This is part two in B&N’s two-part spotlight on six incredible LGBTQ+ authors currently writing YA. This post highlights Meredith Russo, Adam Silvera, and Sara Farizan. Find part one, featuring authors Fox Benwell, Anna-Marie McLemore, and Erica Cameron, here.
Meredith Russo’s debut novel, If I Was Your Girl, isn’t due out until May 3, but it’s already making waves in the YA world. Not only is the novel one of the most high-profile YAs to feature a transgender protagonist, but it’s also one of the few to focus on the character after her transition.
As the author’s note preceding If I Was Your Girl reminds readers, the story of Amanda, a girl who moves to a new town following her transition and is able to “pass” as cisgender, should not be treated as a universal trans experience. The trans community is as vast as any, and its members come from a myriad of different circumstances. But even though Amanda’s story is only a small part of a diverse whole, it remains a hugely important part. An emotionally poignant read, If I Was Your Girl pulls no punches, and is underscored by Amanda’s constant fear for her safety, her history with mental illness, and the imperfect reaction each character has to her coming out. But as you turn the last page, you’ll feel something more: hope. Hope for Amanda, hope for the future, hope that soon positive portrayals of trans teens will be so common as to no longer be revolutionary.
The other remarkable part of If I Was Your Girl is that its author is herself transgender. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to parents who were openly accepting of the gay community and who had colorful families (on her dad’s side were musicians and academics, on her mom’s were “awesome hardscrabble, irreligious, hard-livin’ bohemian kind of southerner[s]”), Meredith Russo grew up in an open-minded environment. “Besides all the dysphoria, [it was] a pretty fantastically charmed youth for a little queer weirdo growing up in the South.” But it was still the 1990s, and media depictions of the transgender community were deeply inaccurate—as a kid, Russo was taught by the media that transgender people were “hilarious and pathetic and deceptive and dangerous and disgusting all at once.” At the time, she didn’t feel quite right in her body, but pushed those thoughts aside because she didn’t want to become like the trans characters she saw on TV.
By puberty, Russo felt deeply uncertain both emotionally and physically. She found herself “pretending” to be a girl online, writing journal entries about how she wanted to be a mother, and, when dating a trans man in high school, becoming extremely invested in the details of his transition. But she continued to dismiss these thoughts as nothing.
She admitted to herself she was a girl when she turned 20, after reaching a dark place emotionally and nearly failing out of college. “My reaction when I did finally say it out loud (typed it if I’m being honest) was the kind of jittery, manic relief you feel when you just almost hit another car but stopped at the last minute, where you haven’t processed what just happened because you’re just excited you’re still alive.”
Months earlier, she’d found an online forum that was home to a vibrant trans community. Telling herself she was an ally merely trying to stay informed, she closely read the details they shared about hormones, therapy, and surgery.
The first two people Russo came out to were trans women (Aimee and Emily) from this forum. “Aimee reacted with excitement when I told her, but Emily’s reaction was a little sad in a way that only made sense much later; she was sad because she knew I was in for just as much pain and stress as her and all the rest of our friends.”
For Russo, the coming out process lasted from 2008 to 2013. At first, she told only her online friends. But starting in 2010, she branched out to people in her real life—she first told the head of the Women’s Studies department at her college and then more and more people, until she began her transition in October 2013. Though some of her extended family members reacted poorly at first, almost everyone became supportive. “Every time I took another little, horrifying baby step, the people around me came through,” Russo says.
The worst reactions came from her coworkers. “I found out I was being called things like ‘it’ and ‘he-she’ behind my back, and I was made to use the men’s restroom [at work] even though I was at a point where I passed well enough to make the men uncomfortable and it put me in danger.”
Unfortunately, this type of transphobia has been common. But, in Russo’s experience, the two most pervasive kinds of transphobia are different. The first occurs within other activist communities—notable offenders include a group of feminists known as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, as well as portions of the queer community. Both groups actively erase the role transgender people, especially trans women, have played in creating a more equal society, and they advocate, for instance, to drop the T from the LGBTQ+ acronym. The other most common instance of transphobia that Russo has experienced is more subtle—holding someone to a higher standard after finding out they’re trans: “Family members get angry or impatient with you much faster and over much less important things. Bosses who praised your performance before transition start constantly nitpicking and looking for excuses to write you up.”
Certainly, Russo’s experiences as a trans woman have informed how she wrote Amanda, the protagonist in If I Was Your Girl. But Russo tells me she has little in common with Meredith, except for one important thing: they’re both self-avowed nerds.
