by riese with malaika, laneia, laura, cara, whitney and rachel
NPR recently polled its readers for their favorite teen novels of all time and published the results in their Top 100 Choices for Best Teen Novels. Unsurprisingly, very few queer books made it onto the final list, so we all smashed our heads into each other’s heads and came up with our own list of 20 awesome queer young adult novels.
There’s plenty of neat lesbian YA books that we don’t talk about here but have talked about in other posts, such as Dare Truth or Promise, Kissing Kate, Hello Groin and Crush. We tried to get a reasonable variety of topics and styles on this list while not venturing outside the Young Adult section, which disqualified adult books about young queermos, such as Rubyfruit Jungle (which opens when the narrator is very young), Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Punk Like Me and Name All The Animals (which is actually a memoir and therefore disqualified for two reasons!).
The following list contains book suggestions and descriptions from Whitney, Malaika, Laura, Laneia, Rachel, Cara, Carolyn, Sarah Gabrielle and Vanessa. What are your favorites?
20 Supreme Queer Young Adult Novels For Growing Girls
20. Shockproof Sydney Skate, by Marijane Meaker (1973)
The gay lady in this underrated YA novel is actually the protagonist’s Mom, but it’s a fascinating look at her world through the eyes of her son, Sydney, chock-full of punchy dialogue, wry observations and classic pop culture references, shot through with a smart, fast-paced plot. Sydney decoded his agent mother’s power-lesbian-girlfriend gossip at age eight but has never told her that he knows she’s gay. Then he falls in love with Alison Gray, his Mom’s newest client… who subsequently falls for his Mom. Hijinks ensue.+
19. Letters in the Attic, by Bonnie Shimko (2002)
Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and Betty DeGeneres blurbed this Lambda-Award-Winning young adult novel (and crossover success), which takes place in the early 1960’s and follows 12-year-old Lizzy McMann, a teenager forced to move from Arizona to upstate new York with her “unstable” mother when her father leaves them for a hatcheck girl. There, she falls for an eighth grader “who looks like Natalie Wood and smokes,” meets her grandparents for the first time, and experiences fun things like “puberty.” Emily Saliers notes: “Letters is a biting and compassionate look at the vulnerabilty of coming of age and the triumph of coming into own’s own.”
18. Girl Walking Backwards, by Bett Williams (1998)
Skye lives in Southern California with a psuedo-New Age enthusiast for a mother and a giant crush on Jessica, “a troubled gothic punk girl who cuts herself regularly with sharp objects,” who Skye catches fucking her boyfriend in the bathroom at a rave. Following that unwelcome encounter, Skye switches up her life, acquiring a new pagan best friend and an athletic love interest. This book has been described as “a post-Catcher in the Rye roman à clef.”
17. Sugar Rush, by Julie Burchill (2004)
If you missed the short-lived television series based on this sweet YA novel, then perhaps you would enjoy the book! This book won’t make you smarter, but it’s a fun and crass read centered on fifteen-year-old British teenager Kim, who is horrified when she has to leave her posh school for the “infamous Ravendene Comprehensive” in Brighton. There’s lots of drugs and sex and other risky behavior but mostly there’s Sugar, the Queen of the Ravers, who Kim promptly falls in love with and the two of them proceed to get in lots of trouble. (Sidenote: the author, Julie Burchill, is apparently quite infamous for many unpleasant reasons, which I was unaware of until reading the Wikipedia entry about her today!)
Hard Love is the story of Gio, a straight ‘zine writer head-over-heels in love with a lesbian named Marisol. Love and Lies picks up where Hard Love left off, but this time Marisol is the narrator, who moves in with her high school best friend after high school, intending to take a year off before college in order to write a novel and fall in love. Then she falls in love with her writing instructor, Olivia Frost, and there’s a lot of drama and she begins losing sight of her goals and you’ll just have to read it!
15. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, (1999)
There aren’t any actual lesbians in this book but this book is a lesbian favorite for its carefully rendered and earnestly honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a teenager always on the outside of things, searching for serenity or sanity or comfort with the right people, the right party and the right sexual partner. Charlie’s best friend, Sam, is the kind of straight girl that gay girls can’t help but fall for, and his other best friend Patrick is gay. It was one of the American Library Association’s ten most frequently challenged books of 2009, for its “treatment of drugs, homosexuality, sex and suicide,” and the movie version will come out this year. Soon
14. The Difference Between You and Me, by Madeline George (2012)
Jesse is the singular member of The National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos and she wears big fisherman’s boots and Emily is on student council, has a boyfriend, and prefers flats. Yes, what we have here is your classic weirdo-and-popular-girl-bond-via-shared-secret-Sapphism plot-line (see also: Deliver Me From Evie), which is hands down my favorite. Jesse is a strong, inspirational character, one of many rewarding aspects of reading this book.
13. The House You Pass Along the Way, by Jaqueline Woodson (2004)
14-year-old Evangeline Ian Canan, better known as “Stagerlee,” and her family have never really fit in. Stagerlee is the middle of five children to a black father and a white mother. Her father’s family disowned them when their son married a white woman, but they come back into Stagerlee’s life when his father’s sister dies and his other sister sends her adopted daughter, Trout, to live with the Canans for the summer. Stagerlee, coming to terms with sexuality and crush on her friend Hazel, finds a surprise comrade in Trout, who it turns out is — surprise! — also a baby lez!
12. Boyfriends With Girlfriends, by Alex Sanchez (2011)
Four friends are at the center of uber-successful Lambda-Award-winning author Alex Sanchez’s recent novel, Boyfriends With Girlfriends: out gay boy Lance, the allegedly heterosexual Allie, bisexual guy Sergio and Kimiko, a semi-closeted lesbian. The foursome struggle to define their identities, discover their sexuality and find their place in the world — and with each other. Sanchez is known for his books about gay boys, but this one serves up a mixed-gender group of friends that many queer girls can relate to and features an Asian-American lesbian teenage girl, which is nice!
11. Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai Hidier (2002)
The title of Born Confused is important ’cause it’s a play on ABCD: American-Born Confused Desi. The book’s protagonist, Dimple Lala (who has the best name ever), is a straight high school student who disdains her immigrant parents’ traditions and also thinks she’s a little too curvy and a little too brown and a little too boring compared to her Gwen Stefani-esque best friend. But then her formerly-nerdy-turned- beautiful, queer and smartsmartsmart cousin from NYU opens her eyes to just how cool her family is. Her cousin is what makes this book so magical — more teenagers need lesbian fairy godmothers. Also, this lesbian fairy godmother is friends with a stunning(ly beautiful and intelligent) trans woman! Even though Dimple is straight, there’s something undeniably queer about her coming-of-age. (-laura)
10. Pages For You, by Sylvia Brownrigg (2001)
You know how it will end from the first page, so you’re free just to enjoy the bright melancholy and poetic, honest descriptions of emotions and moments. If you’ve fallen in love (hard), tried to smoke cigarettes to look mysterious (and failed), or dreamed of finally realizing your lesbian powers on a leaf-strewn campus far away from home — you will like this book.
9. Empress of the World, by Sara Ryan (2001)
The ‘pretend college/summer camp’ atmosphere of this book allows for some unique experiences that we couldn’t have had otherwise. Sara Ryan doesn’t focus solely on the queer girls’ storyline — we’re introduced to the personal conflicts of each member of the clique: Katrina, the “manic computer chick,” Issac the “nice-guy-despite-himself, Kevin “the inarticulate composer,” and Battle “the beautiful blond dancer.” As you can imagine, Battle becomes the apple of Nicola’s eye. Empress is a sweet, funny depiction of sexual fluidity and friendship.
8. Down to the Bone, by Mayra Lazara Dole (2008)
Cuban-American Miami teenager Laura Amores gets kicked out of Catholic school and subsequently her home when a nun confiscates a love letter to Laura from another girl and reads it out loud in class. Shortly thereafter Laura’s girlfriend, under pressure from her family, accepts a marriage proposal from a dude. Laura’s gotta make a whole new life for herself, starting from square one.
