Read a F*cking Book: 20 Best Young Adult Novels For Queer Girls

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 FruitPunk 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.+

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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.”

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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!)

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16. Hard Love & Love and Liesby Ellen Wittlinger (2001 + 2009)

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!

 

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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 

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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6.  Awkward, Definition, and Potential, by Ariel Schrag (1997, 1999 & 2000)

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) 

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

 

 

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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)

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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.”

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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1761 articles for us.

81 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    Holy shit! The Miseducation of Carmen Post! Ugh I’m so excited. It’s really good, you guys. danforth did a reading at my school and I fucking cried. Then this girl made me tea.

    So, TMOFP gets you feelings, girls, and tea. Would recommend.

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    I read Born Confused when I was in middle school and totally forgot all the awesome queer aspects of it! Clearly need to revisit that book. (Although, fwiw, a lot of my Indian-American friends didn’t like it because they thought it was overly stereotypical.)

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      I read Born Confused in 9th grade, and I did find it stereotypical, but I think more than that the part that I really didn’t like about it was that it felt so far removed from my the experiences of me or my friends, or the reality of anyone I knew. It just seemed a sort of hollow story in the end. Though I haven’t read it since, so I can’t say how much of this is due to the book and how much was due to my being a rather contrary child…

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        Yeah, even to me at the time that book felt more like what white people wanted to think Indian-Americans’ lives were like than what they were actually like, and I think that’s what my friends found off-putting about it iirc.

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          (and I forgot to put this in my comment, but yes I realize the author herself is actually of Indian descent)

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    Born Confused was one of my absolute favorite books growing up, and I think Kavs had a lot to do with helping me figure myself out! Also probably helped inspire me to get involved with Yoni Ki Baat in college, a south asian women’s monologue show–its actually made up of a lot of cool south asian lesbian fairy godmother types ;)

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    Has anyone ever read What Happened to Lani Garver? There are no lesbians in it but one of the main characters is either trans or a very effeminate gay man (I think it’s left up to the reader to decide)

    I randomly pulled it off a library shelf in middle school, thought it was okay (most of it went over my head), randomly did the same thing in high school and was struck by how haunting it is. It’s still one of my favorite books to this day, and I’ve never met another soul who’s read it.

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    I definitely remember buying Annie on my Mind at a used bookstore with my mom, and intentionally putting it in between the two other books I was buying so maybe she wouldn’t see it and ask questions. Which is pretty silly because when I came out to my parents they were like “yep we’ve know for… a … long time” and are amazing and obviously fine with it but you know, you do silly things when you’re thirteen.

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    Oh man, Sugar Rush. When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I used to spend every Saturday mooching around our local Borders with my bezzie. With all the scary queer feelings whirling around in my babydyke brain, I was sick to death of all the hetetonormative bullshit in everything I could find in the YA section. Then there was Sugar Rush. It had gained a vague, low-level infamy around school as ‘that lesbian book’, and I knew I had to have it.

    It took me a good few weeks to work up the courage and some lame excuse for my bezzie, but I bought it (which was a pretty ballsy move for fourteen year-old me) and it’s been stashed under my bed ever since, thanks to the massive (and pretty misleading) ‘WARNING – EXPLICIT CONTENT’ splashed across the front cover.

    I’d eventually end up with my pyjama drawer being lined with hidden queer fiction (along with, just as importantly, my booze), but I’ll always have a soft spot for Sugar Rush. Even if it is pretty awful, and I never did read the sequel and, to be honest, I’m still sort of annoyed over how much of a let-down that supposed explicit content was.

  7. Thumb up 1

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    Skim by Mariko Tamaki is an awesome graphic novel about a melancholy Japanese-Canadian teenager who’s in love with her teacher. The drawsing especially are really amazing! One in Every Crowd is a collection of stories aimed at queer youth by the amazing storyteller Ivan E. Coyote (I know some of you on autostraddle know her!). Her stories about growing up a tomboy in the Yukon are included in the book, as well as stories about her cross-dressing godson.

    The Miseducation of Cameron Post is really the best YA queer book I’ve read. Cameron is the kind of queer teenager I wish I could have been, if I’d been less clueless, more brave, and funnier.

  8. Thumb up 6

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    oh my goodness, i have a new shopping list! (i just need to finish the huge pile of books in my suitcase first)

    i still remember the first queer book i read, it was an anthology called “Am I Blue?” and I didn’t realize it was about queerness whatsoever, i got it because it had a gordon korman story in it. anyways, i can still remember literally hiding in my closet with a flashlight reading that book and coming to the grand realization that i was like, you know, superduper gay. the next weekend was spent in the library reading annie on my mind with a copy of “teen vogue” overtop to hide it.

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    WHY WHY WHY did I never read any of these books??? I was completely obsessed with reading when I was a kid. I was stupid and oblivious for the longest time (because there are gay people but they are OTHER people, right?) and I can’t help thinking that if only I had read a book with a lesbian character I could identify with, I could have figured things out SO MUCH EARLIER. I feel kind of cheated. Like, seriously people? I could have had girlfriends and all if I only knew I wanted one! Jeez!

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      This comment is my life story in 5 lines.
      “because there are gay people but they are OTHER people, right?”
      I can’t believe I’m not the only one who thought this.
      I need to read all these things and seriously catch up in dyke years, who cares if I’m not a teenager any more?

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        I had a feeling I couldn’t be the only one. But hey, we did figure it out! So yay!
        Part of the reason for the “other people” thing was that I sort of had this idea that gay people are born knowing they’re gay. Because you know, life is never complicated, right?

        I know what you mean about catching up. I just read Ash, now I have to read ALL the others on this list!