On this front, Russo appears to have Amanda beat. In middle and high school, Russo wrote all kinds of fanfiction, but especially fanfiction of Harry Potter, Final Fantasy 7, and the Alien movie franchise. (Writing these stories is what made her fall in love with writing.) She’s also a huge fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, board games like Betrayal at House, tapletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, anime, indie rock, and mermaids.
Her only accomplishment bigger than writing and publishing a novel? “I used to be able to beat ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ on expert in Guitar Hero.”
Russo’s LGBTQ+ book recs:
From Russo: “The manga Wandering Son is an amazing depiction of what it’s like to be young and trans in Japan, and for those of you who don’t like comic books there’s a wonderful anime that covers the story from the first few volumes. I can’t really recommend anything centered around trans girls besides Wandering Son, sadly. I haven’t read everything that’s out there, natch, but what I have read left me feeling kind of gross and sad and not very satisfied.”
An epistolary novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows Charlie, a lonely teen swept up in his newfound friendships with Sam and her stepbrother, Patrick, both of whom have vibrant personalities. Among many other things, the novel explores mental illness, sexuality, and substance abuse.
From Russo: The gay character is kind of tangential to the plot, but Perks of Being a Wallflower was so important to me as a kid and helped me feel less alone so it should be required reading anyway.”
If you’ve visited B&N Teen before, you’re probably familiar with Adam Silvera’s New York Times bestseller More Happy Than Not. A quick search of the blog reveals it has been mentioned in more than 22 posts—and the novel hasn’t even been out for a whole year. But More Happy Than Not is ubiquitous for a reason: it’s not only an emotionally devastating read, but it’s also highly intersectional—Aaron, the protagonist, is gay, Latino, and low-income.
After his father commits suicide, Aaron finds support only in his mom and girlfriend. But when his mom becomes overwhelmed with work and his girlfriend leaves town for a few weeks, Aaron begins spending all of his time with a new boy, Thomas. The two grow close, and Aaron starts to develop feelings for him—feelings that transcend friendship, feelings that aren’t acceptable where he’s from. And the book has a near-future twist: To forget he isn’t straight, Aaron longs to turn to a cutting-edge memory-erasing procedure known as Leteo. More Happy Than Not is all at once funny, nerdy (see: the characters’ love of comics and Star Wars), and emotionally devastating (see: mostly everything else).
Its author, Adam Silvera, is something of a celebrity in the YA world, and not only because of his misguided love for Golden Oreos. (Luckily, author Becky Albertalli has put him in his place about this.) He’s extremely generous in sharing his personal stories: a few months ago, he spoke openly about his struggle with depression. He’s also candid about his childhood growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with his mom, dad, and older brother. Until he was 13, he and his family all slept in the same bed. “We were very, very poor,” he says.
Silvera didn’t move out of the Bronx until he was 21, but at age 19 he got a job working at a B&N in Manhattan. There, he found people far more open-minded than what he was used to, and “it completely changed my view on the universe.” Slowly, he began coming out to his close friends.
Currently, Silvera identities as gay, but he’s quick to point out that he’s still unsure about his sexuality. He has considered IDing as bisexual, remembering the times he dated girls in high school and wholly enjoyed it. “Society tries to make us believe bisexuality isn’t real and [that] when guys claim to be so it’s because they’re ashamed of being gay as if it diminishes their masculinity.” He adds: “I’m 25 now and still untangling myself from that nonsense.” To him, the best part of being gay—aside from the fact that it lets him make out with hot guys—is it has helped him become a more accepting person.
Silvera started writing when he was 10 or 11, mostly Harry Potter fanfiction. Now, following the release of More Happy Than Not, he has two new YA novels coming out next year: History Is All You Left Me (January) and They Both Die at the End (fall). He says of History Is All You Left Me, “It’s a novel about grief and love and lying and mental illness. And we see the gay narrator having sex with his bisexual boyfriend for the first time and it doesn’t fade to black, which I personally would’ve appreciated as a teenager.”
Despite his success, Silvera’s novels were not always embraced by publishers. As a queer Puerto Rican author writing primarily about queer Puerto Rican characters, he has faced skepticism about whether books as diverse as his could appeal to a large audience. While More Happy Than Not was on submission, for instance, he received pushback from editors who wanted him to erase aspects of the story—one publisher asked him to make Aaron (the protagonist) white, another to make him straight. “I knew I could’ve received a larger advance if I made a change, particularly making Aaron white, as straightening him out would’ve defeated the purpose of the book,” Silvera says. “But that’s not the book I wanted to publish. I wasn’t whitewashing my story.”
