for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
One of the standout differences in the LGBTQ offerings in 2016, as opposed to previous years, is a boost in genre fiction.
While I love reading LGBTQ books of all kinds, in my truest and nerdiest heart, I’m a lifelong reader and devoted writer of genre fiction.
Stories with marginalized main characters tend to take a particular route through the publishing world--starting with “issue” books, expanding into a broader range of contemporary fiction, and finally arriving at genre fiction.
My first two published novels--Entangled (2013) and Unmade (2016)(both Houghton Mifflin Harcourt--are space opera and feature a f/f romance between two secondary characters.
The farther into the series I got, the more I knew that my heart was completely wound up in the story of those girls. I knew what I wanted to do--what I needed to do--write about queer characters in the kind of stories I love best.
Unfortunately, I could think of few traditionally published YA novels that fit into the categories I wanted to write.
I know that I’ve been lucky. I have so many other stories to tell, as do so many LGBTQ authors. But the readers are what I keep coming back to.
Every time I find a new, beautifully crafted world with LGBTQ characters in it, that world changes mine a little bit. And if I’d had those books as a young reader--it would have changed everything.
One of the authors I looked up to as proof that LGBTQ YA genre fiction was possible is Malinda Lo.
Her science fiction fantasy (SFF) books featuring queer girls are among the handful published before 2016, including Ash (Little, Brown, 2009), a lush and lyrical retelling of Cinderella.
When I asked Malinda about her own favorites of new and upcoming books, she said:
Audrey Coulthurst's fantasy novel Of Fire and Stars (Balzer + Bray) [came] out.
"An early version of this book was Audrey's submission to Lambda*, and when I first read it I honestly wasn't sure if I trusted my own assessment of it because it checked so many of my personal reading faves. I was almost afraid it wasn't real!
"It's a high fantasy about two princesses who fall in love with each other against the backdrop of political intrigue and one girl's growing knowledge of her own magical talents.
"It also involves (to my eternal delight) plenty of romantic horseback riding lessons. Ever since reading Robin McKinley's novels as a teen, this has been one of my absolutely most favorite tropes in fantasy.
"And Of Fire and Stars is also such a delicious, slow-burning romance. Anyone who enjoys romances should love this book."
I had the opportunity to talk to Audrey Coulthurst as well, and ask her what she loves about writing genre fiction.
"Perhaps the best thing about writing genre fiction is how boundless the opportunities are; writers of SFF are not obligated to create worlds that have the same social structures or prejudices that are present in ours.
"As a teen it would have been very meaningful to me to find a fantasy book that felt familiar in the ways I loved—the medievalesque setting, magic, and political intrigue—but also showed me that it was possible for a girl to fall for another girl in that imaginary world.
"Desire for that kind of book is what inspired me to write Of Fire and Stars.
"There still are not a ton of LGBTQ books in YA SFF, but that means a lot of opportunity exists for writers. I can’t wait to see what new releases arrive in the coming years.
"What I would love is not necessarily to focus on creating a SFF LGBTQ YA category, or expanding LGBTQ YA to include SFF, but for characters of all gender identities and sexual orientations to be present on the page in many different kinds of stories and for those to be accepted as part of the broader canon."
Readers who loves high fantasy will no doubt embrace Of Fire and Stars, while those who enjoy high-paced adventures with pirates and sea monsters will delight in The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (Flux, 2016). Fans of myth retellings in contemporary settings, should run out and immediately read About a Girl by Sarah McCarry (St. Martin's Griffin, 2015).
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova (Sourcebooks, 2016) is a rich fantasy starring a bisexual Latina bruja. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow (McElderry, 2015, 2016) features deftly written dystopian politics and a beautiful queer romance. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee (Duet) is an exciting new addition to the YA superhero genre. Christopher Barzak’s Wonders of the Invisible World (Knopf, 2015, 2016) is a beautifully written contemporary novel that weaves in fantastical elements. Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz (Candlewick) is a fantastic sci-fi novel with a nonbinary main character.
While these novels will appeal to anyone who loves great storytelling, for queer readers, the expansion into genre fiction is positive for so many reasons.
As Corinne Duyvis, the author of the excellent YA fantasy novel Otherbound (Amulet, 2014), puts it:
"While we need issue books, we also need more. Some readers want an escape from the real world. Some want to be empowered in a supernatural fashion. Some just love reading about dragons and are tired of being excluded from all the exciting dragon stories, damn it.
"You can't say it's 'representation' when it only exists within a very narrow kind of narrative, often dictated by cishet people. Representation means representation everywhere."
And she points out that queer readers aren’t the only ones who benefit.
"It's been proven in studies that exposure to positive representation of queer characters/people can actively increase acceptance, so it's important that books of all kinds accurately reflect our reality and the queer people in it.
