Queer YA is having a moment. Walk into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find an array of bestselling LGBTQ+ novels on the shelves. Books like I’ll Give You the Sun and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe have won Printz honors and resonated with readers across the world, and a number of highly anticipated YA novels are releasing in 2016.
Though queer YA is still overwhelmingly white and gay, we’re beginning to see novels that represent more than just the first two letters of the LGBTQIAP acronym. There are now YA novels with prominent characters who identify as bisexual, as pansexual, as intersex, and as asexual. While YA novels with transgender protagonists have existed, many of the best-known have been accused of problematic representation. Recently, however, publishers have given trans YA authors the chance to tell their own stories in novels like Lizard Radio and If I Was Your Girl.
That is not to say an overwhelming victory in representation has been won. But it’s worth celebrating the strides we have made—and, in particular, the incredible authors who have shaped the growing genre.
Today, we’re featuring three such authors; next week, in part two of this series, we’ll highlight three more. All have LGBTQ+ YA novels forthcoming or on the shelves, and all are important activist voices, with stories and identities as diverse as the queer community itself.
A big thank you to our first three featured authors—Fox Benwell, Anna-Marie McLemore, and Erica Cameron.
Fox Benwell is known around Twitter for his tireless queer and disability activism, his dog and cat photos, and his impeccable taste in ties. The author of The Last Leaves Falling (published under the name Sarah Benwell), he is genderfluid transmasculine and has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/fibromyalgia. Because of the marginalization he has faced, he is committed to creating safe, intersectional spaces for people like him. “It’s important to me to try to be the kind of visible role model I wish I’d always had—to do what I can to make things better for the next generation.”
Growing up, Benwell embraced adventure, whether it was by reading books, climbing trees, or walking through the countryside. He always felt uncomfortable with his perceived gender, but until recently he lacked the language to explain why.
Two years ago, he found the label genderfluid, an umbrella term describing someone who experiences changes in their gender identity. It’s a term that can be “radically different from person to person.” Though he is generally more comfortable in the masculine end of the gender spectrum, it is rare for him to feel wholly male—“there are parts of the male experience I don’t usually identify with.”
Benwell believes that the most harmful misconception about genderfluid people is the notion that they are confused. Though a non-binary gender “can be a confusing, terrifying thing to navigate,” Benwell says, “we’re very, very aware of our bodies and minds and the way we feel, and we’re as sure of ourselves as anyone else.”
Beyond his gender, Benwell is also disabled, a fact that colors the way he interacts with the queer community. He has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/fibromyalgia—different doctors have dealt different diagnoses. He is almost always sore and tired, though the severity varies by the day. “Sometimes my limbs don’t work quite the way they should and I’m super clumsy, unsteady, or my fingers won’t type. And sometimes I get brain fog, so tired that I just can’t think.”
He finds that, as a trans, disabled person, he constantly has to request accommodations; he has to correct pronouns and names, or ask for a chair and for breaks. As a society, we often fail to make room for him and for others in both the transgender and disabled communities. This problem is not exclusive to privileged groups, either; Benwell has found that even in marginalized spaces, there isn’t always a place for him. “Finding somewhere that all parts of you can comfortably get along is hard: queer spaces may not be accessible, disabled spaces may not be queer friendly.” To fix this, he points to the need for diverse representation, which will fuel discussions and, hopefully, create broader awareness of the plights of people like him.
This Benwell has already begun to do in his own writing: his debut novel, The Last Leaves Falling, examines ableism in our society.
After Sora, a Japanese boy, is diagnosed with ALS, he turns to the internet for escape. He meets friends who value him for who he is—a lover of baseball and an aspiring professor—and who see him as something more than his illness. A beautifully honest novel, it examines in particular the objectifying tendency of able-bodied people to project pity onto members of the disabled community. In this way, Benwell’s first foray into the YA book world embodies his own hopes: to ignite discussion, to spread awareness, and to make the world better for the next generation.
