There’s long since been an intense and ongoing debate regarding whether or not adults should read YA. While it may be true that they aren’t the target audience, they ARE the audience: approximately 55% of YA readers are actually adults. This phenomenon is particularly understandable when viewing the numbers through an LGBT+ lens: even ten years ago, queer characters were difficult to find. It’s possible that many of us are returning to coming-of-age stories that represent our own comings-of-age. Of course, many of the initial LGBT+ books on the market were tales of personal tragedy, coming-out stories gone wrong and ceaseless emotional rejections. Genre fiction gives us all the possibilities that this world—and any others—have to offer.
I hope that these ten novels might change your life the way that they’ve changed mine. As readers and storytellers, the stories we most often search for are our own.
Grasshopper Jungle is the best story you’ll ever read about a horde of horny mutant grasshoppers laying siege to rural Iowa. While it may be the only book you ever read on the topic, the book is most surprising in its deep sincerity. There’s no trace of irony or artifice; our main character records the history of the end of the world in all its minute, human details. There’s the chain-smoking, and the rooftop loitering, and the way that ordinary words like kayak or dynamo can take on larger significance in that specific language we share with the people who are closest to us. The smallest details of Ealing, IA become important because Austin thinks they are. They matter because they matter to him.
Bisexual protagonist Austin knows just about everything except for the fact that he’s bisexual—that there’s a reason he feels torn between his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby Brees. But it feels like the end of the world… and, really, Austin isn’t so far off. Grasshopper Jungle is the unselfconscious story of understanding ourselves by understanding the things that connect us—and the significance in every one.
Strong female characters don’t have to be badasses… but, if they are, all the more fun for us. Felicity Montague is determined to become a doctor, and she’s not going to let anything get in the way—especially not a suitor from Edinburgh ready to offer his hand in marriage. When a mysterious, wealthy woman offers to pay her way to meet a German doctor who might be able to help her, Felicity is quick to accept… even if there are some terms and conditions. Cue scheming across Europe, perilous quests, and a powerful look at internalized misogyny.
This novel also places its protagonist on the aro-ace spectrum, an underrepresented demographic within the already-limited selection of LGBT+ representation. While not all aromantic people are asexual, and not all asexual people are also aromantic, Felicity is both—but these labels have very little to do with the amount of love in her life. In a world in which many YA novels are propelled forwards by forbidden love and mutual pining, Mackenzi Lee’s novel expresses a rare but strikingly true sentiment: that romantic and platonic love are not different levels, one deeper and more meaningful than the other. Instead, they’re simply different experiences—and that romance and love sometimes, but don’t have to, coincide.
(Oh, and her aromanticism / asexuality is NEVER scoffed at or shown as the cause of her isolation. The ‘A’ does not stand for “Attack & Delegitimize Others’ Experiences.”)
This is not a book about aliens. Instead, it’s a book about finding hope in what might seem to be an indifferent universe. We’ve all been stricken with deep-seated existential terror, the fear of facing an uncaring and meaningless world. We Are the Ants explores how we seek out that meaning… and how we often manage to find it.
Really, it’s NOT a book about aliens. True, the aliens did abduct Henry Denton when he was thirteen years old. And they did give him 144 days to decide whether or not to push a big, red button that determines whether or not the world is going to end. He doesn’t know how it’ll go. He doesn’t know if it will go; everyone seems to think he’s crazy, and there isn’t an abundance of evidence to the contrary. Fending off the emotional impact of his ex-boyfriend’s suicide, his mother’s underemployment, and his grandmother’s ever-impending dementia, Henry feels certain that the world isn’t important enough to save.
When he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a mysterious past, he starts to wonder if it is. We Are the Ants is an ambitious, introspective story of a hope-starved person who finds himself questioning whether or not anything matters… and, if it does, how much.
