Happy Pride Month! This is a month with so much history behind it, and of course, there’s one way we explore that best: by asking authors of some of our favorite rainbow literature about the queer books that changed their lives. These life-changers include some of queer YA’s fore bearers as well as some universal classics, and even titles that released as recently as this past month, which proves it’s never too late to make your mark.
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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, is a novel with quiet, powerful, and emotional intensity that lingers, even so many years after reading, already making it one of my favorite novels of all time. But what’s made this book the most formative for me is the fact that it’s the first time I was allowed to witness queer people of color falling in love and, while there was heartache and struggle, not be punished for their love. It was the first time I saw a story where queer people of color were accepted and loved by family, and were given their own happy ending, when our stories have historically ended with tragedy. Giving readers the space to imagine such a reality for themselves was groundbreaking for me, and I always strive to put even a touch of the magic of Aristotle and Dante in all of the novels that I write.
—Kacen Callender, author of This is Kind of an Epic Love Story
Ash, by Malinda Lo
Fairy tales have had my heart since before I could read them to myself, and they kept it as I grew into telling my own stories. But for years, I wondered if a girl like me—queer, Latina, carrying around scars I didn’t speak of—could write the kind of stories that, to Americans, seemed the realm of blond, thin, straight gringas. Then I read Ash. Malinda Lo’s reimagining of Cinderella felt like a magical kind of admission to the world of fairy tales. Without the mysterious forest in Ash, I wouldn’t have written about gardens ruled by queer girls of color. Without Aisling and Kaisa, I wouldn’t have written about medieval queer communities or Latina swan queens. Without Malinda Lo’s reclaiming of Cinderella, I wouldn’t have known I could reclaim the fairy tales that held my heart. Ash gave me, and so many other readers, the gift of knowing not only that I was allowed, but that I belonged.
—Anna-Marie McLemore, Dark and Deepest Red
Proxy, by Alex London
At a certain point in my very gay youth, I put down Divergent, or The Hunger Games, and thought to myself, “Straight people are a mess. Someone should help them.” I was responding to the lack of queerness in science fiction and fantasy, which made even the most grounded story feel unrealistic to me; which made even the idea of writing my own stories feel like an act of self-delusion. Then I found Proxy, by Alex London, the story of gay teen fighting to survive in a dystopian society of corruption, privilege, and debt. The book had every merit—a captivating world, a thrilling pace, beautiful writing—with the additional miracle of queer characters. And their queerness mattered. The second I finished it, queer stories ceased to be fantastical to me. They became real. They became all I wanted to read, and then to write.
—Ryan La Sala, author of Reverie
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
The short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, is one of the most life-changing books I have ever read, both as a queer woman, and as a female-identified writer. Machado’s stories live outside the male gaze, in a world where queer female bodies have agency and where female sexuality is accepted as truth and not objectified, sensationalized, or tamed. Most exciting to me as a writer is how this queer subject and voice extend to the queering of form itself. It’s been revolutionary to me to explore these questions in my own writing: What is possible when we break out of the “traditional” patriarchal structures and styles of literature? What is possible when we write outside the straight male gaze? What new worlds and stories and ways of telling can we find when we look with our own eyes? I think the best literature frees us in some way. As a teen, it was stories about sad broken girls that did it for me, that broke me out of the prison of loneliness. Now, as a grown woman and mother and professional author, liberation feels much different. This book freed me.
—Amy Reed, author of The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World
Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg
I was nineteen, and searching for transgender role models, when I came across a person named Leslie Feinberg who had written several books. One of those books was a novel called Stone Butch Blues. I checked it out of the library, not knowing what to expect, and was captivated by the story of Jess, a young gender-nonconforming queer person navigating their gender and sexuality in 1940s to 1970s New York. Through this novel, Feinberg told me I was not alone, that it was okay to be queer, and that I was part of a long and rich history, a beautiful and vibrant community. Feinberg’s writing was evocative and emotionally intimate, threading the complexities of gender and sexuality in a way that profoundly influenced my own understanding of those things. Stone Butch Blues was the first piece of queer media I connected to in this way, and I am forever grateful.
—Ray Stoeve, author of “Parker Outside the Box” in Take the Mic
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
The book that changed my life was actually a somewhat recent one, since I only later in life discovered the language to fully describe myself. Maybe it sounds cliché coming from an ace author at this point, but that book was Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, and it was the first time I saw myself reflected accurately on the page, in the main character, Nancy. It gave me an indescribable and wonderful sense of affirmation–not to mention that the twist on portal fantasy, other phenomenal (queer!) characters, and dark, bloody mystery in the book are utterly brilliant.