He describes his forthcoming sophomore novel, Kaleidoscope Song, as “a South African LGBTQ music narrative, set in a township, all rhythm and first loves and finding your voice.” The novel, he says, has helped him discover who he is. “There’s attraction which looks a little like mine, and actual queer culture. There’s a non-binary character and a bi character and gay characters, and one who really doesn’t know how she identifies yet, except in love with the girl.”
He is also working on a middle grade novel, which he tells me is about “a genderfluid main character, their disabled best friend, 17 motorbiking dads, a crow, and all things pirate.”
Clearly, Benwell’s mission to create a more accommodating, understanding world is well underway.
Benwell’s LGBTQ+ book recs:
George follows Melissa, a trans girl whose gender is either not known or not acknowledged by her family members and many of her classmates. But when Melissa’s fourth-grade class puts on a theater production of Charlotte’s Web, she finds a way to make them all see who she really is.
From Benwell: “Everyone should have Alex Gino’s George in their life. Middle grade trans representation, written by a trans author? Where the character is not misgendered through the narration, and it feels entirely real? Yesssss.”
Set in a futuristic world that takes cues from our own, Lizard Radio follows Kivali, who is thrust into a camp where teens are forced to choose who they are (boy or girl, leader or follower) in order to become adults. It examines binaries of all kinds, but especially the gender binary.
From Benwell: “Right now, I’m pushing Pat Schmatz’s Lizard Radio into everybody’s hands. It’s brilliant and weird, and the closest I’ve ever come to seeing myself on the page. It’s not me, but no book can ever represent everyone, and the sense of queerness and otherness and rejection of the binary even while you’re stuck existing within it is spot on.”
For Anna-Marie McLemore, magical realism is an essential staple of both her writing and her cultural heritage. As a queer Mexican-American girl, she grew up reading the genre—she cites magical realism novels such as Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate as the reason she fell in love with literature. Now, they are the reason she writes it.
To McLemore, writing magical realism comes naturally. “[Magical realism’s] heart is the intermixing of the ordinary and the ethereal, and I fell into that easily both because it felt right for my work and because it’s where I come from. The origins of magical realism hold close the idea of culture and community, and rising out of the forces that try to hold down your culture and community. It’s a worldview that feels true to who I am and where my stories live.”
On Twitter, she once described her relationship with magical realism—and her struggle to properly define it—like this: “Because [magical realism] is a language, I can quickly tell you its name, its origins. But it’s hard to say what it sounds like, [because] I grew up speaking it.”
But she is certain about one aspect of the definition of magical realism: the genre is above all for the marginalized, as it is born out of oppression. This is evident in McLemore’s own work. Her debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, features two marginalized narrators—a Latina girl and a Romani boy.
For more than a generation, the Paloma and Corbeau families have been locked in a bloody feud. As competing performers, the two families seem to be at odds in every sense. The Palomas swim; the Corbeaus dance. The Palomas have scales; the Corbeaus have wings. The Palomas speak Spanish; the Corbeaus speak French. They are bound only by their mutual fear of each other.
Enter Lace, the newest Paloma performer, and Cluck, a Corbeau with darker skin and redder wings than the rest of his family. After Cluck saves Lace’s life without realizing she is a Paloma, Lace winds up in the house of the enemy—the Corbeaus—in order to be forgiven a debt. Her only chance of survival? That they don’t find out who she really is.
In October, she will release a second magical realism novel, When The Moon Was Ours. She describes it as being about “a Latina girl, a transgender boy, and their decade-long friendship. Like [The Weight of Feathers], it’s a story of magical realism, love across cultures, and staying true to your family while becoming your own person, but also includes themes of non-traditional families and queer identity.”
She centers her stories on marginalized characters not only because it’s what she knows, but because if she were to force out the diversity, her books would lose their heart. “Marginalized communities have so many things to teach each other, and so many ways to help each other. And that starts with realizing how much overlap there is between our communities,” she adds.
