13 Under-the-Radar LGBTQ YA Must-Reads

Fans of the Impossible LifeIt’s a phenomenal thing that some of the biggest titles of the last couple of years have been LGBTQ, from Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, to Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You, to Andrew Smith’s Printz Honor–winning Grasshopper Jungle, to Jandy Nelson’s Printz Award–winning I’ll Give You the Sunnot to mention some of this year’s most highly lauded debuts, including Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, and I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above. But as is always the case in the publishing world, there are those titles that haven’t gotten quite the same push but are super worthy nonetheless. It’s hard to be a reader who actively seeks out LGBTQ YA and not be familiar with names like David Levithan, Malinda Lo, Sara Farizan, or Julie Anne Peters, but here some old favorites that have gone under the radar for too long, as well as some upcoming titles that haven’t gotten nearly enough buzz but aren’t to be missed.

Dare Truth or Promise, by Paula Boock
This New Zealander YA wasn’t under the radar when it came out 16 years ago, but having just read it for the first time on a recommendation from a friend, I’m impressed at how well it works for an audience as old as the book itself. Given how few YAs featuring queer girls there is even now, especially featuring sexual activity, this is one that definitely deserves a mention, and a purchase.

Brooklyn, Burning, by Steve Brezenoff
I first fell in love with Brezenoff’s work in his 2014 dual-POV gaming contemporary, Guy in Real Life, which raised plenty of interesting gender issues despite featuring a heterosexual romance, but Brooklyn, Burning definitely holds its own unique place in the YA canon. The book is told from the perspective of Kid, a genderqueer drummer whose first passion is music and whose second passion was Felix last summer, but this summer is Scout, a charming and enigmatic newbie to Brooklyn who shares Kid’s love of music. A poignant, bittersweet story of making a new home when your old one no longer fits the description.

37 Things I Love (in No Particular Order), by Kekla Magoon
I was introduced to Magoon via her most recent release, the thoughtful, compelling, and all-too-relevant How it Went Down. So it was quite delightful to discover she has quite the backlist, including this quiet gem about a girl named Ellis whose comatose father is in his last days. Ellis has become reliant on her father to be her sounding board and closest confidante, so when her mother suggests his time has come, she isn’t ready to let go, and it doesn’t help that her old friendships are falling apart. But amidst everything coming undone, an old relationship is piecing itself back together, and becoming more than Ellis ever imagined it could be.

The Unintentional Time Traveler, by Everett Maroon
This is one on the list I haven’t yet read, but it’s worth noting for the mere fact that it’s the only trans YA novel I know of written by a trans author. Similar to one of my all-time favorite LGBTQ YAs—The Fourth Wish, by Lindsay Ribar—this book uses a scientific/paranormal phenomenon to explore gender identity and its importance (or lack thereof) by having a central character who inhabits both male and female forms at various points.

Not Otherwise Specified, by Hannah Moskowitz
Reception for Moskowitz’s seventh novel might’ve been a little quieter, but the main character has no such problem. Etta is out, proud, opinionated, artistic, angry, determined, and an all around blast. She’s also desperate to escape her Nebraska town, where she can’t seem to fit in with any crowd, whether because she’s a black ballerina, because she’s in recovery for an eating disorder, or because all her lesbian friends turned her back on her for dating a boy, even though she never claimed to be a six on the Kinsey scale in the first place. For anyone who has ever felt erasure of their bisexuality, Not Otherwise Specified is just about the best “I am not a unicorn” soapbox you could ask for, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself yelling, “Yes, thank you! Finally!” over and over again.

Coda, by Emma Trevayne
Music is the drug of choice in Trevayne’s dystopian world, but there are two very different kinds: the government-regulated type, designed to control its citizens, and the kind you make by hiding out with your secret band and producing music that’s pure and simply for enjoyment’s sake. Anthem desperately needs to keep the latter going in order to tolerate a life spent surviving the former in his role as a Conduit, but when death rocks the band, he may have no choice but to join the revolution, no matter the cost. This is always one of the first books I recommend to people looking for queer YA where the character’s sexuality (in this case, Anthem is bisexual) is a complete nonissue.

