Were We Ever So Young: Revisiting “Empress of the World”

Welcome to Were We Ever So Young, a series where we revisit gay/queer books we read as young people that were Very Significant for us and rereading them as adults, noting the differences in our reactions.

On my 14th birthday, with a fresh gift card burning a hole in my pocket, I found myself standing before the fledgling Young Adult section at Barnes and Noble, picking out Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. I read the back of the book and was excited because it was about kids at an academic summer camp, and I was about to go to an academic summer camp.

The names of the main characters, Nic and Battle, were gender neutral enough that I projected heterosexuality onto them, not yet knowing that gay YA lit was something even there to be looked for, but when I showed it to my mom, she said, “Mad, this looks good —I’m pretty sure it’s about two girls. You know that, right?” I hadn’t yet articulated anything definitive about my sexual orientation to myself, but I remember feeling a little like I’d been caught in the act. I played it cool and shrugged. I knew my mom didn’t care, and mostly I just felt subversive because the gift card I was going to buy it with had been given to me by one of my most conservative friends. That’ll show her for being so homophobic, I thought to myself, though I knew I’d never tell her. Empress was my first gay YA novel.

I don’t remember ever talking with my mom about Empress again. I don’t know why she pointed out that it was about two girls. I don’t know if she noticed how many times I read it. But my mom was always supportive, so much so that I came out to her by accident, assuming she’d already figured it out. My bigger concerns with coming out were related to my friends.

We got home from Barnes and Noble and I fell into the book, lost amidst Nic, Battle, Isaac and Katrina, four friends made fast on their first day of camp. Isaac and Katrina are infatuated with each other, Nic and Battle are infatuated with each other. They are all bad at telling each other their feelings, until an organized hike goes awry, Nic twists her ankle, Battle brings her an ice pack, and they kiss. Isaac and Katrina, their own crushes unacknowledged, don’t miss a beat. The four of them hang around campus doing homework and making fun of each other and avoiding bad dining hall food. Nic and Battle hold hands and kiss sometimes. Teen drama unfolds. Identity and sexual orientation play a huge role in the story, but the only people who are less-than-nice about it are clear villains. I’d never experienced a dynamic like that, and I wanted it.

At the time that I first read Empress, I was becoming more and more isolated from my friends at school. We had spent a lot of the beginning of eighth grade, which coincided with the Bush/Kerry election, having lively “debates” at lunch, which mostly meant I would defend the right to get an abortion while everyone else shouted at me. I was also afraid they were all going to disown me if I turned out to really be gay. My journal entries from that time are mostly political treatises (“I want equal rights for EVERYONE, including homosexuals.”), discussion of my life aspiration of becoming a congresswoman (my career path has since diverged), and my deep love of Jethro Tull (nothing’s changed there, TBH), but then there’s also this, from June 2005:

Empress of the World is the best book. I really relate to Nic. She’s sort of lost with friends. She’s quiet, but ambitious, and strong in her convictions. With her relationship with Battle, she’s happy with it because she’s in love, but she’s still confused about her sexuality, like I am. She faces problems with tolerance like I would, if I’m a lesbian. I don’t know. It’s confusing, and in the world and town I live in, it’s scary. I’d lose all the friends I have because their religion tells them that homosexuality is a sin. I don’t get it.

Empress of the World, with my Empress of the World feelings, from June 1, 2005. (Immediately followed by a journal entry about slow-dancing with a cute boy at the 8th grade dance.)

Empress of the World, with my Empress of the World feelings, from June 1, 2005. (Immediately followed by a journal entry about slow-dancing with a cute boy at the 8th grade dance.)

Empress gave me a roadmap that allowed me to be confused about my “label” while also letting me figure out who I wanted to be kissing, which was mostly girls. It gave me some language to start understanding desire. Nic’s self-conscious but diligent journaling throughout the book indulged and validated my own propensity to analyze the reasons behind everyone’s behavior.

Nic and Battle’s romance is delicate and sweet. You can feel the tension of their desire mixed with shyness: “If she wants a back rub, is it too much to kiss the back of her neck?” Nic wonders to the reader. I can feel my 14-year-old self just dying to have someone to share that gentle intimacy with. And of course, I wanted to know more about how they were being intimate. I wanted erotica, let’s be honest. But YA books don’t work that way, so I had to read between the lines as Battle and Nic’s physical relationship escalated, climaxing at a nighttime excursion to the woods: “all of it gets blurry and soft until all that’s left is sensations.”

