A History of LGBT Coming-of-Age Fiction (in 15 Books!)
me start by saying this: it’s basically impossible to condense the entire history
of LGBT YA into 15 books. It’s like
trying to squash all your stuff into a suitcase before going on holiday – no
matter how much you skimp and scrunch, and even sit on top of your battered old
wheely number to try and zip it up, you inevitably end up having to leave out
some really good stuff.
The YA, coming-of-age genre has such an amazing history of exploring love stories and relationships of all kinds, and pioneering new voices and styles, that it’s totally unsurprising that it’s been a major trailblazer in bringing a whole range of LGBT books to the fore and changing the landscape of LGBT literature across all genres and ages.
English novelist E.M. Forster
wrote Maurice in 1913 but it was only
published after his death in 1971. It
tells the story of Maurice Hall, aged 14 at the start of the book, and his
experiences of same-sex love throughout university and in his early
adulthood. Forster avoided publishing it
during his lifetime because of public attitudes towards gay relationships. A note was found on the manuscript which said
“Publishable, but worth it?”.
Truman Capote’s first published novel follows a 13-year-old boy called Joel who, after his mother dies, goes to live with his father in Mississippi. There, he becomes best friends with a tomboy called Idabel, and he meets his stepmother’s cousin – a plantation-owner called Randolph, who is openly gay and cross-dresses. Joel eventually meets his father and gradually gains a sense of his own identity amidst the characters at Skully’s Landing. When it was published in 1948, Other Voices, Other Rooms hit the New York Times Bestseller List.
Dorothy Strachey was the sister of novelist Lytton Strachey, and was part of the famous Bloomsbury Group. In 1949, she anonymously published Olivia, an artful and understated novella about an English girl who is sent away to a small finishing school outside Paris, where she watches observes the romantic relationship between her two headmistresses. Olivia was dedicated to the memory of her friend, Virginia Woolf.
When it was published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle was completely game-changing due to its open portrayal of gay relationships which aren’t totally angst-inducing. Confident heroine, Molly Bolt, is comfortable in her sexuality and works hard at school to win a scholarship to the University of Florida. However, once at uni, her scholarship is cut when the college authorities discover her relationship with her room mate.
Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel is about a young girl growing up in the Pennines, who is adopted by evangelists from the Pentecostal Church. As a teenager, she finds herself falling for another girl – so her mother’s friends from Church subject her to a series of exorcisms… This absolutely brilliant, darkly-comical read won the Whitbread Award for a First Novel back in 1985.
Weetzie Bat is a huge-hearted lovesong to a punky 1980s L.A., which follows the eponymous Weetzie Bat and her best friend Dirk. Daisy Porter from Queer YA described Weetzie Bat as a kind of “gaytopian” novel, alongside David Levithan’s charming and feel-good Boy Meets Boy, where gay characters first began to be depicted as living lives, facing challenges and starring in story lines that didn’t necessarily revolve around them being gay.
Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age classic, The Perks of Being a Wallflower consistently appears on the American Library Association’s list of Top 10 Most-Challenged Books. It’s an epistolary novel (a book-in-letters), from the point of view of “wallflower” Charlie, whose friend Patrick is gay – a fact which is totally accepted by all the main characters without a second thought. A beautiful, thought-provoking, empowering read.
16-year-old Regan is the only one who knows about her brother Liam’s secret: he really identifies as a girl. By night, Liam transforms into Luna, and – after several years – Luna asks Regan to help her transition into a full-time female. Regan worries about her sister’s safety and her family’s reaction but ultimately agrees to help… In 2004, Luna was the first YA novel to feature a transgender character.
Bringing LGBT YA firmly to the UK, Sugar Rush (2004) follows the life of teenager Kim, after she is forced to leave her posh school in Brighton and join the notorious local comp, where she meets a fiery new friend, Sugar. It was adapted for TV in 2005, and became a successful Channel 4 series.
Jacqueline Wilson’s heartfelt story, Kiss, was published in 2007. It’s about best friends Sylvie and Carl who have referred to each other as “girlfriend and boyfriend” since they were young kids, and how their friendship shifts when Carl gets a new friend, Paul, and later confides to Sylvie that he’s gay. Like Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, it was a crucially-empathetic novel which dispelled “gay best friend” stereotypes.
Hot on the heels of Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith’s genre-bending exploration of bisexuality (and the insect apocalypse, naturally), the sensational Winger was published in 2013. It has a stellar line-up of characters, including Joey, the captain of the rugby team who also happens to be gay – a subject which is still taboo at their prestigious boarding school in Oregon. It also has a bite-my-tongue-incredible twist.
The Half Bad trilogy places an unexpected – but completely tangible – LGBT love story in a contemporary world of witches, brutal authorities and white-knuckle fantasy. It refreshingly allows the gripping story to take the front seat, whilst the characters’ love is a deep, intense undercurrent that infuses the trilogy with even more jeopardy and even higher stakes. Breath-taking.
In 2010, John Green and David Levithan’s co-written Will Grayson, Will Grayson came out, and once again changed the playing field for LGBT YA – friendship, football, depression, live music all played their part in this novel which had at its centre one gay boy and one straight boy with the same name. Hold Me Closer (2015) is the companion novel to Will Grayson, and follows the story of the larger-than-life, camp and witty Tiny Cooper. What’s more, it’s entirely written as the script to Tiny Cooper’s musical, ‘Hold Me Closer’, which appeared at the end of Will Grayson. It’s hilarious and heartwarming – and an entirely new form and style for YA literature.
This 2015 gem brings the coming-out story into the digital age, as the eponymous Simon is outed on his high school’s Tumblr messageboard. He also falls in love over email with ‘Blue’, whose identity is a mystery beyond the fact that he attends Simon’s school – cue a rollicking, heartfelt rollercoaster of a whodunit.
And finally! The Accident Season, which comes out in July, brings a subtle but spine-tingling gay love story into its gorgeous swells of magical realism set amidst a group of teens in Ireland. Cara and her family are deep in the throes of their annual Accident Season when, every year, they become inexplicably accident-prone (in the worst Accident Seasons of years gone by, people have died…). All the while – two of the girls in the group are falling in love. This is a beautifully-told story with magical accents that makes the future of LGBT coming-of-age stories look very bright indeed.
By Natasha Collie