Young Adult Literature with LGBTQAI+ Themes
By Christina Dorr, PhD
One drizzly May morning last year, I stood at the front of a classroom packed with teachers, administrators, and support staff, many willing to sit on the floor or stand along the back, ready to hear me introduce a panel of middle school students.
The young people were representing our newly formed Gay Straight Alliance, the first middle school GSA in the district, in a session on a district staff development day.
Yes, that’s right, the students had no school that day, but they took a portion of their free day, put themselves on the line, and came to talk to staff from around the district as to their struggles, their fears, their dreams. And, most importantly, how staff need to be their allies.
I couldn’t have been prouder of them as they took over the discussion, poured out their hearts, and handled Q&A with a maturity infrequently seen from middle grade students. Their comments centered around just wanting to be seen and accepted for who they are, to be allowed to be themselves without fear of assault, and to have others – both students and staff – see them as more than their gender and/or sexuality.
One comment I’ll never forget came from an eighth grade transgender boy, who said he found the courage to transition that year because the GSA was formed for support. He said that what others don’t know about him, when they only focus on his gender, is that “I’m a straight A student, play four instruments, and I’m the same person I’ve always been.”
The discussion, the students asserted, is about basic human rights and respect for all people. It’s not about the beliefs of adults who work with children; it’s about the children themselves. In short, it’s not about us, it’s about them.
And there are many, many ways to support these children, including through both fiction and nonfiction literature. LGBTQAI+ children’s and young adult literature is a conduit that lets students in that community see themselves and be validated. It also lets others outside the community understand different identities, and allows readers to enter each other’s worlds.
Young Adult literature with LGBTQAI+ themes
The quantity and quality of this literature has expanded rapidly in the past several years. The Stonewall Book Awards are presented to English language books that have exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience. I had the good fortune to serve on the Stonewall committee for the American Library Association’s 2017 Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, and I am chairing the 2018 committee. I’d like to share a few of the valuable titles we’ve honored below. (Click here for all the 2018 awards and earlier awards.)
If I Was Your Girl by talented new writer Meredith Russo was the 2017 ALA Teen Winner. It is the story of a transgender girl, Amanda, who had been physically abused by classmates in her former high school, and fearing for her safety, has been sent by her mother to live with her estranged father in rural Tennessee. Dad’s been out of the picture for awhile, and the adjustments necessary by both of them take time. But when she falls for a boy, Grant, and decides to tell her story, her father shows how loving and really concerned he is. The book deals with several themes: transgender, bullying, split family, love, friendship, identity, romance, trust, and truth.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is one of the 2018 winning titles. Suzette (aka Little) is home on summer break from a private boarding school, where she was sent the past school year as her brother Lionel (aka Lion) was struggling with bipolar disorder. She survived the year by developing a deep friendship and romantic relationship with her roommate. But now that she’s back home, she realizes her bisexuality as she develops feelings for a long time male friend. To complicate the picture, both Little and Lion start to fall for the “new girl in town.” Meanwhile, Little is struggling with trying to reconnect with Lion as he stops taking his medication. This creates another struggle, as she promises him not to tell their parents. Themes include family, friendship, mental illness, bisexuality, trust, honesty, race, and identity.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, one of two 2018 Stonewall Honor titles, proves that not all LGBTQAI+ titles need be angst filled. Set in the mid-1800s, royalty-turned-rake Monty has escaped England and his demanding father for a summer of European travel with his sister, Felicity, and best friend, Percy. On his return at the end of the summer, Monty is expected to take over his father’s business affairs. What ensues is a fabulous romp, full of missteps and hedonistic fun, that results in new-found respect for Felicity and true love for Percy. For an extra treat, listen to the audio version. Themes include bisexuality, race, equality, social conventions, royalty, women’s rights, and independence.
The 57 Bus by journalist Daskha Slater, the other 2018 Stonewall winner, is a heart-wrenching story of two teens riding on the same bus home from school in Oakland, California in 2013. Sasha, a European-American, agender high school student, dressed in a jacket and skirt, falls asleep while reading. Richard, an African American student, riding with his friends, on a dare holds a lighter to Sasha’s skirt. Disaster ensues, with both lives permanently changed. Themes include race, agender identity, violence, US judicial system, socioeconomic class, and advocacy.
Robin Stevenson’s Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community was one of three 2017 Stonewall Honor titles. This gorgeous, full-color, photo filled middle grades nonfiction book brings to life the history of Pride, LGBTQAI+ identities, and how Pride is celebrated in many countries around the world. It includes side bars, quotations, and resources. Themes include LGBTQAI+ identities and history, and Pride celebrations.
Working with LGBTQAI+ literature
I recommend letting conversations begin naturally as children and teens encounter LGBTQAI+ identities in books and stories in the news, or when they have questions they are wondering about. Always frame the talk around basic human rights and respect for all, let all voices be heard, and stop, address, and reframe any negative comments.
Stress to students that we’re all diverse in so many ways; no one is the “norm” with others being different. We derive strength from our many diversities, and we can cultivate empathy, an emotion sorely lacking in today’s political and social environment, through open, positive dialogue.
Stirs a bit of anxiety in you? Don’t let it, as LGBTQAI+ identities are just one of the myriad of diversities within ourselves and others that we encounter every day. Stay strong, dive in, and solicit allies when needed. Our children want our support.
Christina Dorr, Ph.D., NBCT, is a 28-year veteran media specialist, university faculty member, presenter, and writer in Ohio. Her first co-written professional book was Linking Picture Book Biographies with National Content Standards: 200+ Lives to Explore, aimed at teachers of middle grades students. Her second co-written book, LGBTQAI+ Books for Children and Teens: Providing a Window for All (2018), has a substantial chapter of resources for teachers of middle grade students.
Read Christina’s articles on teaching with picture books and connecting with YA authors, here at MiddleWeb. Follow her on Twitter @CHD2009 and at her website to see lots of kids learning lots of things!
Photos credit: Christina Dorr