As briefly alluded to in this blog, I’ve been getting into a queer YA niche lately. While it’s not a genre without its problems—the predominance of the gay cismale experience, for example—the best queer YA fiction I’ve read has been gratifyingly good with intersectionality; David Levithan might be a white gay guy and thus best equipped to write about that experience, but his books are full of trans drag queens and multiethnic characters. It’s a refreshing change from a lot of mainstream fiction, in which even when heterosexuality isn’t necessarily a rule, there’s still the assumption of queer as something other, not quite there. All of which is to say, as much as I respect many within the #literaryestablishment, it’s the more niche writers—the fanfiction authors, the zinesters and independently published poets—where we’re seeing a lot of diversity popping up, the new vocabulary we’re putting together for a new way of interacting with the world and ourselves. Support your small presses, in other words.
Queer YA, apparently, hits one of these breeding zones for diverse fiction. As a genre geared towards teenagers, much of YA inevitably focuses on questions of identity; also as a genre geared towards teenagers, YA has less room for the kind of self-indulgent philosophizing a lot of serious literary writers seem to mistake (sorry, but if I have to read one about novel about being in your early 20s and wandering around New York trying to find yourself…) By virtue of its audience and the demands of its genre, YA is seemingly the perfect genre for exploring queer issues in a manner that is serious without being didactic. Which is not to say that queer YA can’t be didactic or dragging because oh yes, that’s totally out there as well—out of politeness and also because I couldn’t actually bring myself to finish these books, I’m not going to name names, but believe me, I’ve had experiences.
So then! If you’re new to this very particularly niche subgenre, then boy is this post ostensibly for you—ostensibly because I am in no way an expert and also because this is very definitely a way for me to just rant on about books I love. So let’s cut to chase—in proper fanfic manner, five queer YA novels that ruined me and one it would be criminal to leave out:
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue: It’s a well-established fact (or it should be) that I am absolutely, irresolutely, and unabashedly in love with this book. Queer seventeenth century road trip with your best friend you’re secretly in love with, with heaps and heaps of mutual pining plus pirates plus alchemy? You know I’m here for this shit. Also features biracial and asexual characters and nuanced discussions of racism, ableism, sexism, and abuse/PTSD? Hell to the fucking yes. There’s a reason I’ve been pushing this onto so many of my friends and look, I’ve already written a gushy blog post about it—go read that before I spend another 800 words on how much I love Mackenzie Lee.
For Today I Am A Boy: The debut novel of Kim Fu, For Today I Am A Boy focuses on Peter Huang, a Chinese-Canadian kid who, as the title may suggest, happens to be in the doubly marginalized position of being both a non-white immigrant and trans. Hilarity ensues, by which I mean deep, deep layers of repression and trauma for all family members involved! For Today I Am A Boy story goes beyond YA a bit in that a significant portion of the book features on Peter’s experiences as an adult, but it’s still a very lovely, heartbreaking read. The look into how queer issues tie into Asian expat issues/immigrant identity in general was also very appreciated, especially for someone who deals with said expat issues in her own life. I especially enjoyed the wealth of characterization given to the side characters, the distinct way the #immigrantstruggle manages to affect all of Peter’s sisters and how, even as Fu doesn’t shy away from showing how awful Peter’s father is, she allows him to exist within a context, where his actions—while not excusable—are nonetheless still understandable within a framework of toxic masculinity and how that’s exacerbated by being a stranger in a strange land. Blah blah lots of intersectionality! A fabulous example of that right here, with victories that are satisfyingly bittersweet.
The Art of Starving: Fun fact: I started this book for the mental health angle, and yet somehow I ended up reading interfaith and interracial queer YA. You just can’t escape sometimes, I guess. Anyways, so The Art of Starving centers around Matt, our teenager protagonist who, despite reading reading Kerouac and The Art of War, somehow formulates the idea that self-starvation will give him superpowers. Teenagers, right?
