How Queer YA Novels Taught Me to Write My Own Happy Ending

I.

The Girl knows there are no happy endings for people like her.

For girls who sit in cars with other girls on a dimly-lit street in Harlem and wonder why they want so badly to whisper a barely-there Yes instead of I have to go home when asked: Do you want to spend the night? The apartment is free. In the breaths between that question and The Girl’s answer is possibility. The type of possibility The Girl has never so much as allowed herself to imagine. The moment is so still, so quiet, it renders itself almost dreamlike in quality — a scene stolen out of time.

The Girl — who idles in the bus lane while the rain pelts her car, watching the person she will grow to love dash across the street, hands acting as a poor substitute for an umbrella — is our main character. Her story is one that you won’t find in any novel, because she, of course, has yet to write it. But she will.

Here, though, she is resigned. She is afraid. The blueprint that has been laid before her for what that almost-yes would mean for her life, for her happiness, has been clear. People like her do not get happy endings. This fear looks like a man on her college campus shouting that God hates queers. This fear looks like her mother’s face when she tells The Girl at fifteen to return the book to the shelves because the jacket copy mentions a lesbian character in the text. The fear looks like the movie with the queer character whose body is left broken by shame and violence.

There is no happy ending for a girl like her. She’s watched this story play out before.


When her little sister tells her she’s reading a new book1, the first YA novel that has managed to capture her attention in months, The Girl buys it from the bookstore off Central Park Avenue immediately, without stopping to look at the synopsis. She’s searching, desperately, for lightness, for joy. What she doesn’t expect is to be lured in by the text so quickly, so seamlessly.

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The novel centers two boys, falling in love via email. The setting is a suburb far from where she currently lives, and even further from where she’s from, but she finds herself templating her experience on top of this white, teenage boy. It’s a coming-out story, a closeted kid in a backward place, holding the biggest secret of his life to his chest with both hands. This, she understands. This, she feels acutely.

What she is less familiar with is what comes next. The family who embraces him. The friends who come at the end of the novel to defend him. The happily-ever-after.

Maybe, she finds herself thinking, there could be space for joy in this new life. Maybe, she dreams, as she finishes the last page and immediately starts the book over again, this is not so hopeless after all. Maybe, she journals, when the main character in the book — the young boy who was, at first glance, so different from herself — says: We are out and we are alive, and everyone in the universe is out here right now, a line can be a type of instruction. Her story can be a new roadmap. A fresh blueprint. A different ending. She doesn’t quite believe it yet — won’t for some time.

But.

Maybe.

II.

In this one, a girl gets sent away.

The Girl left her hometown two years ago, fresh out of college and fresh out of ideas for how to fashion a life for herself out of a vain hope of becoming a writer. She landed at a school where people didn’t assume anything, least of all sexuality — a place where it was simply expected that one would ask questions of themselves and the world around them. For the first time in her life, she had the space to explore what it could look like to be anyone, herself, at least, without the artifice of who she’d always been.

Now, fresh out of the grad school that changed her life and a newly-minted New York City transplant, The Girl writes. She signed a contract for her debut novel months ago, mumbled what the plot was about as she celebrated the deal on the back porch of her parents’ Midwestern home with her mom and sister. It’s about a girl who runs for prom queen who falls in love with her competition, she explained, sped past, teary-eyed with joy and a terror she was still too afraid to name.

It’s months later and she has yet to finish her first draft — stalled by exhaustion and the city and no money and fear masquerading as writers’ block. She thinks she must not be queer enough to write the book she’s expected to write. She’s an imposter, a fraud, waiting to be found out by an editor who will see in her prose that she’s not the writer she purported herself to be.

She prays again, in this season, like she never has before. Over her contract. On the train headed to Manhattan. With people from a friend’s progressive church she seldom attends. These are not like the prayers of her childhood, self-assured in her place in the world and the one that will come after. These prayers sound like apologies, like concessions, to a God and a home that she’s not sure have room for her anymore.

When the prayers produce no answers, she researches. She walks from work to the bookstore that has loomed large in her imagination since she was sixteen and hopelessly bright-eyed about moving to the city one day. She goes to the second floor, to those messy, colorful shelves marked Teen and Young Adult LGBTQ Fiction.

She pulls off a thick paperback2, one she’s heard about for years but never had reason enough to read, hoping that somewhere deep in the canon of queer YA is the answer she’s been looking for to a question she doesn’t have the language to ask. The book is adorned with the theatrical poster cover of the book’s recent indie film adaptation and she buys it without hesitation.

It’s widely hailed as a Sad Book, one of those novels where you must brace yourself for impact the moment you flip open the front cover. But she reads on. A teenage girl, a conversion camp, complicated webs of religion and desire and fear and emerging sexuality weave themselves throughout the pages. The Girl reads it in two days, and is moved by the prose — the sheer scope of the novel — but is rendered speechless by the friendship narrative once the main character reaches the conversion camp.

There is a pain in the main character’s exile from her home and what she’s expected to do and become in the camp, that is to be sure, but there is kinship as well. There, in a hyper-religious almost-prison in the rural heartland, she finds her people. She lives amongst the children of the discarded, the Island of Misfit Toys, the ones they want to “fix.” In the midst of great pain, trauma, she grows closer to the people who reveal her to herself — who finally give her something to cling to besides the rejection.

The Girl wonders: What does it mean when leaving the place where you were raised is something like coming home to yourself?

III.

The Girl’s fear has changed its face.

