Posts tagged ‘YA literature’

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.

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

Rainbow Road, by Alex Sanchez (2005)

In the final installment of the Rainbow Boys trilogy, Jason, Kyle, and Nelson embark on a cross-country trip to L.A., where Jason has been invited to speak at the opening of a gay high school. Kyle and Jason are each nervous that so much concentrated time together might be detrimental to their relationship, but the lure of the open road and the promise of sleeping next to each other every night for two weeks is too good to resist. Nelson is along for the ride (after all, it’s his car), but his incessant smoking and flamboyance (particularly in redneck country) put everyone on edge.

On their trip, each boy confronts his own expectations about what it means to be gay or bisexual, worthy of love, and in a relationship. Nelson, Jason, and Kyle meet a number of characters, from Horn-Boy and Lady Bugger, members of a free-spirited gay mountain sanctuary; to BJ, a transgender teen outside of New Orleans who’s a dead-ringer for Britney Spears; to “heteroflexible” university students in Texas; to a gay couple celebrating their twenty-year anniversary—each of whom serves to broaden the friends’ definitions of themselves and each other.

Jason shrugged and sipped some of his Coke. He didn’t really like to label himself as “bi” because it made him feel like he didn’t belong in either group, straight or gay. Besides, he was boyfriends with Kyle, so didn’t that mean he was gay? He wanted to ask Evie and Keesha more about how they dealt with their “heteroflexibility.” Were they still attracted to guys? Did they feel like they fit in with hundred-percent lesbians?

Sanchez (2005), p. 130

In his third and final Rainbow Boys book, Sanchez shows the myriad ways in which people identify and express themselves, a furthering of the “coming out,” in that the label one gives oneself is often not completely accurate or fully inclusive. Coming out—again, that “lifelong process”—is more than an event. It is a journey to happiness. Rainbow Road is a testament to that.

Sanchez, A. (2005). Rainbow road. New York: Simon Pulse.

Lambda Literary Award 2005 Finalist

New York Public Library 2006 “Book for the Teen Age”

American Library Association 2009 “Popular Paperback for Young Adults”

Rainbow High, by Alex Sanchez (2003)

Rainbow High picks up right where Rainbow Boys leaves off. Kyle, Nelson, Jason, and others at Whitman High School are successful in starting a Gay-Straight Alliance, and meetings begin with the hope that they will help to alleviate some of the rampant homophobia in the school’s hallways. Kyle and Jason are together, but not publicly. Nelson has a new boyfriend, but he’s HIV positive, and Nelson’s nervous about his own HIV status after an unsafe one-night fling and how it will affect his relationship with Jeremy. Kyle has come out to his parents: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My mom cried that she’d never have grandkids. My dad argued all this stuff about it being a choice—the wrong choice. I told him it’s not like I asked to be gay. It’s just the way I am” (Sanchez, 2003, p. 4). Kyle endures taunts from his swim teammates and can’t count on his coach to back him up, but soon realizes he has an ally in his dad. Jason’s experience in coming out to his dad ended badly in the first book; his dad left the house in a rage, calling his son a “maricón.” Jason worries that by coming out to his own coach—and the rest of his team—he is putting a much-needed university scholarship in jeopardy. He seeks advice from the GSA advisor, art teacher Ms. MacTraugh:

“Coming out is a life-long process,” Ms. MacTraugh continued. “Each time we meet someone new or move to a different setting, we’re challenged to reveal who we are. It’s not always easy. But no matter how difficult, it’s something I’ve never regretted. So few things in life truly matter. Chief among them are being true to yourself, and being honest with others.”

Sanchez (2003), p. 69

Throughout the book we see that coming out to their parents and close friends is only one of the first steps in the “life-long process” for these teens. Jason, in particular, is seen as a role-model because of his basketball star status. Time after time he’s told to come out, or not come out, for that very reason. What will his teammates say? What will the school at large think? Does he have a responsibility to maintain a certain image because that’s what people expect? While Kyle has indeed come out at school (having added “AND PROUD” to the “QUEER” scratched into his locker door) he has yet to experience being part of a public couple, or to talk about boyfriend troubles with his mom. Sanchez‘s second book in the Rainbow Boys trilogy wrestles with these issues frankly, revealing the pain and triumphs for teens just beginning the “life-long process” of coming out.

Sanchez, A. (2003). Rainbow high. New York: Simon Pulse.

Lambda Literary Award 2003 Finalist

New York Public Library 2004 “Book for the Teen Age”