‘LGBTQ Fiction’ and LGBTQ Representation in YA Literature: Time to disrupt the heteronormativity

12000020Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe is a lovely novel. Written from the perspective of Aristotle, the book is well-served by simple but elegant prose. It’s about negotiating identity, and not just in relation to sexual orientation, but also in relation to to family and culture—Aristotle and Dante are both Mexican American and they struggle with defining their relationships with their Mexican heritage. Aristotle and Dante is also about friendship and love in a variety of forms, not just about romance. The relationship between Aristotle and his parents is an important one—the book is about wanting to understand your parents, not only about wanting to be understood—and they’re fully realized characters in their own right, not always the case in YA fiction. The novel deals with serious issues such as PTSD, incarcerated family members, the subtle effect of cultural racism, and features some violence, but it’s ultimately a slow-paced and mellow narrative that remains, at its core, a coming-of-age story of friendship between teenage boys.

23228I’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘LGBTQ literature’ since two of the young adult books that I’d already read before we talked about LGBTQ YA in class had featured characters who weren’t straight—one protagonist was gay, the other lesbian (Kind of. The lead ends up with a woman, but I read her as bisexual. Works either way, that’s kind of the point)—but neither of those were explicitly ‘LGBTQ lit’.  A classmate read David Leviathan’s Boy Meets Boy and commented on the casual visibility of LGBTQ characters in the town. I later discovered that the book is overwhelmingly referred to as a ‘gay utopia’ or a ‘gaytopia.’ This seems like a reflection of the problem underlying LGBTQ representation in YA lit—it’s still limited to its own ‘genre’ corner.  If you write a fluffy romance for queer characters, well, it kind of has to be in a world where queer people actually exist and aren’t discriminated against—real levity doesn’t mesh with the kind of of conflict created by homophobia and discrimination, and your characters need to be normalized, not odd ones out—rom com leads are every-day people, if a little quirky, (just like you!) who are in love. The fact that when you write light romances for queer kids, everyone identifies it as utopian fiction, well, that says something. It isn’t a good something. Gay kids deserve the conventions too. But the conventions, as we recognize them, are heteronormative.

I get the feeling (and I really hope) that we’re reaching something of a tipping point here. As I mentioned, two of the books that I read this summer that didn’t star straight teens, Ash and Proxy, were both really well-written, enjoyable books in completely different genres—fairy-tale fantasy and sci-fi action respectively—that I wouldn’t identify as LGBTQ books first and foremost. I mean, I would certainly mention it if someone where looking for gay leads, but Proxy is a sci-fi action novel, not ‘gay sci-fi action.’ I’ve seen the term ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ used to describe this kind of spreading representation. I look forward to more representation of LGBTQ characters in ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ fiction; it’s needed to disrupt the heteronormativity that pervades stories of every experience that isn’t explicitly ‘not for straight people’—coming out, dealing with homophobia, being gay or bi or transgendered in a predominantly straight, cisgendered society.


A few resources for those looking for LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly YA lit:

True Colorz: ‘Young Adult LGBTQ Literature’

‘I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?’

Rainbow Books: ‘GLBTQ Books for Children & Teens’

and, of course, many YA book blogs have ‘LGBTQ’ tags or, alternatively, many LGBTQ book blogs have tags for ‘Young Adult’ tags:

Lambda Literarary: ‘Celebrarting Excellent in LGBT Literature since 1989’

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian: ‘A Queer Canadian Book Blog’

Wrapped up in Books


Fahrenheit 451 Redesign

Love this concept design by Elizabeth Perez.


Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about a dystopian future where books are outlawed and firemen burn any house that contains them. The story is about suppressing ideas, and about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

I wanted to spread the book-burning message to the book itself. The book’s spine is screen-printed with a matchbook striking paper surface, so the book itself can be burned.   (via)

On Reading Garth Nix’s Sabriel and the Value of Fantasy, Then and Now

(Hint: It’s about world-building and, when you’re younger, getting away with things.)

