Let’s face it – in the history of literature, there haven’t been many young adult novels to feature gay characters. Up until fairly recently, in fact, even literature for older readers has tended to shy away from the taboo topic of homosexuality or, if it has included any queer characters, they’ve usually ended up dead, in a mental hospital, unhappily married to someone of the opposite sex, or otherwise depressed and distressed.
If you were a young person reading a book, looking for an accurate representation of who you were and who you could be, you would have ended up feeling pretty dreadful, because gay life, as portrayed in literature, looked absolutely dire.
The suicide rates amongst gay young people has been and still is very high and in a way, it’s not surprising that they see suicide as their only option, because they haven’t been shown any other ways of living.
Happily, though, things have started to change in recent years and we now can find young adult novels with lesbian characters. This is positive news for young people, and indeed it’s positive news for anyone who enjoys reading young adult literature.
Here are three of my favourite young adult books with lesbian characters. I’ve chosen three that look at sexuality from quite different angles.
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
This was one of the first YA books with lesbian protagonists (it was published in 1982). It’s somewhat dated now (ear-piercing is controversial in the story and a teacher yells about Sodom and Gomorrah, which would seem out of place in a modern school), but it is still worth a read, especially as there aren’t that many books with gay females at all, and still fewer that avoid stereotypes.
Teenagers Annie and Liza meet and fall in love, but face a number of challenges, including Liza’s conservative private school. When the two young women are discovered naked together, Liza is put on “trial” and threatened with the loss of her position as student council president.
I use this book in my children’s literature course and students regularly say that what they love about it is the way Garden describes the characters’ romance in such loving terms; this is a novel about a relationship, and not “just” a coming-out story, even though those types of books are important too.
Garden makes you care about Annie and Liza and their relationship, not because they are lesbians, but because they are people worth caring about. That they happen to be gay both matters and it doesn’t, and that’s why the novel still reads so well.
The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson
I said that coming-out stories are important and Johnson’s novel is a good example of one. But it’s not just about young people coming to terms with their sexuality. Instead, it’s also a look at how romance and sexuality can affect friendships, a theme that is often overlooked, especially in gay fiction.
Mel, Avery and Nina are three female best friends (the “triangle” in the title) who seem to share everything. But one summer, something changes when two of the young women embark on a romance.
The two struggle with what and how to tell the third friend and meanwhile she’s off having some romantic adventures of her own, but gradually she suspects that something is going on and that she’s being left out.
Both light-hearted and serious, this is an enjoyable read that explores heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality, and also whether friendships can stay the same once romance enters the story.
Gravity by Leanne Lieberman
Lieberman’s novel is different again from the other two here because it focuses on religion and how it interacts with sexuality.
The main character, Ellie, is an Orthodox Jew who falls in love with a female friend she meets one summer while staying with her grandmother. While the two young women explore their sexuality, Ellie also has to grapple with what being gay might mean to her as a religious person.
Back at home and in school, she receives only negative information about homosexuality. And yet this seems to conflict with the feelings and experiences she is having in her first romantic relationship.
This novel is one of the very few young adult novels to have a main character who is gay and not Christian, as far as I am aware. Ellie is left having to decide whether she can be both gay and Jewish or whether she has to choose one aspect of her identity to the detriment of the other.
Do you have other favourite lesbian young adult novels? What are they?
Guest post by B.J. Epstein. B.J. Epstein is a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia, where she specialises in queer literature and children’s literature. She is also a writer, editor, and Swedish-to-English translator.