Another Pride Month Reflection: Recommendations

My initial Pride wrap-up turned out to be less of a wrap-up and more of a personal ramble. I had intended to include a list of my favorite LGBTQ novels for young people, but the post got too long. So! Here are some of my faves.

Please note that because I am cis*, I’m not a good authority on good books about trans characters, and I especially don’t want to speak over any trans people. This list mostly focuses on lesbian characters — which unfortunately are almost always cisgender in fiction — and other wlw. To supplement, I recommend checking out what trans and nonbinary writers have to say about their favorites.

1. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (Balzer + Bray, 2013)

This is my go-to lesbian YA recommendation. I don’t love the writing — Danforth’s style is too repetitive for me, her sentence structures don’t vary much — but the story more than makes up for it. Although Cameron’s story takes place in 1990’s Montana, it reminds me painfully of my childhood, which was spent in a small conservative Kentucky town almost the exact same size as Miles City. When I read this book, I feel Cameron’s pain and fear and anger deep in my gut. The sense of place, the love, the betrayal and hurt, are so particular and poignant they sweep you away. This novel really highlights the struggles of being gay in a small town, even as recently as the 90s — and in particular the very real danger of “conversion therapy”. Don’t worry, though; Cameron Post isn’t all depressing. It’s funny as hell, and the open ending is achingly hopeful.

2. Ash by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

I read Ash in junior or senior year of high school, when I was first starting to dip my toes into gay fiction. At that point I was pretty sure I liked girls, although I wasn’t especially happy about it. Paranormal romance and fairytale retellings were already big, but in general they were pretty aggressively straight — a teen lesbian only had to look at the covers to feel alienated.** Ash was the first fantasy romance I read that featured a wlw protagonist. It plays brilliantly with paranormal fantasy tropes. For instance, it features a sort of Cullesque, magical, immortal, creepy male — except that he’s intentionally creepy, unlike Edward and his ilk. Sidhean, who takes the place of the fairy godmother in this Cinderella retelling, claims Ash’s love for his own, binding them together. In another novel, he might have been the genuine love interest, bound to Ash, fated to be with her whether she likes it or not. Instead he’s the villain, and Ash lives happily ever after without him. And with another girl.

3. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

You’ve heard about this book, right? It’s a historical novel featuring two Mexican-American boys falling in love, written by a Mexican-American gay man. People adore it. Its cover can barely contain all its awards. Also, its cover is beautiful. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? Sure, Alire Sáenz’s style is off-putting for a lot of people — it’s rather stiff and stunted, whereas YA is usually much more expressive. But it contains such beautiful observations and compelling characters, it’s hard not to fall in love. The romance is tender, gradual, and real; the questions it asks, and the answers it finds (or doesn’t find), are compelling.

4. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2017)

I mentioned this book in my other Pride post, but I’ll talk about it again. In fact, I might never stop talking about it. I love We Are Okay, and I desperately wish it had existed when I was a freshman in college, when I was heartbroken, when I was afraid of both my old life and my new. It’s hard to explain exactly what this book is about; I can only say that it’s quiet, it’s surprising, it’s sad, it’s lovely, and it makes my heart ache. I cried for hours after I finished it. Seriously. It’s nice to read a book about a wlw that makes me cry not because of a dead lover but because of its enormous, complicated truths. If you need any more praise, know that I (irrationally) dislike present tense and tend to avoid it if I can; yet at least half of this book was in present tense, and I devoured it in a day.

5. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (Scholastic, 2011)

Heavy handed? Sure. Fun as hell? You better believe it. Beauty Queens is a sort of ensemble comedy about a group of beauty pageant contestants who crash onto an island and are menaced by the subtly named Corporation. There are all kinds of girls in this group, each coming from a different background: an Indian-American girl who wants to be a DJ, a conservative Christian Texan who evolves into a killing machine, a trans girl trying to use the pageant to challenge transphobia, a lesbian who used to be in juvenile prison and who loves comics. I won’t say this book is perfect — it’s heavy handed, like I said, and although its diversity can be refreshing, it should be noted that that the trans character and characters of color are written by a cis white woman rather than by an “Own Voices” author. Still, it’s a unique, enjoyable book, one of the funniest I’ve read.

* I have some gender weirdness, but I still basically identify with the gender I was assigned at birth.

** Teens of color, disabled teens, and fat teens were also generally excluded from this sexy and lucrative category of books.

