Last Thursday, we hosted a community forum on identity and sexuality in YA lit at Portland State University. The forum was led by a group of panelists including Sara Ryan, a YA author who also works as the Teen Services Coordinator for the Multnomah County Library; Carter Sickels, author of The Evening Hour, who recently had a letter published in The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to Their Younger Selves; Michelle R. McCann, a children's book editor and author who teaches "Publishing for Young Adults" at PSU; and Vanessa La Torre, who is the Bilingual Youth HIV Education Coordinator at the Cascade AIDS Project. Our panel was moderated by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, a senior at Cleveland High School, who writes about music for her blog, The September Gurl, and is the Reviews Editor for the Cleveland Clarion.
Our panel sat down to talk about identity and sexuality in YA lit, discussing books that changed their perception of youth identity and expression, how important it is for youth to be allowed to read and discuss books with diverse portrayals of sexuality and identity, and how we can change the fact that many identities and experiences are still underrepresented in YA lit. If you weren't able to be with us, here's a rundown on what our panel discussed:
Books are a great tool to use to discuss sexuality and identity.
Vanessa La Torre, who works in the Prevention and Education Department at the Cascade AIDS Project, spoke about how effective YA lit can be as a tool for reducing stigma around sexuality and identity, and how important it is that youth are able to get their hands on books with diverse portrayals of youth. Vanessa pointed out the importance of having a healthy sense of self, and how important literature can be when youth are figuring out who they are and where they fit into this world. As Vanessa said, "[Literature] provides shared experiences, opens doors to questions and answers, and gives hope that what one person is feeling or thinking or experiencing isn't isolated to that one person—it's shared. We develop our own sense of self, but we do so with the support of community." And YA lit, along with the friends and teachers and librarians who put the books in our hands, can definitely operate as a supportive community.
Carter Sickels also talked about how hard it was to find queer characters in books when he was growing up, which made finding S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, which he read as being very homoerotic, all the more exciting. And Sara Ryan, who works with youth at the Multnomah County Library, said she has seen manga being used by groups of teens as a great gateway to talking about sexuality. (For a bit more on sexuality and gender in manga, read this).
Youth want to have access to diverse portrayals of identity and sexuality in YA lit, and they're making it happen.
Michelle R. McCann pointed out that teens are really good at being rabble-rousers, and teens are constantly fighting to make sure they're allowed to read the books they want to read. Take, for example, this high school student who apparently decided to run a mini-library out of their locker after the principle and school teacher council released a list of books the students weren't allowed to read. And there's also Ana Verdugo, who raised money to bring Matt de la Peña to speak at her high school in Tucson, despite the fact that Arizona ruled it illegal to read Matt de la Peña's Mexican WhiteBoy in Tucson's classrooms. Ana, who is a big fan of Matt de la Peña's, told the New York Times that reading Nicholas Sparks novels just isn't the same: "I don't know anybody like that." After organizing bake sales and raising the $1,000 speaking fee, Ana brought Matt de la Peña to her school, an author who writes characters she can relate to.
Ana Verdugo brought Matt de la Peña, right, to speak at her school. Photo from The New York Times.
There are a lot of experiences and identities missing from or underrepresented in YA lit.
Michelle brought Malinda Lo's pie charts to the forum, which we were excited about, as we've referenced Malinda Lo's YA number crunching in previous Beyond Judy Blume posts. Michelle held the following pie chart up for the audience, which shows us that 50% of LGBT YA books are about boys, only 25% about girls, and only 4% of LGBT YA books are about transgender or genderqueer characters:
What can we do about these numbers? Well, Michelle stressed the fact that we should use our buying power to show publishers that we want books with diverse portrayals of identity and sexuality. All of our panelists agreed that we should be fighting to make sure the great books that do exist are accessible to youth, while also encouraging young people to write their own stories if they can't find them elsewhere. Vanessa talked about the awesome zine workshops hosted by Cascade AIDS Project, and Carter suggested that teens who are interested in writing get involved in writing groups if possible.
Sara and Michelle both brought a pile of books with them to the forum, and I saw several audience members writing down books that they wanted to check out. I think many of us will be revisiting classics like S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, in addition to picking up books like Malinda Lo's Adaptation, a YA sci-fi thrilled that features a queer characters whose sexuality isn't central to the plot.
Thanks to everyone who came out to the forum, everyone who has followed along during our Beyond Judy Blume blog series, and a big thank you to Oregon Humanities for helping to make this program possible! We loved discussing identity and sexuality in YA lit with you, and we're looking forward to continuing to read and discuss YA lit on the Bitch blog in the future.
Sara Ryan also provided a followup to the forum on her blog. For further reading on identity and sexuality in YA lit, make sure to check it out!
Thanks to Portland State University's Women's Resource Center, The Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, Cascade AIDS Project, Feminist Agenda PDX, Portland State University's Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, In Other Words Feminist Community Center, KBOO Community Radio, and Willamette Week for supporting this program.
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.