I longed for those sensations, and I read Empress over and over, searching for new answers to make my life as a baby queer a little easier, a little less isolated, a little less filled with unrequited love and unfulfilled desire. Empress became a guide, a comfort, an aspiration, and a shield.

Reading Empress now, it’s still a comfort, still a book I’ll pull of the shelf and flip open at random to calm me in the middle of the night, when I’m looking for something familiar to hold my focus. These days, though, I feel more connected to Ryan’s perspective as the writer than Nic’s as narrator. I’ve experienced the love, the intimacy and the heartbreak I yearned for as a kid, and now I’m drawn back by the sweetness of the story. I appreciate the subtle misandry directed at the boys in the group of friends Nic falls into (“They sit across from us and spread out in a boy like way, taking up the maximum possible amount of space.”), and at the arrogant (and ignorant) boys in her archaeology class. I can also see how Ryan quietly but deliberately gives the reader a window into different queer cultural milestones: Battle shaves her head in defiance of her parents; Nic learns Isaac has gay aunts and is overjoyed to hear about adults like her actually existing. But Ryan also pushes back against queer tropes and stereotypes: while Isaac and Katrina good naturedly try to impose labels and butch/femme dynamics onto them, Nic and Battle shrug them off, not sure if they really fit. I think I was frustrated with this as a kid, really wanting Nic and Battle to take a definitive stance so that I might know what stance to take for myself. But looking back, I appreciate the ambiguity; I think it helped me be better at accepting the more fluid pieces of myself and others.

Empress came out at the height of my Harry Potter obsession, and at the dawn of the age of prolific young adult writers who turn out volume after volume chronicling the same characters or at least the same themes. I wanted a million more volumes of Nic and Battle’s story. I wanted more Sara Ryan on my shelf than Sarah Dessen. I watched Sara Ryan’s website like a hawk, looking for any possible sign of what became of Nic and Battle when they left their nerdy summer camp.

Six years after Empress, Ryan finally published The Rules for Hearts, a smart, lovely book that speaks to the angst of being totally enamored with someone who is not really available. It’s more of a companion more than a sequel, focusing on Battle, but not about Battle’s life with Nic. While my young teen self still itches for more of Nic and Battle, I’m satisfied that Empress of the World stands alone, a simple, sweet story I found by chance, but that I knew was mine.

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Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.


  1. Oh man, I wish I’d read this book when I was in middle or high school.

    I’m pretty sure I was already 24, at least, before I did and it was still a sweet story but mostly I just felt so distant from that age and didn’t want to be back in the awkwardness of it all. I was oddly relieved when I finished reading it.

  2. Aww this book :)
    There are definitely some emotional entries in my high school journal about it. It was so validating to read then!

  3. Oh my goodness I wish I had gotten my hands on books like this in my formative years.

    Instead I had to have my queer YA phase at 28 :-)

      • Great suggestion! I loved Huntress. I think I’ve read all of Malinda Lo’s books, unless another one has come out in the past two years :-) (I think my Goodreads shelf outed me to at least half of my friends that year.)

  4. ahhhh! this was the first non-hetero romance that i ever read or heard about! i found it at the library and had to sneak it home and hide it under my mattress so my parents wouldn’t find out but it was so sweet and thrilling to read (omg representation is important, y’all). although i remember being kinda creeped out by nic sometimes. didn’t she make a doll with battle’s hair or something after they broke up?

  5. I loved this book! It was one of the first books I read with queer characters that were well-written and also well-rounded, and not just there for sake of being a Book About Gay People.

    My first queer book was Annie on my Mind. My family is big into reading, and whenever we’d go on a long plane trip my parents would give us $10 to spend at a used bookstore to get books for the trip. I remember slipping Annie on my Mind in the bottom of my pile, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice.

    I read it over and over from 14-17, and I even loaned it to a good friend who was straight who I had a huge crush on. I remember she gave it back to me and was like “honestly the writing was kind of boring, I paged through looking for exciting sex scenes but I couldn’t find anything” and I was kind of sad but simultaneously excited (why was she looking for exciting sex scenes?).

    Fast-forward 10 years and said friend is bi and lives halfway across the world but is coming to my city and we are probs having dinner? So that will be cool!