Silvera’s LGBTQ+ book recs:
When Simon, responding to a post on his school’s unofficial Tumblr blog, anonymously emails a boy from his high school, he ignites a series of flirtations in which neither boy knows who’s behind the other’s screen name.
Paperback $12.27 | $14.99
This quietly beautiful novel chronicles the relationship between Aristotle—an isolated boy whose brother is in prison—and Dante, who becomes Aristotle’s first real friend.
Sara Farizan writes the stories she didn’t have when she was younger. As a gay Iranian American woman, she finds that in books people like her are frequently stereotyped, if represented at all. But through her writing, she wants to change that. “I’m always going to write about things that are unfair, things young people may be dealing with, and people I want the world to know as full-fledged human beings rather than stereotypes or caricatures.”
She has already started with her first two novels, If You Could Be Mine and Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. Growing up, Farizan felt she was the only person who was both LGBT and of Middle Eastern descent. Though she read stories about homosexuality in medieval and ancient Persia, she knew of no one—and saw no one in the media—who in modern times identified both ways. “For a long time I had this notion that I was the only one in all the land who had these multiple identities.” This lack of representation, at least in part, is what drove her to write If You Could Be Mine and Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel.
If You Could Be Mine, Farizan’s debut, centers on two girls in Iran, Nasrin and Sahar. Over the years, their friendship has blurred into a clandestine romance, and the two resolve to spend their lives together. But when Nasrin turns 17, her parents announce they’ve found her a husband, a wealthy doctor. Though Nasrin insists this won’t be the end of their relationship, Sahar refuses to continue loving Nasrin in secret. Desperately, Sahar turns to the possibility of sex reassignment—in Iran, homosexuality is illegal, but gender reaffirming surgery is not.
In Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, Leila is alienated from her classmates because of her Persian heritage, and she fears coming out of the closet will only alienate her further. But when an enigmatic new girl arrives at her school, and Leila immediately develops a crush, she takes risks that weeks earlier she never would have dared to. Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, like If You Could Be Mine, weaves Persian culture and examinations of family, friendships, and religion into a powerful and intersectional read.
As a kid, Farizan was never ashamed of her heritage. She was proud to be Persian, and she was proud to be American. In fact, as an Iranian American, in some ways she had the best of two worlds: “I could eat ghormeh sabzi and pizza (not at the same time of course). I could listen to Googoosh and Michael Jackson.”
Though her family was accepting of the queer community, sexuality wasn’t ever talked about in her home or community. “Growing up in New England mixed with a Persian upbringing, you kind of learned that there were subjects that you didn’t discuss.”
She first sensed something was different about her sexuality when she was five—she’d been a fan of the TV show Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, and she found herself nodding along as Chip and Dale explained why they had a crush on their female friend Gadget. Among other indicators, Farizan lists the music videos for Janet Jackson’s “If” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” She didn’t think much of her interest in girls until middle school, when she struggled to accept that her sexuality is as naturally a part of her as her hair color. She came out in college; today, she wishes she could travel back in time and explain that her life wasn’t about to radically change. “I wish I could also tell my younger self that you’ll date some gorgeous women in college, flirt with some lovely ladies as an adult, but mostly you’ll just watch Netflix and try to write books for teens.”
Since she was young, she has been writing in a variety of different formats—in high school, she wrote and performed a play; in college, she penned a number of TV pilot scripts and short stories. After an internship at a production company in L.A., she turned to novels, and for the first time wrote about queer characters and characters of color. Soon after, she finished Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel.
Farizan tells me that despite the lack of representation of queer characters of color in YA, she has never worried about whether her books would be deemed unsellable to a large audience. Rather, her primary fear as a writer has always been responsibility. “Now that I have been published, I worry all the time. Not about marketability” but about “whether it’s my place to write about certain groups of people.” She adds: “I don’t want my one story to be the sole representation.”
Farizan’s LGBTQ+ book recs:
In None of the Above, Kristin Lattimer has everything going for her: she was voted homecoming queen, she’s 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 Farizan: “I was really engrossed by None of the Above, by I.W. Gregorio, as I had never read a narrative with an intersex main character and hope to see more in the future. I thought the book was well paced and I felt right there with Kristy the whole time. I like when a book makes you feel like you and the main character could be great friends.”