Beyond Judy Blume: What Do We Do Now?

Ashley McAllister
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Logo that says Beyond Judy Blume: Identity and Sexuality in Young Adult Literature across a red banner with white flowers below it

Bitch Media spent this last weekend at Wordstock, Portland's very own literary festival, and the largest of its kind in the Northwest. In addition to meeting a bunch of people with a fierce love of all things literary (thanks to those who stopped by the Bitch table!), a few of us sat in on author readings and panel discussions throughout the weekend. I was excited to find that this year's festival featured a lineup of YA authors and panels on YA lit (including a discussion about how authors write "adult" subject matter in YA lit, and another panel devoted to different approaches to writing contemporary teen stories). David Levithan, queer YA author extraordinaire, was one of this year's featured authors, and he participated in a couple panels that we were able to sit in on.

One panel, called "Out on the Page", asked the question, "Is straight American ready for queer characters?" David Levithan, Carter Sickles, and Christopher Frizzelle answered questions posed by Aaron Scott. In a crowded room at the Oregon Convention Center, the participants discussed the first queer characters they were exposed to in literature, authors who had an early influence on them (Levithan gave a shout-out to Francesca Lia Block), but they ultimately ended up questioning the actual question being posed to them. When moderator Aaron Scott asked, "Is straight American ready for queer characters?" Levithan answered bluntly with, "Who the fuck cares?" and said that he felt the question belonged in 1986. The group agreed; literature is more welcoming to queer characters than it was a decade or two ago. But Carter Sickles brought up the fact that, while a space has been made for queer character in literature, most of those characters are still white men. Sickles (who just wrote a book called The Evening Hour that I can't wait to read) went on to point out the lack of diversity on the "Out on the Page" panel, and a conversation started about what questions we need to be asking now, and what needs to happen in order to allow for more diversity amongst queer characters in literature.

I've been thinking about that question this week, especially as we're prepping for our own panel about identity and sexuality in YA lit. What are the questions that we need to be asking, and what does each of us need to do in order to ensure that YA lit, and literature in general, reflects the experiences of a spectrum of queer characters. s.e. smith put it really well:

Yes I say to gay YA. Yes yes yes. Queer those bookselves up. And yes to trans YA. And disabled YA. And nonwhite/people of colour YA. And fat YA. Yes to minority representation in young adult fiction, yes to young minority folks having access to stories with folks like them. And yes, too, to including minority YA in its proper genre, not pushing it off into the corner where the issue books go, because not all minority YA is an issue book.

So what can we do to ensure that YA lit continues to take on identities that were previously ignored? Well, we can start by reading books about queer characters who are people of color, or trans, or disabled. Buy these books, or request these books at your library. Make sure publishers know that you're interested in more books like Polkadot or Down to the Bone. Tell your friends about them. Tell your librarians about them. If we keep promoting and asking for diverse depictions of queer characters in literature, we're bound to see even more great characters make their way into the books we read.

Will you be in Portland on Thursday, November 8th? Join us for a conversation with authors, educators, and youth who will be discussing identity and sexuality in YA lit for our Beyond Judy Blume community forum. This community forum will be at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Student Union at 7pm. Find out more about this forum and additional Beyond Judy Blume programming on our events page.

Previously: Q&A with YA Author Mayra Lazara Dole, Books for Children of All Genders

Oregon Humanities logoThis program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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