she is gay. Her friends call her “revolting” and spit on her. Her teachers tell her she is immoral and deviant. She is nearly assaulted with a knife at work. Her mother has a strong negative reaction, and obviously believes that being gay is a sinful choice that Laura is making (2008, pp. 17, 27):

On our way home I try to reason with her: “Let me explain.”

She yanks my hair. “Explain? You’re a disgrace to our family name. If your father were alive, he’d die right now… I’ve never been so humiliated and embarrassed in all my life.”

Mami pushes me out the front door. I stumble and almost fall, but I don’t. “I’m sorry, Laura, but I can’t continue loving you if you stay gay.”

Laura’s love for her family and her desire for acceptance are so strong that she finds a boyfriend and considers marrying him. She cannot admit, even to herself, that she is a lesbian. Despite her difficult situation, Laura never loses her sense of humour and her fire.  Her lively narration gives the reader a sense of what it is like to be a gay person in Cuban American culture.

Dole, M. L. (2008). Down to the Bone. HarperTeen.

ALA Booklist Top Ten First Novels for Youth

ALA Rainbow Books highly recommended title

Américas Award Commended Titles (2009)

10 Outstanding LGBT Teen Reads (from the last 10 years)

Luna, by Julie Anne Peters (2004)

Luna

Luna by Julie Anne Peters is a story about a male-to-female transgendered teen. Born as a boy named Liam, she can only reveal true self – Luna – at night. The story is told by Luna’s younger sister, Regan. Regan is the only person who truly knows Luna, and helps Liam transform into Luna every night in the secrecy of Regan’s bedroom. Liam/Luna is suffocating under the weight of concealing her true self, and knows that she must become Luna permanently. But will her family and friends accept her once they know the truth?

Regan has always known that her brother was different. She is fiercely protective and supportive of Liam/Luna, and though she is a bit conflicted about her brother, her support (almost) never wavers. For example, when Luna announces her intent to transition and have sex reassignment surgery (pp. 70-71):

Why did this shock me? Because I never allowed myself to go there.

He called to my back, “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Don’t desert him, my brain screamed. Don’t do this. Don’t let him down. Don’t let him know.

He asked more softly, “You understand, don’t you?”

I stopped in the threshold, my eyes squeezing shut. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Holding my stomach, I opened my eyes and forced a smile over my shoulder. “Well, yeah,” I lied. “Of course.”

Regan and Liam/Luna have a complicated relationship. Liam is exceptionally intelligent and popular at school; Regan goes virtually unnoticed, except when her teachers are unfavourably comparing her to Liam. At the same time, Regan and Luna seem to share one life, and Regan is willing to sacrifice everything to help Luna. Liam realizes that just as he must free himself to become Luna, he must free Regan to become her own person as well.

The other characters in the story have a variety of reactions to Luna. Liam’s best friend Aly has been in love with him since they were children: she is upset when she learns the truth about Liam/Luna, but is beginning to accept Luna by the end of the novel. Liam’s father, who is very traditional in his beliefs about gender roles, has an extremely negative reaction to Luna. He is angry, almost to the point of physical violence; after the confrontation, he falls into a near-catatonic state. Regan is afraid to let her new boyfriend, Chris, know about her brother/sister: she is pleasantly surprised when Chris accepts the situation without hesitation.

Liam/Luna’s mother has the most interesting reaction of all. Through Regan’s memories, the reader can see that there have been many clues to Liam’s gender identity ever since the children were young: Liam asked for a bra for his ninth birthday; as a very young boy, he begged his mother to take off his penis, and then found a knife and tried to do it himself; his mother caught Liam/Luna dressed in her clothes and makeup. But when confronted with the truth, the mother feigns deafness and amnesia as if nothing is going on. The mother has known all along, but she felt the truth was “unspeakable” (p. 241).

Luna is a poignant and touching story about the search for identity and the strength of love between siblings.  The story gives the reader insight into how harmful it can be not to come out: in this case, the secrecy erodes Liam/Luna’s family as well as Luna’s true self.  It costs Luna a lot to come out to everyone, but the reader can see how much better her life will be because of it.