Something highly suspect always seems to be going on in sleepy small towns—usually, it’s infidelity and family secrets that tend to involve infidelity. In this case, it’s the string of mysterious deaths and the glowing blue lights that accompany them. Before that, it was the vampires; before that, it was the ghosts and the immortals. There are certain types of people that these dramatic stories happen to: “indie kids,” the sorts of teenagers who would never notice a thing as mundane as prom and are frequently named things like Satchel, Finn, or Other Finn.
While dramatic (often hyperbolic) events take place in the background, our protagonists’ lives rarely intersect with the campy, Buffy-the-Vampire hellscape that is the town’s most defining feature. Mike is far more concerned about his alcoholic father, his politician mother, and his ever-worsening OCD to consider the blue lights too much. That is, until he becomes the last one to see Indie Kid Finn alive. But even then, It’s not that he’s removed from the main storyline—his own life is the main storyline; the events that affect his family and friends are important for that very reason. This is not a story of finding meaning in the little things. It’s about realizing that those ‘little things’ ARE the most meaningful.
The LGBT+ rep is here, even if it’s not a significant part of the plot. And Ness includes a healthy and rarely-discussed degree of fluidity within a person’s sexuality: Mike experiments with his gay best friend, Jared, but ultimately feels he is straight. Relationships that we think might happen sometimes do and sometimes don’t; people are not always interested in the partners we expect.
I hesitate to say that anything has ‘saved my life,’ a phrase that feels trite, exaggerated, as if we ever need to justify our emotions that are so often the one thing we all have in common. But this is not a synonym for good—or even really f*cking good. It’s a synonym for nothing. This book saved my life.
The sequel in an astonishingly immersive series, The Dream Thieves is the first of the books to introduce queerness into the story. That’s queer as in LGBT+, not queer as strange; Stiefvater’s world abounds with strangeness that needs no introduction. It’s everywhere. The novel is ostensibly a search for a wish-granting dead Welsh king in rural Virginia, which is about as literal as it is existential. As Stiefvater herself is quick to point out, the back jacket of the book can rarely say anything along the lines of a gaggle of teens with awful coping mechanisms search for home and find dead people; sometimes, they search for dead people and find home.
In this sequel, street-racing, hard-drinking asshole (who’s secretly less of an asshole than one may think) faces off against antagonist Joseph Kavinsky, a street-racing, pill-popping asshole (who’s secretly much, much more of an asshole than anyone could guess). But this rivalry isn’t JUST about fast cars and parties where rich boys hurl Molotov cocktails—even if it’s about that, too. It’s about the danger that can befall those of us who deeply hates ourselves… and the power we gain when we learn not to.
Buy this book or borrow it, but I won’t let you touch my beloved signed copy.
6. SIX OF CROWS
Sometimes, we want a fantasy book about queer characters that has almost nothing to do with their sexualities. When LGBT+ stories first made their entrance into the YA market, most of them were tales of tragedy—because, particularly in the LGBT+ community, tragedies are bound to happen. But the lives of queer people aren’t necessarily marked by pain and ceaseless bigotry. Sometimes, they’re marked by magical gang wars, political conspiracies, and international heists. Kaz Brekker is the so-called “bastard of the Barrel,” a criminal prodigy who has one shot to get his ultimate revenge. But it’s just that… a chance. And given the misfits he’s brought on board to get the job done, the impossibility of what he’s signed up for is growing more and more apparent.
Many of us want books in which queer people are a part of the narrative but our suffering isn’t. We don’t always need the reminder that all manner of bad things, from health issues to hate crimes, are more likely to happen to people like us. Sometimes it’s great to have a fun romp when sexuality-related-angst and judgment aren’t the central focus. Now, if you want to know whether or not TRAGEDY is a part of Leigh Bardugo’s universe… it definitely is. It’s just not the kind you’ve already had too much of.
(If queer people are underrepresented in fiction, queer people of color are DEFINITELY underrepresented. Fortunately, this duology isn’t a part of that problem.)