    Also, I still have that same Annie on my Mind edition from 10 years ago. It’s pretty well-worn.

  6. Thank you for writing about this book! I had forgotten about it. I came out at 15, in 2001 and didn’t keep track of the amazing books I was reading. I love your journal entry. I only vaguely remember this book and wonder where in the scheme of things I read it.

  7. Oh my gosh I’m so excited about this series! I read every gay YA book I could find in HS. Keeping You a Secret was my first one, I have a copy and still read it. Also, Dare Truth or Promise! But few people seem to know about it. Although, I do remember reading Hard Love in middle school which was about a boy who had a crush on a lesbian and how angsty he was because of that. Bleh.

    I don’t think I ever read Empress of the World! I wish I had. I’m gonna read it now.

    • Dare Truth and Promise is such a good book! I didn’t read that one til I was an adult, but I totally read all the gay YA books my library had to offer when I was younger. Although somehow I still didn’t realize I was gay…

  8. Thanks for writing about this! I think I was 38 or 39 when I went through my YA lit phase so, you know, I had trouble relating to it but thought it was absolutely sweet and adorable. I’m so glad that such books exist for kids in their formative years these days.

  9. When I was 15 I spent my summer visiting my aunt in Toronto, and because they worked all day and there was a limited amount of things a 15-year-old Mexican could do in the city, I spent most of my time in a bookstore, reading YA novels for hours. I’d just started questioning my sexuality, so obviously I eventually found the LGBT shelf in the YA section, which consisted of like, 10 books. And of course 8 of them were about gay guys. I read most of them, nonetheless, but I remember seeing Empress of the World, reading the summary, and thinking that I couldn’t just read that one there, because it felt like it deserved a special moment or something. So, after a month I finally built up the courage to buy it. I remember being terrified, because the cashier would obviously know I was gay. What if they asked for my ID? It was awful, but of course, at the end, nothing happened, I just bought the book and that was it. So I finally read it and I remember just *feeling* a lot of things. I don’t think I’d ever read queer literature that resonated so much with me before. It just made me really happy, and at the same time a little frustrated because I wanted more, a sequel, a prequel, anything.
    After I came back home I hid the book and took it out occasionally to read it again. Then one day a friend (another queer girl) asked if she could read it, and stupidly, I gave it to her. She kept it. I know she did it on purpose, and she probably didn’t even think it was a big deal because people keep books all the time, and I wasn’t brave enough to tell her what it meant to me. We stopped talking, so eventually I knew I would never get it back. I could buy it again, I know, but there was this whole story behind that particular copy, it somehow had become my symbol of courage, as ridiculous as that sounds.
    Anyways, it’s been years since I read it, and this post just made me really want to buy it and read it again. I think it’s gonna be interesting to look at the story now that I’m older, and more “experienced”. So basically, thank you for writing this, it was beautiful :)

    • I had a similar book experience with Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself. It called to me in a used book store when I was a teenager, and then a decade later I lent it to a friend who I thought could use the introspective paragraphs and one-liners that make up the book. For a long while I was miffed that she never gave it back (although, before we stopped talking, she insisted that she had… my guess is that she lost it somewhere). I picked up another copy, but it’s a different edition and nothing about it ever felt the same. The book was there, but the magic was gone. I could have continued being upset, but then I remember: I’ll always have the memory of finding that book, and the experience of loving that book for a decade, and lodged in my brain, I will always have the line, “I’m holding this cat in my arms so it can sleep, and what more is there?”

      All this is to say: sometimes the beauty of a book is that it gives you whatever gift you need, when you need it, and then, like so many wise things in this world, it moves on when it is needed somewhere else.

  10. Oh, my heart. I had a very similar experience with this book. My dad always used to take me to the bookstore once a week, and one time when I was about 14 I picked up Empress of the World, mostly because I liked the cover. I ended up reading it two or three times, along with Kissing Kate, and I always felt a little guilty when I did so, while resisting naming why. My dad never commented on my choice of these books, but I’m sure he noticed, and years later, when I came out to him, he seemed anything but surprised.

    Years later, in college, I ended up reading a lot of queer YA lit in bookstores in New York, no longer feeling guilty but with a real ache in my chest for my younger self and how afraid and lonely I was. How afraid and lonely I sometimes still am, for no real reason.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series, Maddie. Thanks for this.