7. Deliver Us From Evie, by M.E. Kerr (1994)
I remember reading this one when it came out and feeling captivated by titular character Evie, the 18-year-old tomboy from a family of farmers whose affair with the Patsy the banker’s daughter is the catalyst for the tightly-packed story’s unwinding. The whole story takes place in Missouri and is told through the point-of-view of her high school junior brother, Parr. It’s a deftly crafted book by a master of the genre, and was enormously controversial at the time.
Awkward, Potential, and Definition chronicle graphic novelist’s Ariel Schrag’s high school existence. She would put each book together in the summer following the school year, and would then distribute them zine-style once classes started. It’s really interesting to see how Schrag’s style and art grows with her. In Awkward, written after her freshmen year, the drawings are little more than stick figures, but charming nonetheless. The contrast between the complicated anxiety that is freshman year and the simplicity of her drawings makes Awkward feel, well, awkward, which is perfect, since it’s hard to describe your first year of high school with any other word.
In Potential and Definition, the drawings have filled out, grown into themselves. Ariel, too, is growing up. She begins to realize that she is, in fact, attracted to girls. She explores her sexuality, and does not shy away from writing and drawing sex. You get the feeling that everything is so new and exciting she wants to put it all on paper so she never forgets . The books are set to a backdrop of 90s pop culture – Schrag idolized L7, Gwen Stefani, and Juliette Lewis. Reading the trilogy is like peeking into a really smart, quirky friend’s diary, or looking at a great queer tumblr. She teaches you a ton about music while giving you a front row seat to all the complex emotions that come with being queer, young, and interesting. After high school, Schrag would go on to write for the The L Word and was even mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” (-malaika)
5. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by emily m. danforth (2012)
This critically acclaimed novel, the first from emily m. danforth, takes place in rural Montana in the 90’s and centers on the titular Cameron Post, whose first thought when her parents die suddenly in a car crash is that she’s relieved she won’t have to tell them she had been kissing a girl only hours earlier.
Nancy Garden, author of Annie on My Mind, raves: “This novel is a joy—one of the best and most honest portraits of a young lesbian I’ve read in years. Cameron Post is a bright, brash, funny main character who leaps off the page and into your heart! This is a story that keeps you reading way into the night—an absorbing, suspenseful, and important book.”
4. Keeping You A Secret, By Julie Ann Peters, 2005
This is the kind of book you can basically eat in one day, like a cupcake! There are some extreme “suspending my disbelief” moments but it’s sweet with lots of feelings. Julie Ann Peters totally rules the queer YA section, sidenote — definitely worth checking out is the National Book Award finalist Luna, the story of a transgender teenager beginning her transition, as well as favorites like Rage: A Love Story and Far From Xanadu.
3. The Rose of No Man’s Land, by Michelle Tea (2006)
Described as “a furious love story between two weirdo girls, brimming with snarky observations and soulful wonderings on the dazzle-flash emptiness of contemporary culture,” Michelle Tea’s YA turn is the story of a 14-year-old teenager who, after getting fired form her job at the Square One mall, “finds herself linked up with a chain-smoking, physically stunted mall rat named Rose.”
2. Ash, by Malinda Lo (2009)
We kind of all freaked out about this when we first heard about it, and our feelings haven’t changed. You guys, it’s a lesbian YA retelling of Cinderella. Yeah, I know. I wish I could be a 13-year-old queer growing up right now, because I would be so fucking pumped to read this book, it would change my life for real. Fuck princes, the protagonist Ash has a “dangerous flirtation” with the fairy Sidhean and courts Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, who I am assuming is hot. Lo’s writing is darkly compelling and completely beautiful, exactly right for a modern fairytale. This is definitely, definitely worth reading no matter your age – Lo is a fantastic writer who won’t disappoint. (-rachel)
1. Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (1982)
Everybody has their own story about Annie. Here’s Cara‘s:
“I stole Annie On my Mind from my local library in middle school because I was embarrassed to check it out. I hid it under my bed for years and forgot about it, and then I found it again when I was moving to college, after Accepting Myself and Coming Out and Having My First Relationship etc. I snuck it back in to the library so that some other young queer could steal it and that’s seriously one of the moments in my life that still seems the most symbolic and gratifying and cyclical to me. What I’m trying to say is, I love that YA queer books exists and I love that we all read the same ones, even if not all of our names are on the checkout card.”