01 The first, second, third, and fourth gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton


It’s been really interesting doing young adult lit readings this semester, within the context of my Young Adult Materials class; thinking about my reading habits when I was younger; considering the books that have stuck with me and why they did; and the continuing awareness of alternate perspectives of materials when reading. The fact is that many of these books haven’t given me much as a reader, which I don’t mind; for me, right now, they’ve been largely fun, but ultimately not exatly satisfying. Not that they weren’t good, objectively, but they weren’t what I’m reading now, what I want or need, subjectively. That’s fine, But when I read them, I do it with my younger self in mind; and I can still feel the parts that resonate with that girl, feel the connection stretching back and I think yes, this line, this character, this book, this would have mattered. I can feel it for others too—for the nebulously existing ‘young adults’ that we talk about in class; I can think, yes, I can see where the value of this book is, in the language, in the themes, in the entertainment, but, understandably, it’s easiest to read through the eyes of younger-Julia, who I know best. I’ve felt echoes like this before when reading—as I mentioned in my post on discovering comics late—but I’ve never dwelt on them. The whole affair is a curiously pleasant experience, like reading aloud to someone else.


All this is a lead-up to a few brief thoughts on the book I read this week, Sabriel by Garth Nix, and, more importantly and generally, it’s genre: fantasy. Actually, sorry, I’m going to go ahead and summarily lump science fiction in with fantasy here; their natural tendency to bleed over their genre lines has on occasion ended up in the entire mess being covered by ‘speculative fiction’ as is. Some of our readings in future weeks are science fiction, but they fall firmly in the dystopia category, which precludes a huge swath of the work. But the main reason I’m rolling them together here is that the things that give fantasy value for me and particularly did for my younger self, correspond closely with science fiction.


Why I love fantasy then and now; world-building. Because I loved—and still love—systems of fantasy works. Social systems; magical systems; those that echo, expand, or subvert our own or those which are as whole as our reality’s systems—which feel as well-developed and integrated into the fabric of their world as religions and ideologies do in ours—but are still thrillingly alien. After I started reading Sabriel, the first thing I did when I saw my boyfriend was launch into a description of the systems that created the setting; charter magic, wild magic, necromancy by bells, and the world-building; details like the prevalence of magic interfering with technology means that the soldiers near magic-heavy areas carry swords as well as rifles. Of course, then he’s reading it Sabriel, because this infatuation with speculative world-building is one we share. Any speculative society, built on elements of unreality, as long as it’s built carefully and with consideration, is bound to catch us both.


02The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

So, world-building. That’s the primary reason I enjoy fantasy as a genre. That simple. Naturally each book has its strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t enjoy all fantasy by default, but the pleasure that an interestingly-constructed world gives me is so intrinsic to a reading experience that I find it difficult to describe. I’ve kept reading series that have developed characteristics which irritate me enough that they would cause me to ditch a stand-alone book, simply because I love the world they’ve created.


But there was another reason that these books meant so much to me as a kid; man, could you get away with stuff in speculative fiction. Seriously, guys, nobody tell the adults. This means something significant for younger readers; you get to experience new kinds of writing–you can, for example, get scared or deeply creeped out–and, more importantly, you get to engage with subjects that challenge you without the kind of scrutiny given to realism. Because those are the books I remember. Actually, I mentioned this in a post about challenged books I made around the time of Banned Books Week; because pursuing our faculty library’s shelf of banned books I recognized so many books that I had loved and could remember loving so distinctly on that shelf–works like The Golden Compass, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and The Giver. Alright, well obviously these books did get scrutiny, but that was because they had been getting away with it (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I often see The Mists of Avalon come up in discussions about illicit reading experiences).


This came to mind because Sabriel revolves around necromancy and is, of course, therefore suffused with death in a way that isn’t necessarily unusual for speculative fiction, but that you would never find in young adult realism. Of course, death in Sabriel isn’t remotely the same as death in reality, but it provides interesting viewpoints on mourning and, best of all, gets some seriously scary monsters. The first encounter with the dead comes in the form of an attack by a spirit that’s been dead for so long it isn’t recognizably human and has stuff itself into a corpse to exist in corporeal form. And the scene that introduces it is horrifying and awesome. And my younger self would definitely have been with me on this one.