7. Carry On
Read all the fan-fiction you want—most of our childhood favorites will never be overtly queer, no matter what J.K. Rowling says on Twitter. It’s easy to dismiss the gay Twilight Tumblr accounts as the typical fetishization of fandom, but the enthusiasm for turning all characters gay comes from a place of sincerity: many of our childhood stories do not feature heroes like ourselves. No matter how many groundbreaking new works of YA genre fiction hit the market, there will always have been that absence in our own upbringings. No matter how many qualities we had in common with our childhood heroes (bravery! strength! intelligence!), we knew there were some ways in which they would never be like us.
Many have accused Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, code name ‘gay Harry Potter’ of being derivative. Of course it’s derivative: it follows Chosen One Simon Snow, whose sulky roommate from an elite magical family might just be plotting to kill him. Simon doesn’t have the greatest control over his seemingly limitless magical powers, or, it seems, his life. Though he’s always been told that The Humdrum is responsible for the dark things that have befallen the magical universe, it seems there may be more to the story… and there may be more to his roommate’s obsession than hatred. But just because the work draws inspiration from Harry Potter doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same. It allows LGBT+ readers to see ourselves fully in the characters and reclaim our most beloved childhood narratives.
Looking for more LGBT+ genre fiction fun? The Disasters is a lighthearted romp around the galaxy, far more cheerful than Leigh Bardugo’s often-grim universe. That’s not to say a lot of bad things don’t happen in The Disasters: four misfits are the only witnesses to a devastating incident of intergalactic terrorism larger and more horrible than any crime before it. Only these four Academy washouts know what truly happened—but, given that they’re the prime suspects, that information will only be helpful if they’re able to survive long enough to share what they know with the world. The novel is another great example of queer characters’ whose sexualities aren’t significant parts of their storylines—while we definitely know that our disaster bisexual protagonist Nax Hall has the hots for more than one of his compatriots, that’s more of a him problem than a plot problem.
The basis for queer author M. K. England’s fictional world is African and Middle Eastern culture, meaning that The Disasters is yet another example of queer PoC characters… ones whose lives are marked by adventure rather than rampant homophobia and personal tragedy.
9. The Last 8
It’s rare for an apocalyptic YA novel to skip the romance, even if some romantic subplots take up a few dozen pages instead of a few hundred. Given that our protagonist is an aromantic, bisexual Latina, the romance here is sparse, but the action certainly isn’t. In so many apocalypse scenarios, we’re left wondering how these characters escaped with hardly any psychological trauma—at least, no psychological trauma that can’t be demonstrated through sexy brooding. Clover Martinez may be among the Last Teenagers, one of a few survivors of an alien attack that consumed all life on Earth, but surviving isn’t always her priority. Since losing her beloved grandparents, she’s dealt with intense suicidal ideation that contradicts her equally intense desire to change her grim circumstances.
(Oh, and it’s not just the protagonist; nearly every single character is LGBT+.)
10. The Shadowhunters Universe
If you’re ever experiencing a shortage of YA genre fiction, look no further than Cassandra Clare’s expansive Shadowhunters universe: it’ll take you months to finish every book. Clare has completed three series with another forthcoming, and spinoffs such as Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy and The Bane Chronicles fill in all the gaps in storytelling. If you find yourself needing more, there’s a film adaptation and a Freeform TV series to keep you sated.
While many of the characters in Clare’s books are straight, she was among the first authors to include LGBT+ characters among her casts of protagonists, even back in 2007 when this was a far more controversial move. She’s spoken at length about how publishers wanted her to cut gay Shadowhunter Alec from the series… and the bigotry she assumed was behind their requests. Clare has since included lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and asexual characters throughout her sprawling world. Her characters may have widely varying identities, but they’ve all got a few things in common: they’re astonishingly hot, unusually witty, and are prone to unfortunate twists of fate.
Unfortunately, I can’t read every book in the known universe. While the above books have been life-changing for me as a queer aspiring novelist, there are so many more on my TBR that could mean to you what the above books have meant to me. Here are just a few of the books I’m looking forward to reading next, a list that features a broad spectrum of LGBT+ characters of diverse identities and backgrounds.
The Fever King by Victoria Lee
Ash by Malinda Lo
The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynne Herman
Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve
Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire
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