"Finally, because these books often aren't about being queer, the flap copy often doesn't mention this aspect of the characters.
"This can be negative, since it makes the books harder for queer readers to find, but also positive, since it makes the books safer to read for teens whose parents who might not want them reading queer books."
It’s important to remember that just because a book has an LGBTQ main character, that shouldn’t be seen as limiting its readership to queer readers--any more than a book with a straight main character would be limited to straight readers. LGBTQ books shouldn’t be treated as “niche” or special interest.
When I asked Alex London, the author of dystopian YA novel Proxy (Speak, 2015), what he was most excited about in LGBTQ YA, he said:
"And the response has been touching and uplifting and inspiring (and sometimes, although rarely, heartbreaking--a book can provide some armor but it can't rescue a kid from homophobia and bigotry, especially when it comes from their parents and community).
"However, the LGBTQ response has not been the most exciting part for me. I have really delighted in the response from cis het kids and teens who are mostly willing to engage with queer heroes like they engage with any other character. They want someone they can root for and thrill with and if that character is queer, so be it.
"I've loved the anxious emails from straight readers pleading for one of the gay boys I've written to find a boyfriend. I love the emails from straight readers asking how to be better allies to their queer friends.
"Essentially, I've been thrilled that my books have acted as mirrors and windows, but most thrilled that, for some, the books have been, as [YA Goddess] Teri Lesesne puts it, '...doors books that offer them a sense of how to be powerful change agents.'"
Another highlight of my talk with Alex was his explanation of the delights of writing genre fiction.
"Writing genre, I think, frees up a part of my imagination to imagine sexual and gender identity politics beyond what our society currently can.
"I think sci fi and fantasy are freeing in that way, although I think we could all push these boundaries farther than we do.
Ursula K. Le Guin writes about the power of fantasy and sci fi not to offer prescriptions or predictions, but to dislodge the imagination from thinking that the way things are is the way they have to be. Imagining other possible realities, from our relationship to economics, our understanding of the natural world, or the bonds that connect us to each other and to our bodies--those are the joys of genre.
"I think genre fiction has the unique ability of queering our minds anyway, so it seemed natural to me to write queer characters within it."
This is one of my favorite elements of genre fiction--the expansion of possibility. The inclusion of a wider range of stories, worlds, people, and the ways they might live.
Seeing beyond our own time, place, and circumstances can be truly mind-expanding and life-changing.
As Lindsay Smith, author of the forthcoming A Darkly Beating Heart (Roaring Brook, 2016), reminds us, historical fiction is another genre we can look to for stories of LGBTQ characters who have grappled with different realities.
A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls, edited by Jessica Spotswood (Candlewick, 2016)) and time-travel-y (A Darkly Beating Heart).
"I’ve always loved historical fiction, and taking into account the social pressures and situations LGBTQ characters faced in different places and periods provides an interesting challenge.
"I think across the board people assume things were always worse in the past, but there are so many more stories to be told."
Even with the recent increase in genre fiction, there are still relatively few LGBTQ YA historical fiction titles. A recently announced anthology, All Out, edited by Saundra Mitchell (Harlequin Teen, 2018) features LGBTQ historical fiction short stories from a number of incredible authors. This is a good one to pre-order and put on the to-be-read list now.
I’d like to share some closing thoughts from Tristina Wright, author of the forthcoming 27 Hours, a thrilling sci-fi novel which features a main cast of queer characters that span many identities.
When I asked her what she values most about writing genre fiction, she said:
"Giving us the spotlight to be the hero, to solve the puzzle, to slay the monster, to get the romance, to do and to be instead of furthering a straight character's journey.
"Genre can reflect the hope and optimism for the future. It can reflect the universe we want. It can contain the people around us, but in better versions.
"We can write a world where horrible things happen, but homophobia isn't one of them. Some will laugh and insist that's not realistic but, then again, neither are dragons."
Thank you for checking out this post--it’s part three of a four-part series.
Check back for the final installment, about the future of LGBTQ YA, challenges that still need to be met, and where we go from here!
Notes from Amy Rose
*Lambda Literary holds a yearly retreat for emerging LGBTQ writers, where they are mentored by experienced professionals in the field.
Amy Rose Capetta is the author of three YA novels: Entangled and Unmade, a space duet (out now from HMH), and Echo After Echo (Candlewick, 2017), a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery and set on Broadway.
(See New Voice Amy Rose Capetta on Entangled from Cynsations.)
She is on the writing team for the second season of Remade, a YA sci-fi thriller from SerialBox, and works with writers on their novels through Yellow Bird Editors (with a special interest in genre fiction and LGBTQ fiction of all kinds!)
She is the co-founder of Rainbow Boxes (@rainbowboxesya), and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Amy Rose lives and writes in Michigan with her girlfriend Cori McCarthy, who is also a YA author, and their five-year-old, who wants to be a wizard.