McLemore grew up in a large family in Southern California. When the first signs that she was interested in more than just boys began to manifest themselves, her immediate reaction was to ignore them. She was religious—and still is—and it took realizing “that God made me to love, not to hate who I am” to accept her sexuality.
She describes the coming out process as, among other things, “uneven”—for years, she was out in some spaces but not in others. She has also, for an extended period of time, oscillated between labels. Though she was at points partial to bisexual, she decided that “queer” fit her best. “It wasn’t so much that I was against labeling myself as that I wasn’t sure what the right label was.”
In many ways, the term helped guide her when her husband came out as transgender. “Queer still fits with who I am, a girl loving a boy, a boy who happened to be born female,” McLemore says.
One important realization she had after her husband’s coming out is that no one should make assumptions about another person’s sexuality. She and her husband both remain queer even though on the surface neither of them appears that way—he is a boy married to a girl and she is a girl married to a boy. Further, her husband’s experiences have pushed her to write even more inclusive and intersectional stories. “[His coming out] has made me even more aware of how important it is to me to portray marginalization in its many forms, and how love pulls our lives together.”
Today, McLemore remains deeply connected to her culture—and not just through her writing. Though her hobbies include writing, swimming, baking, photography, painting, and dancing, it is scrapbooking that remains the most important to her. She says: “it’s something I do with my mom, and it’s been a really meaningful way both to record new memories and to document the history of our family.”
That proximity to family and heritage has become a hallmark of McLemore’s novels.
McLemore’s LGBTQ+ book recs:
The year is 1959, and Sarah is about to become one of the first black students to attend Jefferson High School in Virginia. When she is forced to work together on a school project with Linda, whose father is one of the region’s most vocal segregationists, the two start to develop feelings for each other.
In Under the Lights, Vanessa navigates her parents’ disapproval, the marginalization by Hollywood of Asian American actresses like herself, and the feelings she is beginning to develop for her new manager, Bri.
McLemore says of both books: “As a queer Latina, I look for books that depict queer women of color. Two of my favorites? Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves and Dahlia Adler’s Under The Lights. [Lies We Tell Ourselves] shows us a pivotal moment in history, and [Under the Lights] takes us inside an industry that helps define what our society considers beautiful. Both offer emotionally vivid portrayals of racism meeting homophobia, external and internalized, and of racial identity intersecting with queer identity.”
Erica Cameron is fighting for visibility. As an asexual author writing asexual characters, she is working to make her identity known and normalized in the public consciousness. Asexuality—describing individuals who experience little or no sexual attraction to anyone—is frequently misunderstood. Even people familiar with its definition may not fully grasp why, for example, there are asexual awareness marches.
Cameron is well aware of this. “What they don’t realize is that we’re not fighting for rights, we’re fighting for recognition,” she says.
The problems facing the asexual community begin with culture. There is a notion in our society that sex is essential to any extended romantic relationship—as an example of this, Cameron points to the idea of consummating a marriage. Further, Cameron, like others in the community, is rallying against the idea that sexual desire is natural; though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has recently stopped classifying asexuality as a psychological disorder, many still view a lack of sexual desire as something that needs to be remedied.
Cameron says: “The theme of a lot of coming out discussions has been something like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! That sounds so sad. Here, let me see how I can fix that for you. Have you tried ______?’” Among other common responses, she lists, “You’ll change your mind when you meet the right person,” “Were you abused in the past? Maybe it’s just fear,” and “So, what? You’re a prude? Or just celibate?”
Through her writing, Cameron is telling the world she is none of the above—that being asexual is as inherent as being straight or bi or gay. “We want people to see us, to acknowledge our experiences as valid and real and not broken… What we’re fighting for and making noise about is the right to exist.” She adds: “We want a lack of sexual desire to not be something people look at as a classifiable disorder.”