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        YES. I was telling a friend about this recently, and she laughed when I said how awesome I though gay people were. My idea that gayness was something that happened to other people really stemmed from the idea that average me could never be awesome enough to be gay. Little did I know that only a fledgling baby dyke would think that lesbians are quite so amazing.

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          Augh, I was the same way! Little me was so excited to join the gay straight alliance because “I wish I was gay! Too bad I’m not.” Surprise!

          Am I the only one that still sometimes catches myself thinking “I wish I was gay” and then being really happy? No? Just me?

  10. Thumb up 1

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    2 things! 1) Empress of the World was, like, my awkward teenage coming out story. Reading it, I mean. 2) I’m actually currently in the process of reading Ariel Schrag’s graphic novels and they are freakin amazing. There’s more sex in those books than on my tumblr dashboard. But why is the 4th installment, Likewise, not featured on this list?

  11. Thumb up 1

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    So this is how I came across Annie on My Mind when I was a young queerlet–in my sister’s library book pile. She acted incredibly embarrassed and told me not to tell mom about it. And then she said that she didn’t know what it was about. I snuck it out of her room, read it and felt ashamed/confused by my feelings…
    Fastforward ten years to my newly aware 22 year old self and I am telling my uber-religious, married sister that I am gay. Her response? “Oh, everyone has those feelings when they are a teenager. They don’t mean anything. You don’t just decide you’re going to be gay.”
    (It reminds me now of that episode where Dana comes out to her mom. “Everyone has feelings for their girlfriends. It doesn’t mean you have to act on them.”)

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    Although not well-known and somewhat flat plot-wise (though the characters are good, and I met the awesome author), Of All The Stupid Things [Linked in my name] is a book in the vein of the ones above that I like.
    In addition to covering the requisite lesbian experience (in this case self-discovery), it also covers outside perceptions of the lesbian characters. There is additionally a lot of non-exclusively-gay highschool drama.

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    I remember when I got Keeping You a Secret. I was about 14 years old, and my mom and my sister and I were visiting my aunt and uncle out of state. We always went to the bookstore and they always bought my sister and I each one book, and that was the book I picked. When my mom asked me what it was about and read the inside jacket flap, my face got extremely hot and I told her I just found stuff like that kind of interesting. I went home and took the jacket off and hid it and then devoured the book about 10 times over in the next few weeks.

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    What about Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz? Such a great novel. (Also, loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Difference Between You and Me). You should also check out Rhythm and Blues by Jill Murray and Scars by Cheryl Rainfield…both of which are Canadian novels.

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    How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart is also pretty fantastic. An amazing book all around. Not exclusively about queer ladies, but there’s a pretty great story/free form poem about first time lesbian sex!

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    I read Keeping You a Secret over and over and over again when it first came out (I was fourteen and still figuring my shit out). I just reread it and even though it’s not perfect, I still love it.

    Fantastic list!!

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    I don’t know if it’s already been mentioned, but one of my favourite queer YA novels is Parrotfish. It’s about a FtM freshman in a smallish town and how he deals with his family and communities reactions to his coming out and early transition. It’s been a while since I read it, but it was the first book featuring a queer protagonist that I ever read, and it totally blew my mind.

    And then when my friend came out as trans a few weeks later, I actually managed not to be a complete dick about it. so, yay!

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      I’m going to also recommend “I Am J” by Cris Beam, which is about an NYC teen trans guy coming into his own. A key focus in the book is his relationship with a queer girl and, for any queer women out there with a possible trans dude in their lives, it gives a lot of perspective about ‘the ride.’

      Another recent trans title is “Being Emily” by Rachel Gold which is all about a teen trans girl. It just came out about 2 mos. ago.

      I also want to give a shout out to Daisy Porter’s great site, QueerYA, which reviews almost all the LGBTQ YA fiction, a great way to keep up with new titles.
      http://daisyporter.org/queerya/

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    I read Annie On My Mind years ago, when I was maybe twelve years old. I was randomly searching for any book to read at the library, and thought it sounded intriguing. The best part is I loved every bit of it, but didn’t come out until ten years later. Now looking back, I understand why it spoke to me in such a way. Every since coming out, I’ve wanted to reread it.

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    “365 days” and “[email protected]” by British author Ke Payne are excellent YA novels.

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    I remeber I aksed for a Kindle for Christmas just so I could read Annie On My Mind privately until I was ready to come out to my family but it took me a while. I was always looking for YA books to help me come out but I couldnt find much at the time, although I am grateful for this post because Im 17 and stil relate to some of these books. :D

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    Jacqueline Woodson’s books were some of my favorite when I was a teenager so I definitely have to check out “The House You Pass Along The Way.” I don’t know how that one slipped past my teenage fingers. It certainly would have gave questioning everything about my sexuality me some comfort.

  22. Pingback: Lesbian Discovery Novels & Romantic Female Friendships: From Hey, Dollface to My So-Called Life « crunchingsandmunchings

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    love and lies and The House You Pass Along the Way was probably the most enjoyed lesbian books I’ve read. I haven’t read Girl, Walking Backwards, seems good. Kind of hated Annie on my mind to be honest bored me half to death.

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    Thanks so much for this – I’m soaking up so many of these YA queer books at the moment, and there’s been a real shortage of good ones about girls who like girls.

    And if you know of any YA novels about trans girls who aren’t obsessed with being heterofemme (where are the trans tomboys?), please let me know, otherwise I’m bloody well going to have to write one myself :).

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    When I was 17 and reading Annie on My Mind, I emailed Nancy Garden and was like “zomg I love you, YOU ARE MY HERO” and she replied and I can’t remember exactly what she said but it was something like “keep doing what you’re doing!” and it was awesome.

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