These are not exactly the best of times. The world has been in a state of crisis since pretty much forever, but obviously right now it’s hitting even more acutely. And yes, it’s OK to feel scared and sad and enraged, but as activism has taught us, self-care is a crucial part of survival. For those of us that find comfort in reading, now is both the most and least ideal time to read. Crisis and stress can make it extra difficult to focus, but for the moments when reading is accessible to your brain, you may want to hold off on the extra depressing stuff or not quite know what to pick up.
When it comes to books with LGBTQ+-centered narratives, we all know the tropes and they usually aren’t great. But hey, not all queer books are sad! And listen, I love a good sad story, I’m all about emotion. There’s a time and a place, and maybe this isn’t it (or maybe for you it is, you do you!). If you need a good queer read that is more on the uplifting side, here are some places to start. This list includes some poetry, which can be consumed in smaller chunks for the days when that’s all you can do; some YA titles that are fast reads but far from boring; some short stories, graphic books, humor, memoir, and a couple of novels. Note that some of these books do contain elements of struggle or sadness, but all of them approach their language and narrative with a sense of playfulness, joy, and reverence for the weird and wonderful. Especially the weird and wonderful things about being queer.
Chen Chen is one of the very best contemporary poets. He isn’t precious about poetry; he writes just as wonderfully about popcorn and melons as about Chinese diaspora, familial relationships, and Gay Feelings. This book is chock full of poems that are so fun to read, characterized by surprising and delightful turns of phrase, and sneak-attacks of beautiful images and moving vulnerability. Read one or four or the whole thing in one sitting; it’ll shake your brain out of any funk, even if just for a little while.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
This YA title from the multiple-award-winning author of Freshwater is unlike any book you’ve ever read. That can be said about all of Emezi’s books, actually; they have another adult title coming this summer, The Death of Vivek Oji (Riverhead, 8/4). Pet follows Jam, a young trans girl living in the town of Lucille, a kind of utopia where all “monsters” have been eradicated and people live in harmony with social justice and love at the center of everyone’s ethos. But when one of Jam’s mother’s paintings comes to life in the form of a creature who insists there’s a monster in Lucille that needs to be hunted, Jam and her best friend Redemption go on a journey that changes the way they see their town and themselves, and ultimately brings them closer together. [CW: There is a major theme of abuse in this book, however the world Emezi imagines for their characters is queer affirming, and for me that’s where the joy comes from — the friendship of the main characters, Jam and her family — It’s a world full of imagination and possibility.]
Pretend We Live Here by Genevieve Hudson
Genevieve Hudson is one of the most compelling prose writers out there. They have a fantastic novel out this month, Boys of Alabama, but this 2018 short story collection is worth seeking out. I picked it up in a bookstore when it first came out because I’d seen it on Melissa Febos’s Instagram, and when Melissa Febos likes a thing, I’m pretty much guaranteed to also like it. I flipped to a random page and started reading about a group of vegan activists in a van full of jars of menstrual blood, and reader, I laughed out loud in that bookstore. The book has an overall lush and gothic feel; Hudson’s writing is unlike anyone else’s. Bonus, this collection is short *and* immersive, in addition to being very gay and beautiful.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life and Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
If you haven’t read Samantha Irby, whose blog Bitches Gotta Eat amassed a major following in the aughts, now is the time. Both of these essay collections are belly-laugh-and-tears funny (she has another one, Meaty, which is also good, but start with these two). She writes about all the weird and gross things bodies do, and about Chicago, and about dumb vitamins and skin care regimens, and about lesbian bed death and 90’s music. She’s just fantastic, and definitely brings the funny. Also, her books are dynamite on audio!
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
This total delight of a graphic memoir chart’s Kobabe’s journey of gender self-discovery from childhood to adulthood, and the wonderful friends e meets along the way. It’s a super fast read but so moving — Kobabe’s openness and honesty with eir confusion and wonder when e finds community and a growing inner piece is such a stirringly elegant story that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever questioned something about themselves, or, like, grown as a person. Plus, the drawings are captivating.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
If you’re in the mood for some raunchy 90’s gender-fuckery, you’re in luck. This wildly entertaining novel about a shape-shifting student of queer theory, bartender, and gender and sexuality adventurer takes the reader into queer archives, hot sex, zine-making, and ultimately a character who is so alive that you’ll be happily sucked into their world.
Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey
The premise of this debut novel is absurd: an organization called Acceptance Across America labels the fictional town of Big Burr, Kansas “the most homophobic town in America” and sends a task force of queer crusaders to live there for two years. While the setup sounds silly, this story — told from the point of view of twelve characters — works surprisingly well partly because of this silliness. While this book deals with homophobia, it mostly deals with character development and the surprisingly poignant ways in which people do or don’t connect over this 2-year experiment in human weirdness. I cried tears of joy at the end, which I will tell you, I was not prepared for.
The Gay Agenda by Ashely Molesso and Chessie Needham (aka Ash + Chess)
Do you like whimsical drawings and just some fun, easy-to-digest tidbits about the cool queers who came before us? This one’s for you. Ash + Chess, the duo behind the popular stationary company and Instagram account, are known for their upbeat messaging and colorful art. They bring both to this little book. It’s not the most revolutionary or comprehensive thing you’ll read (for a visual-oriented book that is, check out We Are Everywhere by the folks behind @lgbt_history on Instagram Matthew Reimer and Leighton Brown). But it’s an enjoyable and light-hearted read that approaches queer history with reverence, and with pretty pictures for your eyes.
Good Morning America I Am Hungry and On Fire by Jamie Mortara
Jamie Mortara, like Chen Chen, is joyfully imaginative with their poetry. Some of the poems inGood Morning America explore trauma and grief, but they’re also about bagel cities and throwing things into the Boston Commons swan pond, and they’re all so wonderfully constructed that reading them feels like eating poetry candy. Also, that title and cover tho.
Looking for Lorraine by Imani Perry
Lorraine Hansberry was one of the most amazing human beings to ever walk this planet, a fact that will become abundantly clear to you when you read this dazzling biography by Princeton professor Imani Perry. Hansberry is best known for her successful play,A Raisin in the Sun, but she was a prolific writer and queer as hell radical activist whose too-short life was characterized by a drive to make the world better, and love and think as fiercely as she could. It’s impossible to come away from her story uninspired.
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
Perhaps the ultimate queer joy novel, this basically-perfect book from the basically-perfect writer and artist Gabby Rivera follows queer Latinx New Yorker Juliet over the course of a summer internship with a famous white feminist writer in Portland, Oregon. Juliet is full of a hunger to learn and equal hunger to love herself (and kiss cute librarians), a combination that leads not only to a totally loveable character but a story that encompasses what it means to be in community and come into one’s own.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom
Fair warning, this kind-of-true memoir-novel hybrid does have family trauma and anti-trans violence. But it is also about a truly irresistible protagonist who finds a family in a group of, well, fierce femmes. The joy of community is a theme that pops up a lot on mylist, and it is particularly palpable in this one. The prose is also a-mile-a-minute roller coaster ride that’s hard not to be enamored with.
Fruit Mansion by Sam Herschel Wein
Sam Herschel Wein frequently collaborates with Chen Chen, which makes sense to anyone who’s read their poetry, because wow the joy in both! This little chapbook is true to its title, bringing the reader into a house of food,but also a house of boyhood, and bodies, and Judaism, and friendship, and also wine and water balloons.But mostly food themes, which might give you inspiration for cooking *and* writing poems!