Sister Mischief, by Laura Goode
Jewish lesbian Esme loves nothing in the world more than hip-hop, though her bandmate “MC Rohini,” aka Rowie, gives it a run for its money. The relationship between them is a complicated one, and it doesn’t help that they and their friends have put themselves in the school spotlight by fighting for their right to their passion. A fabulously unique and clever YA, full of interesting and thoughtful dialogue on not just sexuality but cultural appropriation and different art forms, this one had me repeatedly asking, “What am I reading?,” in the best possible way.

Cut Both Ways, by Carrie Mesrobian
Mesrobian’s no stranger to writing in the voice of a highly sexual teen boy, but her upcoming novel is her first in which the boy is hooking up with another boy, in this case his gay best friend, Angus. He’s also got a girlfriend, Brandy, and major angst about how and why he genuinely likes, or perhaps even loves, both of them. A fearless examination of the process of understanding your sexual identity when it doesn’t look like those of the people in your life or even in your bed.

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis
As challenging as it is to find LGBTQ YA, multiply that times a hundred when you’re looking for it in fantasy, and times a million when you’re looking for it to feature other types of diversity as well. Enter Duyvis’s critically lauded debut, told in dual alternating perspectives and featuring a Latino amputee named Nolan who’s transported into the body of mute, bisexual Amara every time he closes his eyes. An emotional, well-written, wholly unique read, particularly excellent for fantasy lovers suffering trilogy fatigue.

Anything Could Happen, by Will Walton
Anyone who knows me knows I am a lover of romance, but in the case of Walton’s wonderfully sweet debut, I think its greatest magic is in not having one at all. (Not a requited one, anyway.) Anything Could Happen fills a gap I hadn’t even been conscious of in LGBTQ YA until I read it—one in which the main character’s love story is wholly internal. Tretch knows he’s gay, knows he loves his best friend, knows his best friend would likely be cool with his sexuality (given his dads are gay), but is just not quite at the revelation point yet. He’s coming into his own, learning what he wants, and doing it all without a boyfriend safety net. Bonus points for great parental characters and a far more accurate depiction of their involvement in kids’ lives at that age than we usually see in YA. Yes, dear reader: parents driving kids on dates is very much a real thing.

Trust Me, I’m Trouble, by Mary Elizabeth Summer
It seems funny to call a book under the radar when it’s the sequel to a book that just sold TV rights, but even if you’ve read Summer’s debut, Trust Me, I’m Lying, there’s a good chance you didn’t know to expect that the follow-up was LGBT at all. However, if you happen to read books with that very specific eye for any queer connection possible (which, come on, I’m not the only one who does), it’s highly unlikely you missed the chemistry between main character Julep and Dani, the slightly older mob boss (!) who’s nothing short of a badass. Sadly, I haven’t yet read this one to know where Julep’s heart ends up, but I do know the only way I could’ve possibly been any bigger of a Julep fan was for her to end up bi, so…is it inappropriate to virtually high-five the author for this one? Yes? All right then.

Fans of the Impossible Life, by Kate Scelsa
Mira and Sebby are best friends, sharing a seemingly impenetrable bond until new boy Jeremy comes along and makes his way into their world, falling for both of them in the process. I have to admit that of all the books on this list, this is the one I know the least about. But I do know this: where there’s a book about complicated friendships and sexual line-blurring, particularly with not two but three people involved? I will be there, and you probably should be too.

What We Left Behind, by Robin Talley
Talley’s 2014 debut, Lies We Tell Ourselves, was an excellent one, but the far stronger focus there was on the racial tension of the budding relationship between two girls—one black, one white—in Virginia in 1959. In her followup, about a couple who goes off to college, the romance is definitely at the forefront. This book is, to my knowledge, the first YA from a major publisher to feature a main character who self-identifies as genderqueer, and it is packed full of thoughtful, relevant discussion of gender identity and sexuality, and the effects of evolving not simply as a single person but as half of a couple. Definitely a huge discussion starter to keep an eye out for come October.

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