Peters, J. A. (2004). Luna. Little, Brown Young Readers.

National Book Award Finalist
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Stonewall Honor Book
Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Sprout, by Dale Peck (2009)

Sprout, the 2009 novel by Dale Peck, explores the life of Daniel “Sprout” Bradford, who is taken from Long Island to a small Kansas town by his grieving father. This novel explores the teen experience of coming out, but encompasses a different view of such an event because Sprout’s mother has passed away: the reactions of his surviving parent and peers are influenced by this added dimension.

The focus of the story is on the dynamics between Mrs. Miller and Sprout.  Mrs. Miller is a teacher at the Hutchinson, Kansas school who takes an interest in Sprout’s writing potential, and much of his character development is instigated by her influence. It is with her prodding to improve his writing that Sprout is enabled to analyze himself in terms of his sexuality, though he never denies homosexuality. One suspects that the one reason Sprout dyes his hair green is that it is a way of expressing his state of being without having to articulate it. Mrs. Miller points this out but ironically she fears that an essay pertaining to Sprout’s sexuality might jeopardize his winning a state writing competition she has pushed him into doing.  Mrs. Miller serves as a supporter who crosses a lot of boundaries (some of them inappropriate, supplying him with alcoholic drinks in her home), but at the same time is a major figure in leading Sprout to suppress his feelings, for which she later expresses regret and reverses (p. 273).

Readers are only occasionally provided the reaction of Sprout’s peers except that he is generally picked last in selecting sports teams, despite his running ability. His best friend Ruthie has pigeonholed him as a relationship failure, but what she does not know is that he has already begun fooling around with the same boy she is after, Ian. Ian himself is furtive as the affair carries on in the janitor’s closet for four years, and he is never exposed for his involvement with Sprout.  In fact, Ian later impregnates Ruthie, perhaps to prove a point (p. 262).

Sprout’s mother never gets to have her say on the matter of his sexuality, but the tension her absence creates makes Sprout’s father have sloppier and more erratic reactions.

A year earlier, when my dad found a couple of gay sites in the cache of Internet Explorer, he threw my dictionary into our PC. I think he thought I’d learned how to be gay from the web, although the truth is I’d only looked at those kinds of sites after I was pretty sure about myself…

“I should have seen it coming. Absent mother, poor role model for a father. I apologize, son. I should have found a maternal figure for you.” (p. 70-71)

The initial hostility of Sprout’s father indicates that he sees his son’s sexuality as another blow or failing. Unlike many parents with a negative view, however, he does not blame his child. His father has also developed alcoholism in the wake of his mother’s death, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances cloud some knowledge as to how the father might react under less duress. Immediately after the first verbal acknowledgement of the situation, his father asks his son to pass him a beer.

     “That’s it? A beer?”

“Oh, okay, two.”

Dad.”

     He didn’t meet my eyes. “Hey. You’re a fag. I’m a drunk. Nobody’s perfect.” … “That was mean. You’re gay. I’m an alcoholic.”

     “Just promise me you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want to have to identify my son at the morgue.” (p. 72)

The father cannot be said to offer any support to Sprout, but his reaction is more indicative of an overall instability and responsiveness to the external culture that might compromise his son’s safety.

Finally, Sprout’s father slowly does a few things that might be considered marginally supportive of his son’s sexuality and overall well-being. He leaves a condom in his son’s room, prominently placed, and with a note that states: “I don’t want to know. But I don’t want you dead either” (p. 135). When Sprout’s love interest, Ty, runs away from an abusive home after Sprout does not stand up for him, his father finally pulls his act together and tries to put a show of tough support for his devastated son, but it is too late in some ways.

Sprout is a work that shows a coming out development period that happens over a number of years, with a few defining, dramatic moments. There are no major moments of affirming support or endangering rejection to the announcement, perhaps suspending Sprout’s ability to become as comfortable with the idea of a relationship with a boy as he is with his sexuality.

Peck, D. (2009). Sprout. New York: Bloomsbury.

ALA Stonewall Book Award Winner in 2010

Lambda Nomination (Dale Peck blog)