I know some people have worried that the central conceit of this novel glamorizes eating disorders, but having read quite a lot of literature on eating disorders, it’s incredibly accurate to the experience of anorexia—something that no doubt owes much to the fact that author was, in fact, once a gay boy with an eating disorder. The ending isn’t quite picture perfect, but it’s realistically hopeful. The romance, when it is present, is sweet, but it’s still very much a teen romance between two kids who still have a lot to figure out. Friendship, kindness, love—they help, but they’re not a panacea for self-worth, and that, I think, is something very valuable Miller does.
Two Boys Kissing: Two Boys Kissing was around the time I got into David Levithan and, consequently, around the time I started taking a more systematic approach towards seeking out and reading queer YA. Like many good things, I’m fairly certain I first found this at a local bookstore, and being who I am, the title immediately caught my eye.
I’m glad it did; not only is David Levithan one of the major names in queer YA, a dude who’s collaborated with John Green and had his work made into movies, Two Boys Kissing is actually a nicely nuanced take on queer teen desire. Revolving around the central conceit of two gay boys who (in grief, in defiance) decide to stage the world’s longest kiss, Two Boys Kissing proceeds in vignettes of other nearby gay couples, all narrated by a Greek chorus of the gay men lost to AIDS. By all accounts, David Levithan is a white cis gay guy, but this book manages to survey a wide range of the queer community and queer experiences, from the Korean American boy whose parents have almost no model for understanding him to the trans boy whose parents love but worry about him.
Skim: I’m going to be completely honest here: when I talk about queer YA focusing on the experiences of white cisguys, I’m very much also indicting my own reading habits. While a lot of my favorite media contains queer women, much of that media doesn’t quite fit the theme of what is ostensibly a book blog, and while I’m more than ready to talk about webcomics and podcasts in their own blog posts, they don’t quite belong here— hell, I’m already really wary of bringing comics in because then I’ll just go ON and ON about Hagio Moto and Riyoko Ikeda and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and literally no one needs that. But it feels weird to get this far into the list without talking about WLW fiction, and when I think of queer YA that specifically focuses on queer girls, Skim is one of the titles that immediately come to mind.
Like many of the other work mentioned above, Skim is more of a coming-of-age story than a straight (ha) romance, but the two elements play well together, I think. Centering around Kim Keiko Cameron, Skim is framed as a series of journal entries about the daily trials of being a depressed Wiccan Japanese-Canadian high school student slowly figuring out her own sexuality—so, you know, a generally fun time. Again, wonderful intersectionality and lovely, nuanced characters who are rarely as straightforward as their high school roles initially imply. Also pairs well with Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy (which I have read and enjoyed) and Jillian and Mariko’s This One Summer (which I have not read, but which features queer characters and is apparently also excellent).
(+1) The Song of Achilles
The myth, the legend, the book that turned what seemed like half of Tumblr into Greek mythology fangirls overnight. Look, I don’t really have to summarize this one, do I? If you’ve read The Iliad, you should know the deal: Achilles and Patroclus are not straight. Like, heavily, inspired ancient debates over who topped and who bottomed not straight, okay? Miller’s work in The Song in Achilles comes very much the same impulse that led to Wide Sargasso Sea and Wicked and any of those awful villain retelling movies Disney seems to love churning out these days: the desire to go deeper, to give life to those stories that were previously only on the margins. This is what Miller does with Patroclus in this book, beginning with his pre-Achilles days and moving towards Achilles’s post-Patroclus days. It’s a slow, unrushed romance, all the better for the extended timeframe their story gets—tragically short in the end, of course, but more than enough to see how these two people fit together. Beyond the lovely rendering of the titular relationship, Miller does interesting work with the divine/mortal question that’s so central to Greek mythology in general. Again, while I did enjoy the central romance, I appreciated how TSOA managed to encompass much more than that
There are many, many other lovely books that didn’t make this list, partially due to the specificity of this niche (Fun Home is great queer fiction, but I wouldn’t quite classify it as YA) or because they weren’t my absolute favorites—Perfect Ten was good, but it was also good in the way vanilla ice cream is good: pleasant without particularly standing out. And then, of course, all those books I have on my yet-to-read list—Autoboygraphy! Jaya and Rasa! Ramona Blue! Fuck, I haven’t even read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and I knew of its existence before the movie! All of which to say that this is a lovely, large field, one that I look forward to delving deeper into and which I hope will continue to continue growing in the future.