We've spent the first couple weeks of this series talking about the need for YA lit that explores teen identity and sexuality, and remembering books that changed the way we thought about ourselves, our identity, and our worlds. Teens and adults continue to embrace YA lit, and characters with diverse identities continue to make their way onto the pages of YA books. This is great, of course, but it's important that we look at the stories that feature these characters as well. Because it's not enough to simply publish a few coming out stories and call it good.
McSweeney's released several articles last year on the state of the publishing industry, including one from Hannah Withers and Lauren Ross called "Young People Are Reading More Than You." In it, Withers and Ross quote Booklist magazine critic Michael Cart, who stated, "Kids are buying books in quantities we've never seen before… And publishers are courting young adults in ways we haven't seen since the 1940s… We are right smack-dab in the new golden age of young adult literature."
But which young adults are publishers catering to? Whose stories are popular YA books telling? And when YA lit featuring characters with diverse gender and sexual identities gets published, what messages do those books send?
It's crucial that teens be able to find books with characters like themselves, but it's also important they be able to find books with relatable characters who are part of diverse plot lines—whether that be a story about the ups and downs of a teenage romance or a book full of adventures and dragon-slaying. In "Yes to Gay YA–But Don't Stick It In the Issue Books Corner," s.e. smith discusses the importance of queer and other minority characters in YA books that are not billed as "issue" books:
There's a tendency to believe that books with minorities belong in a special section. They aren't 'regular' books, because the characters aren't 'normal.' Whic h is not such a great thing, when you're a young person looking for people who look like you. Some folks really love issue books, and I have a soft sport in my heart for them myself, but I also love it when minority characters are allowed to just be and it's a natural part of the story, rather than the focal point. The reality is that we don't go around being walking issues; we have lives, we do things, our minority identities are part of us but they aren't the focal point, and with YA in particular I think it's critical to make sure that representation includes not just a centring of issues, but also a showing of us in our natural habitat, so to speak.
As s.e. mentions, Karen Healey's The Shattering is a YA book that features a lesbian character, but the plot is not centered around that character being a lesbian. Eon: Dragoneye Rebord by Alison Goodman is a YA book with a trans characters whose trans identity does not create the arc of the story (read more about Eon in this post about trans teens in YA lit). Tamora Pierce is also hailed for creating diverse characters whose identities are not necessarily what create her stories. We should be asking for more books like these, that feature identity and sexuality in honest and complex ways while still working on another storyline.
Have you read YA books that include teens with diverse identities and sexualities that don't rely on those identities to tell the story? Let us know in the comments!
This 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.