Read Who You Are: Pride Month Reflection and Wrap-Up

220px-WolfcryI remember the first time I read a book that featured a gay protagonist. I was thirteen, and my band section leader (a senior whom I looked up to immensely) had recommended the Kiesha’ra series by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Eager to please, I read the whole series. The ending of the fourth book, Wolfcry, hit me like a train. Spoiler alert for a decade-old book: The protagonist falls in love with another girl. It happens gradually, but I was so unused to seeing wlw romance that I didn’t see it coming. I was shocked. I read the scene over and over. In the car with my section leader, who was giving me a ride home, I told her I’d finished the book.

“I liked that one,” she said. “Except for the ending.”

I deflated. I didn’t know why that made me feel bad, but it did. A few months after that I watched RENT, which quickly became my favorite movie. It was the first time I’d ever seen gay and trans characters onscreen.

Three years later I read Mrs. Dalloway on the recommendation of my fantastic chemistry teacher, who almost definitely knew exactly why I needed it. Again, I had no idea that the book would contain a f/f romance until it happened. I remember right where I was when I read it — sitting at a high school jazz festival, reading between band performances.

I was in high school in the early-mid 2000’s. At that point, people were starting to come around to LGBTQ rights, at least a little bit: Massachusets had already leagalized marriage equality; Glee, for all its many* flaws, was beginning to make gay and trans representation hip; Albus Dumbledore was a gay man, or so we were told. But I lived in a very conservative, very small town in Kentucky. I had literally not met an openly queer person in my life. Ever. My senior year, the school principal, who happened to also be a band mom, combed through the marching band looking for closeted gay students; the ones she found, she outed to their parents. One girl was kicked out of her home. In English and political science classes, the morality of being gay — not just of marriage equality  but of the state of being gay — was debated. I was deeply afraid of being gay; when I developed my first crush on a girl in eighth grade, I didn’t tell anyone for three and a half years.

Yesterday I was combing through my childhood bedroom and I found an old Moleskine notebook from senior year of high school. After a paragraph about a girl I liked, I wrote,

God, if she ever read this she’d hate me. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. I’m trying to fix myself. I’m trying so hard.

When it came to my sexuality, the only self-expression I knew was shame. You can see, then, why I latched onto any story that contained girls who like girls. I’m staunchly against the idea that a single “diverse” book can magically fix a child’s life; that seeing their identity on the page, no matter how thinly represented, can suddenly make them feel whole. But at the same time, reading Wolfcry and Mrs. Dalloway and watching RENT — those were significant moments in my life. They did change something in me. I was starving for something, anything that looked like what I was going through. I was a writer, but I didn’t know how to write about myself. I knew how to write because I read, and I’d never read anything about being gay; I had no idea how to tackle that part of me. Finding books with gay characters helped me learn how to write about it, and writing about it helped me come to terms with it and then to feel proud. When I heard that House of Hades, a spinoff of one of my favorite series and a hugely popular book, featured a major gay character, I cried. I was twenty, I hadn’t read the book yet, but I cried. I imagined being a kid and reading that scene. I imagined how overwhelmed I’d have been. I imagined how many kids were reading it now and beginning to see themselves, the way I had in Wolfcry.

But it’s still true that this is a process, and that a single book will never be able to substitute for that process — especially if it’s written by a cis straight person. That’s why we need a whole lot of books written by a whole lot of different people with different experiences, fantasy books and sci-fi and realistic fiction, books that appeal to a lot of different kids. So they can see their lives in characters like themselves and characters unlike themselves and start to understand all the various ways in which they can express their own inner lives.

WeAreOkay_NinaLaCour-780x438Even at age twenty-three, out and proud and having read a plethora of books about LGBTQ characters, I haven’t completed this process. My latest heart-stopping reading experience came after finishing We Are Okay, a (beautiful) YA novel featuring a wlw protagonist. In her acknowledgments page, Nina LaCour mentions her wife and daughter. I know so few married lesbians, let alone ones with kids, that I haven’t yet internalized the idea that being gay does not mean I cannot have a family. So every time I read something like that, I have to take a few moments to gather myself. I’m still having those moments, unlearning the fear and self-hate I’d internalized growing up.

578935752400002600b316a4Ours is a community plagued by self-doubt, terror, mental illness, substance abuse. It’s also one that has always determinedly expressed itself even when expression meant visibility and visibility often meant violence. From Stonewall to James Baldwin to Janet Mock, LGBTQ people have used words to fight for their humanity — whether those words are in spoken protest, on a sign, or in a book. That expression is brave and it is vital, because it gives others the opportunity to read who they are and then write who they are and say who they are and shout who they are from the rooftops.

There’s more and more shouting these days. I’m proud to join in, to shout for those who can’t or who haven’t yet found their voice. That’s where Pride and literature intersect for me — in a glorious cacophony.

*many many many many many many…etc.