Haven’t heard of them? I guess you don’t read that much Young Adult (YA) literature. Which is a shame, you’re missing out. These books may be grouped under the label Young Adult, but Young Adult is not Adult exclusive (it has the word adult in it after all!). YA is not afraid to write realistically and evocatively of what young people experience. Significantly, the stories confront and embrace the varied experiences teens have with their genders and sexualities.
The phenomena of YA is often characterized as exploding into popular consciousness in the early ‘oughts, when I was in middle-school. It has only continued to blossom since then.
The difference between being an LGBT teen 10 years ago and in 2015 has huge implications. I came of age on the cusp of change - in legislation and popular attitudes as well as entertainment. Change was happening, but it was still on its way to being fully integrated into popular culture (in dynamic, interesting and varied ways that pushed beyond stereotypes), and it was still being inconsistently addressed or acknowledged in schools.
I didn’t have Netflix when I was middle school and high school. YouTube was still full of home videos (with occasional outliers—remember Lonely Girl 15 anyone?). I only started delving into Tumblr my senior year of high school!
But what I did have was books. YA was booming, and I began to have access to varied portrayals of young people going through struggles, exploring their sexualities, asserting their gender, challenging norms in ways that were both moving, intense and sometimes light-hearted. But there were some books I was afraid to read, books where the covers and the titles were (at least to my mind) clearly addressing LGBT characters. I was afraid of class mates seeing me with these books and fuelling the rumours. I was afraid of my parents being disappointed in me, in my persistence to pursue what they viewed as an inconvenient phase. And, a part of me found it almost painful to read about people living their lives and exploring themselves, when that seemed like such a distant possibility for me.
Last week, I sat at a sold out event at the Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus for the authors David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Ever Day, Another Day and many more), Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal), and Louise O’Neill (Only Ever Yours and Asking For It). It was the last day of the #NewDayNewNormal tour. The room was packed with an audience, dominantly, but not exclusively, teenagers, ecstatic to hear their favourite authors read from their new books. The authors discussed the opportunities and responsibilities of literature to challenge norms and to portray the lived realities of young people.
Being LGBT is not a trend. Feminism is not a trend. People (of all ages and identities) respond to this literature because of its emotional truth, because it’s real, because it’s funny, because it makes them think, because it’s beautiful writing.
The quality of this social change was evident through the young people in the audience who demand diverse writers of multiple identities. Young people are using the internet to connect, educate and campaign for equality in their books, media and legislation (look to Book Tube and the We Need More Diverse Books project to witness their passion).
I find it incredibly cathartic to read the books I was afraid to read when I was in high school, as well as the books that have been published since. Adolescence is rife with infinite literary and narrative possibilities, it’s a time when people form their identities and challenge what they know. Not everyone has the adolescence they would opt to have, these authors write the stories they wish they had in their youth. They are not bystanders. They see an absence in narrative and they fill it with their stories.
Read some YA. You won’t regret it.
Here are some resources to get you started:
- David Levithan, Louise O’Neil and Sarah Williamson.
- We Need Diverse Books
- The Autostraddle 20 Best Teen Novels For Queer Women
- The Guardian Best LGBT Books for Children and Teenagers
- Rich in Color is dedicated to reading, reviewing, talking about, and otherwise promoting young adult fiction starring people of color or written by people of color.
- UK Specific LGBT YA
- Inclusive Minds