—A.M. Strickland, author of Beyond the Black Door
Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown
The queer book that changed my life was Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown. I found it at a garage sale in paperback one hot, sticky summer in the early ’80s. The title intrigued me, and when I opened it up, the first page? PaZOW! It was the first time I’d read about—no, wait—it was the first time I learned the word lesbian. Where, and when, I grew up had a very short vocabulary for queer identities: gay or normal. Rita Mae Brown gave me words and definition; my crush on Melissa Etheridge and Nancy McKeon suddenly had shape. That book was a shock to the system: a queer book by a lesbian, about the lesbian author herself. Total KO. I was hooked—and drawn in, and filled out, and it put me on the path that ends with me writing oodles of queer books for teens.
—Saundra Mitchell, editor of All Out and author of All the Things We Do in the Dark and The Prom
Wonders of the Invisible World, by Christopher Barzak
There’s something indelible that keeps me coming back to this book. Is it the Midwestern setting? Well, yes. Is it the magic? That too. But what I’m drawn most to is the fact that Aidan, our narrator, doesn’t spend the story coming out. He knew he was gay years ago, and forgot it—along with his memory of the boy he was falling in love with—when his mother put a spell on him to hide him from a curse. But as cracks form in the curse and in his mother’s story, and his memory trickles back, it’s not a coming out for Aidan. It’s a coming home. And that feels so powerful to me.
—Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great is Not Okay
A Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde
I was already out, and knew all about Wilde when I read A Picture of Dorian Grey, but that didn’t stop it from being an astounding read to me—the way the book talked about queerness without talking overtly about queerness, and presented an entire queer community, with a variety of different men in it, not all of them likable, opened up a whole new world for me in terms of the way we have a secret language that we’ve always spoken. It made me feel like part of something older, more majestic, but also dark (though not in the ways straight people referred to the queer community). It let me see queerness as a city, filled with people and glamorous skyscrapers and dark alleyways instead of just a series of people randomly dotting the globe.
—L.C. Rosen, author of Jack of Hearts (and other parts)
Annie On My Mind, by Nancy Garden
Nancy Garden’s Annie On My Mind was the very first YA book I read with a gay happily ever after. I’d only just come out to myself, I was still figuring out what it meant to be queer, and everything I’d read up until that point was less than hopeful. And then I picked up this book, and it was full of rebellious joy and love and recognition. I devoured it whole. And in the midst of figuring out that part about myself, it made me feel infinitely less alone.
—Marieke Nijkamp, author of This is Where it Ends and Before I Let Go
Far From You, by Tess Sharpe
Tess Sharpe’s Far From You is exquisite—it’s an emotional journey that cuts like a knife. It was the first (and remains one of the only) wlw book ever read that showed me that queer girls could experience queer relationships with other girls in the way that *I* do. The relationship is a friendship, a friendship that involves sex and sexual tension and isn’t soft and sweet and romantic; it’s intense. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen myself on a page, a queer girl who only experiences attraction when it comes with that rawness, with teeth.
—Brianna Shrum, author of Kissing Ezra Holtz (and Other Things I Did for Science)
The Brilliant Death, by Amy Rose Capetta
—Alex London, author of Proxy and Black Wings Beating
The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff
When I was in middle school, I stumbled upon a copy of The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff. While I have read Lili Elbe’s autobiography Man into Woman since—and have much more complex feelings about cis people writing trans characters as an adult—getting to even see a trans character at all had a massive impact on me as a child. I remember being curled up on the floor in the corner of the library at thirteen, weeping at how much I cared about Lili and wanting her to be safe, happy and properly loved. The book has aged terribly, and there are many aspects of it that anger me as an adult. But because of it, my first exposure to trans women was one of incredible tenderness and beauty.
—K. Ancrum, author of The Wicker King and The Weight of the Stars
Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston
I rarely leave YA when looking for new books to read, but I am so glad I ventured into the world of New Adult for Casey McQuinton’s Red, White & Royal Blue. Going in, I had no idea how much I needed a book like this in my life. On the surface, main character Alex, son of the first woman POTUS, is nothing like me. He’s charming, hilarious, and fashion forward, but he’s also bisexual, something he doesn’t recognize in himself until his twenties. When Alex first comes to grips with his bisexuality, he tries to rationalize it away, thinking that his support for LGBTQ+ people means that he should already know if he were queer. His internal struggle mirrored my own experience so closely that it stole my breath. Made my heart beat a little faster. It drew me even deeper into a story I was already falling in love with for its rich characterization and crisp, funny voice, making it a novel I will cherish forever. Red, White & Royal Blue is, at its heart, a book about love, about discovering yourself and figuring out how to share that truth with the world, and most importantly, it’s a book bursting at the seams with hope. And with that hope, I believe, comes the courage to live and be and write my truest and most authentic self.
—Isabel Sterling, author of These Witches Don’t Burn