  11. This, Annie on my Mind, and Keeping You a Secret all helped me so much as a 13 year old who was terrified of my own feelings. I’ve since given my copies of each away, bought more, and given them away again, but I like to think they found good homes in the hands of friends and students lost in the heteronormative world of middle and high school.

  12. Empress of the World and Keeping You a Secret were everything to me during my teen years. I literally squee’d when I saw this article pop up. Thanks for that blast from the past!

  13. I almost had the exact same experience! After I told my mum I was gay, she bought all these books off amazon for me and this was my first queer YA book. The memories! haha

  14. This is so great. And 8th grade Maddie seems like a total delight, just the kind of person 8th grade me would’ve wanted to be friends with.

  15. This sounds like a great standout queer YA book. One of the girls identifies as bi, doesn’t she? Can anyone confirm?

    • Neither of them choose a Definite Label during the course of the book, but bisexuality is definitely mentioned and presented as a possibility for at least Nic, if not also Battle.

  16. this was my first queer YA too! i loved it so much. it gave me so many warm and fuzzies. i happened upon it at the library, and didn’t realize it was about two girls when i checked it out.. although that book cover. come on. ;)

  17. This was one of the first queer books I read too! I was in love with this story, but didn’t really quite get why I identified with it so much.

    *runs to find a copy to re-read*

  18. This brings back all of the unidentified teenage feelings about super cool/magical/talented/part human heroines who didn’t fall in love with princes, I loved these books when I could find them… my level of clueless knew no bounds!

  19. I remember this book! There’s a point in the beginning where she zips up a friend’s dress before she goes on stage and another kid calls her a “lesbian thespian”

  20. <3 <3 <3 this was my first queer book too! At the time I was on a YA-(straight)-romance kick, and I picked this one up because I thought that they were a straight couple and, I don't know, the hands didn't tip me off. And then I went home and read it and I congratulated myself for being so "open-minded" that I would enjoy a romance between two girls…and then I couldn't stop thinking about it and I read and re-read and re-read it SO many times, before I even considered the possibility that I might be gay. I don't know, man, denial is weird.

  21. Loved this book when I was younger. I only ever found lesbian teen books by accident when I was younger.

  22. I always wanted to check this book out but I read Keeping You A Secret and Far From Xanadu when I was in my preteens. I also was obsessed with Nikki Wade and Helen Stewart from Bad Girls as well as Spencer and Ashley from South Of Nowhere. Those media outlets really opened a lot of doors from me.

  23. Nothing like this was around when I was 13, Millenia ago in the early ’60’s.

    I’m so pleased that YA lit like this is around now. I sure it must make life a good bit easier.

    Maybe I ought to have have a late adolescence? I might learn something.

    • Nothing like this existed in the 80s either, at least nothing that 13 year old me had access to. I can’t imagine what a difference a book like this might have made for me – especially one where being bi was mentioned as a possibility.

      So, so glad they exist now.

  24. I just downloaded the ebook of Empress of the World the day before this article went up, so I really appreciate the timing! Looking forward to reading the book.

  25. Love Empress of the World. Annie on My Mind was my first, but it was just old enough to be slightly out of step for me, while Empress of the World was solidly my generation. Special love for it since I am an archaeologist and enjoyed Nic’s exploration of archaeology as a future career through the program. And the intensity of that age, where three weeks is a lifetime and you can’t imagine recovering.

  26. Hey folks: just wanted to say that I was thrilled to read this piece and I love seeing your comments! (Also, I can confirm that Nic identifies as bi.)

  27. Baby queers <3<3<3 this sounds adorable, and I love the idea of resisting femme/butch dynamics and smol bi folks. I needed this when I was a teen.

  28. Oh this book. I don’t even know how many times I checked this out from the library. I picked it up because it had a pretty cover. And then read it over and over and over. In my library’s search system each book had tags and this one was tagged with “lesbian”. I then read the I think 3 other books in the whole library with that tag (other than the murder mysterys because no thank you). But none of them were about teenagers and they were so political and I didn’t care, I just wanted more girls kissing and more girls being soft and hard and confusing. I’m really glad that Autostraddle is doing this column.

    Although after reading all the lesbian books the library had to offer I seriously considered whether I was a lesbian and strongly decided that no I wasn’t. And I was kinda right- not a lesbian, but thoroughly interested in women for sure!

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