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.