Fondly-remembered stories that totally creeped me out when I was younger; The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, and Dead Water Zone by Kenneth Oppel.


I can both understand an urge to shield young people from the ugly realities of true fear and the wish to avoid them yourself, but it has to be said that well-played, fictionalized fear is gripping—advancing the plot, raising the stakes, and dragging you into a story. Young readers haven’t had the chance to discover this yet, and people are way less likely to object to you reading a book about necromancers than about real-life fears—good old fashioned regular human murders, for example–when you’re younger. For good reason, too: they aren’t really comparable. Within speculative fiction fear is something to be built up and ripped down, not something to be dealt with or endured as in realist fiction. A murderer or serial killer is one thing—a plot device, but a real possibility—and a murderer that’s a corrupted spirit inside a moldering corpse is another thing. There’s a kind of unique worth created from its dichotomy; of being the scarier, the more frightening of the two within the world of the story, and at the same time less scary, as something that exists only within the world of the story. And this worth meant more to me as a younger reader, because it was uncharted territory.

I’m using creepiness as an example here, but that’s just pulled from the week’s reading. As I said, it isn’t just about new narrative strategies; the alternate realities of speculative fiction let you explore ideas and concepts that run parallel to real life. It’s hard to describe the nature of this kind of reading without making it sound like something suspiciously innappropriate, but the fact is that growing up means encountering new experiences, and speculative fiction gives young readers a safe space to encouter and explore them–the first time I remember encountering the idea of euthanasia, for example, was in The Giver.


The Ninth Gate, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

172 Hours on the Moon (Book Trailer)


I enjoyed 172 Hours on the Moon, but the fact is that it’s primarily a horror novel and as such has a tendency towards weakness in places that many horror works do—the story set-up requires seriously suspended disbelief and the characterization suffers somewhat in favour of the plot (this is not intended as a slight against horror, but the conventions of the genre do differ from other types of fiction). These are not inexcusable flaws, but they could mean that those who don’t like horror might find the book unsatisfying if they are expecting a sci-fi mystery story—this book’s strength lies primarily in the creepy atmosphere and in the whole general territory of skin-crawling scares. With that in mind, this book talk video was made to mimic horror movie trailers, in order to both hightlight the novel’s main appeal and to ensure that anyone watching will understand what they’re likely to find in the book.
Books based heavily on mysteries rely more on the “you’ll like it, trust me!” realm of recommendations, since they generally have to skirt major pivotal elements. This was the case with 172 Hours on the Moon and was the reason why I basically ended up splicing shots of scared people in science fiction movies together (though they are related shots, of course; hiding in the greenhouse and individuals on the surface without suits both feature in the book, on top of the inevitable discovery of bodies, for instance)—the entire exercise weighted more heavily on representing genre and tone than outlining plot, since much of the plot lies in a reveal you don’t want spoiled.
I had way too much fun making this trailer and I’ve got the rudimentary, hand-drawn, heavily-edited storyboard to prove it, and—more importantly—a lengthy list of rejected ominous taglines (…why did they leave? …what’s been waiting for them? …but something’s been waiting for them, and that’s not even counting those compiled directly from the book cover itself; It’s the opportunity of a lifetime…If they can make it back alive. … who knows what’s really out there? … In the black vacuum of space… no one is coming to save them).
The song in the trailer is the Talking Head’s “(Nothing but) Flowers,” whose lyrics features heavily in the book.
A thorough booktalk ‘information sheet’ on 172 Hours on the Moon (including notes on style, characters, appeal factors, and intended audience) by Sarah Calder is available on her blog, Your Query Has Returned No Results.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Book challenges, trusting the young, and the reductiveness of “vulgarity”

Being a completely and entirely subjective reaction.