It no longer looks like the Evangelical man on her undergraduate campus or the rejected book in the library or the movie with the battered body. It now looks like the preacher in the pulpit on Father’s Day, telling the congregation what he’d do to another man in the event that they propositioned him. His glee in describing the way the blood would spill over his knuckles — the way that blood would be an act of God, of holy retribution. It looks like the nods of God’s people, the collective hum of their pleased agreement.

The preacher says queerness should be met with brutality, and that brutality is in and of itself an act of mercy. The preacher says that to go against the will of God is to incur His wrath on earth, and that wrath be justified. The preacher says to be soft, to be sweet, to be crooked is to condemn oneself to hell, forever and ever amen. The Girl sits in the congregation and has yet to free herself from the belief that the preacher might be correct. This, her relationship with God, is one of the remaining barriers she has yet to clear.

The fear looks like a secondhand YA paperback3 she picks up from a bookstore months later that sees her too well. She reads its dedication on the back patio of a cafe in Union Square: To those who believe in a loving God and those who struggle to love themselves. The pages are tear-stained before she even begins the story itself.

To believe what the book wants her to believe would be to finally release herself from the most potent vestiges of her fear — that the God she has spent her entire life reaching towards has already deemed her unclean, unsavable, unworthy. But the book says she is still deserving of love. The book says God molded her and shaped her in His image and to this end, God could not have been wrong. The book says she deserves to be held, to be cared for.

The book says she can stop holding onto the shame that she has carried with her for too many years of her adult life. The book says she is finally free.

Forever and ever, amen.

IV.

The Girl wrote the queer Black girl joy, happy-ending novel of her heart, but she couldn’t out-write her shame.

She recalls a scene from the book4 she carries with her these days like a Bible, well-worn and oft-referenced. There’s a moment in it, two boys under the stars, friends-but-perhaps-something-else, laying in the bed of a truck. It’s a turning point in the novel, this moment of clarity, of honesty. One boy says: I have to tell them, of his parents about his newfound queerness. He’s been holding on to this secret for too long, the reader intuits, and it’s time to let it go. Quickly, the other boy responds with a simple: Why?

Because I have to, the first boy answers. It is definitive, final — the last of the walls between himself and living the rest of his life honestly. He won’t waver. There is a life for him outside of these moments of openness he pilfers away with this almost-more-than-a-friend. It is a reckoning.

The night after The Girl’s book gets announced to the public, she’s at a tourist trap of a restaurant in Times Square, sitting across from her mother. Because I have to presses against the bounds of her chest; a levee, barely contained. When the truth rushes forth, unbidden, it’s over a plate of oversized barbeque chicken wings. She apologizes for being an embarrassment. For going against what she always believed was the will of God. For being the type of person her mother might not be able to love anymore. For not being able to change. And when she’s done, her mother watches her for a moment. Silent. Considering.

She says, There is nothing you could do that would make me ashamed to have you as a daughter. I love you. I’ve always loved you. I will always love you.

The Girl had held tight to the idea of love as transaction for so long, the boundlessness of this extension of grace stuns her silent. In this story, the mother was bigger than the cardboard cutout The Girl had made of her. In this story, there was character development past what The Girl could have imagined.

In this story, the happy ending wasn’t just wish-fulfillment, it was real.

1. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda x Becky Albertalli
2. The Miseducation of Cameron Post x Emily Danforth
3. The God Box x Alex Sanchez
4. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe x Benjamin Alire Saenz


Leah Johnson’s best-selling debut YA novel You Should See Me In A Crown is available everywhere books are sold.

Leah is the bestselling author of two novels for young adults. She lives, writes and misses the Midwest in Brooklyn, NY.

Leah has written 1 article for us.

18 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve loved queer YA fiction and it’s potential to open worlds for so long (A&D discover the universe, which has moments I am still reflecting on, also has moments that take my breath away like the one you quoted) and I can’t wait to check out your addition to the cannon.

  2. Thank you so much for putting into such lovely words the way queer YA touches the innermost parts of one’s self and their dreams of possibilities.

    I used to get preemptively defensive about the amount of YA I read, specifically queer YA, not anymore. There is something so incredibly soothing about reading stories of younger members of our community finding themselves in ways I wish I could have – and I get emotional thinking about all the tweens who can read the books now in a way I didn’t at that age.

    Can’t wait to buy your book, thanks for writing this!

  3. I loved this so, so much, Leah. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    The third passage in particular…”This, her relationship with God, is one of the remaining barriers she has yet to clear”…I felt that in my spirit.

    • PS I CANNOT wait to get my hands on You Should See Me In a Crown! I am from indiana and my mind still explodes that the whole time I was growing up there, Sofia Samatar was already a queer mixed kid who grew up in the place we call indiana ahead of me and so I’m ready for my head to explode in just the best way, and wow, I am just so excited about You Should See Me In a Crown. Thank youuuuuuuuuuuu again.

  4. Oh wow. I wasn’t expecting to cry this much today! Thank you for this beautiful piece. Earlier today, I spoke to an admissions counselor at an MFA program in writing for children and young adults, and I shared that my ultimate goal is to write queer YA. The books I read as a teen left a lasting impact on me, and the books that are being published for young people today still move me beyond measure. I just put your book on hold at the library, and I can’t wait to read it. <3

  5. This is such a beautiful and powerful essay. You captured those feelings of awe, need, magic, discovery, joy, pain that I feel too when reading queer YA. I’m so excited to read your book! I’m ordering it today. I love reading queer YA books (I read this essay with Annie on My Mind next to me), and I love sharing them with my students. Thank you for writing this!

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