Growing up in an open-minded community in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Cameron from a young age was presented with three options for her sexuality: straight, gay, or bisexual. Because she had no desire to kiss girls and “didn’t mind the thought of kissing boys,” she assumed she was straight. A fourth option was never on the table.
She first heard the term asexual used to describe a legitimate human sexual orientation when she was 29d. Immediately, something inside of her clicked. “The loudest thought in my head was, ‘Holy hell. I’m not the only one. I’m not broken.’” By then, she had married and divorced an emotionally abusive partner.
“Because I never had any explanation or understanding of why I didn’t want sex the way that the rest of society seemed to, the only answer I could come up with to the question ‘Why don’t you want me?’ was ‘Because something is wrong with me.’ It was a belief that developed over years and was reinforced by my ex, by the media, and, inadvertently, my friends.”
After another relationship of hers ended, Cameron stopped dating, believing she was broken. “There was an incredibly strong fear burrowing inside my head that I wouldn’t ever be able to make anyone happy.”
In many ways, finding the term “asexual” changed her life. Though accepting her identity has been a long process, being able to interact with members of the community has shown her first of all that nothing is wrong with her, and, secondly, that one day soon she might find a relationship with a level of physical intimacy that makes her more comfortable.
In the past year, reflecting on how important finding the term asexual has been to her life, Cameron developed a new mission as an author: to include characters who openly identify as asexual in all of her new releases. Though she has written several novels over the course of her career (including Sing Sweet Nightingale, Taken by Chance, and Loyalty and Lies), Deadly Sweet Lies, her December 2015 release, is the first book she has published since making that promise.
Deadly Sweet Lies is the sequel to Cameron’s debut novel, Sing Sweet Nightingale, but it can be read as a standalone. The novel follows Nadette, a girl tormented by creatures who prey on teenagers with special abilities. These creatures, known as the Balasura, are at their strongest at nighttime, and they work to convince Nadette to go to sleep and never wake up. When that fails, they threaten her family. Desperate, Nadette turns to Julian, another gifted teenager, for help. Julian’s and Nadette’s powers? Nadette can see through lies, and Julian can make people believe them.
What is perhaps most revolutionary about Deadly Sweet Lies is that Julian, a major point-of-view character, discovers throughout the novel that he is asexual. His asexuality is no small part of the book, either: an entire chapter (chapter 21) is devoted to his lack of interest in physical intimacy, and the term “asexual” is introduced and explained right there on the page. “I went three decades without encountering the word, and so I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to someone else,” Cameron says.
Since a young age, Cameron has seen the power in books. She and her two younger sisters were all dancers (when she was a high school senior, she choreographed a dance she later performed at the National High School Dance Festival), but she was the only bookworm.
She started writing seriously in college. Her first full novel was fanfiction; now, she has completed “somewhere between twelve and sixteen novels.” Dealing with Devalo, due out this spring, will feature a prominent demisexual character, with the identity confirmed on the page.
Cameron’s LGBTQ+ book recs:
In None of the Above, Kristin Lattimer has everything going for her: she was voted homecoming queen, she is a star athlete, and she already has a full scholarship to college. But when she’s outed as intersex to her school, everyone begins to see her differently—including Kristin herself.
From Cameron: “One of the most recent stories I fell in love with was I. W. Gregorio’s None of the Above. It was beautiful and brought light to intersex, a corner of the MOGAI [Marginalized Orientations, Gender Alignments, and Intersex] community that a lot of people don’t know exists.”
Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series is an eight-part book series beginning with Sandry’s Book. It centers on four teens with magical powers who are living in a community for mages-in-training.
Cameron says: “One of the first YA series I remember reading with verifiably queer characters was the Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce. She’s been a favorite author of mine since I was a kid, but seeing Daja begin to form relationships with other girls (especially in Cold Fire and Will of the Empress) was like finally finding someone in a book who reminded me of my best friend. Seeing the expansion of that representation since then has been so heartening.”