I was already familiar with Sherman Alexie before I started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This was primarily from trawling around the North American YA blogosphere where, for obvious reasons, they’re a little defensive of the genre (I am behind them 100% in this regard). So when a click-bait-y article entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” with the unfortunately subheading “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, it was naturally met with a whole lot of irritation by those who were familiar with YA canon. Sherman Alexie’s reply, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” appeared in the same publication and it’s absolutely worth reading, not just as a response, but on its own merits. Alexie ended his piece with a reflection on his own work:

…I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

That’s what I was thinking of when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I’m lucky in that I don’t need the weapons that Alexie provides with The Absolutely True Diary, but I can see their value clearly. Junior is a individual in seriously rough circumstances and True Diary one of the many narratives that needs and deserves more public visibility. The book is, in a manner, about ‘issues’—racism and white supremacy, poverty, disability, alcoholism, bullying, and many more—but more importantly it’s about resilience and it’s about Junior, who’s a likable character with a warm and darkly funny narrative style and you’re rooting for him all the way. I enjoyed it immensely, but I was troubled by the extent of the challenges it has faced when it’s used in classrooms or available in school libraries, and the incredibly reductive nature of the complaints.


While there are many issues on which I can see the logic of another’s view and while I understand that, on a fundamental level, it’s an impulse to protect children that underlies challenges like these, there are two things that, for me, make our viewpoints ultimately irreconcilable. The first of these is that I don’t really think that these challengers are giving young people enough credit. Obviously material for 18-year-olds won’t be appropriate for 6-year-olds, but kids and teens are pretty good at engaging with complicated texts; and if they aren’t, well, many of the True Diary bans have been happening in classrooms, which really should be the ideal place to develop those skills.

The second is that the definition of ‘obscenity’ is so fundamentally subjective. I’ve seen the word ‘vulgar’ come up over and over again from those that stand in opposition to this book. It’s certainly filled with obscenities—yeah, there’s a lot of cursing—but I can’t really consider that something that is the ultimate definer an obscene work; as a descriptor, it too neatly overrides the rest of The Absolutely True Diary‘s text, with complete disregard for context. The swearing in True Diary, just like the masturbation mentions (there’s no description of a masturbation scene, just a kid’s thoughts about the act—“And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate he wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”), are not added for shock value and they aren’t intended to titillate an audience; they’re part of the everyday life of the character and, as much as many would like to deny it, part of the everyday life of many kids.

At the same time, I tend to lean toward the views of Amanda Nelson’s “I Read Violent Trash as a Kid and Turned Out OK,” which I suppose brings it full circle to my first point: what exactly are they worried will happen to kids exposed to curse words and mentions of masturbation? I mean, I suppose it’s either that they’ll be traumatized or corrupted, but I just can’t get behind that reasoning—once again, I don’t think young people are so vulnerable to something like swear words, and complicated or new subjects should be talked about, something unlikely to happen if a culture of suppression and silence surrounds them.

It’s safe to say that the mother who described the books as ‘like 50 Shades of Grey for kids‘ and I will never see eye-to-eye, even if I understand that she wants to protect her son, and that’s fine. But those asking to have the books removed aren’t just trying to protect they’re own children, they’re trying to decide what’s appropriate for all kids. Ultimately there’s nothing I can contribute to this discussion that hasn’t been said many times over by many eloquent people. Sherman Alexie himself puts it best in an interview piece entitled “The Value of Subverting Authority,” when he was asked if there was any “measure of censorship in school that’s appropriate,” and whether there were any books that he would ban, given the chance:

I believe in any kid’s ability to read any book and form their own judgements. It’s the job of a parent to guide his/her child through the reading of every book imaginable. Censorship of any form punishes curiosity… We can all learn from every text. Reading the work that disgusts you can only strengthen your core beliefs. I could teach a semester-long course based only on reading the local telephone book. All stories can be taught in valuable ways.


Incidentally, what I find of particular interest are the reasons that books are reconsidered, removed, or retained in public libraries; the successful challenges of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are overwhelmingly in schoolrooms and school libraries. For those who would like to know more about the kind of challenges that public libraries received, how they consider them, and what actions they take, Toronto Public Library has three years of its Materials Review Committee’s summaries of their ‘Reconsiderations of Materials’ available online: 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2010, for example, a library user submitted a form requesting that a young adult horror novel called Swans in the Mist by D.E. Athkins be moved to the adult collection, because it contained “sadistic scenes” and “might give teens violent ideas” (The committee ultimately decided to retain the book in the teen collection). The documents are an interesting read.