There’s a trope about coming out in LGBTQ+ young adult fiction. And there’s another trope about falling in love. Pick up a queer story with a teen protagonist, and I would understand if you expected certain things. Kissing. Maybe sex, depending on your idea of what makes something a YA book versus a book for adults. A story that centers on the big gay reveal to Mom/Dad/Coach.
I get where that came from. The whole concept of queer young adult stories told in a positive light, that genre being a thing at all, that is still fresh and wonderful. Queer literature in general is relatively young as a category, and it’s no surprise that the first few generations of stories had a lot to do with falling in love and coming out. After all, that’s what makes us different. It’s who we are and who we love. And the dangers that can strike when we tell the world the good news. That makes for pretty huge drama, and no matter how enlightened your family or your hometown, the day you come out is always going to be a pretty huge day.
But some of the best queer YA books, lately, have not been love stories. They haven’t even been coming out stories. The audience is ready for that now; they have been for some time. There’s no closet factor in these non-romances, no miserable gay teens who can’t show themselves in all their splendor for fear of violence or being misunderstood by the people they have to live with. It’s just…kids. Kids who already came out before the book started. Some of them have sweethearts. Some are single. Some are fixated on that special diving champion or choir girl, or just on losing their virginity, but some are fixated on their mother’s immigration status or the app they’re creating or any one of a million different real-life things.
In other words, they’re real kids.
In Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, the central relationship is between two friends, a gay boy and a straight boy. There’s a mention of sex, but not between those two. The story explores the range of complex emotion in a teenage best-friendship. That’s what it’s about. And I love it for that. Andrew Demcak’s beautiful Ghost Songs is similar: the main character is gay, but that’s a given. His story is about bullying, and a deep friendship, and an alcoholic parent, and just plain growing up as a sensitive kid. It’s not a romance. It doesn’t need to be.
I knew when I started writing The Songbird Thief that there was no love story. Or -- there was, but not a romantic one. It’s the story of Lee, a fifteen-year-old girl from rural Marin County who runs away to San Francisco to be near her grownup friend, Sonja. Lee has a crush on Sonja, but it’s not reciprocal. Sonja is like a mother to Lee. Girls Lee’s age come along who could be love interests, and there’s a flirtatious moment or two, but Lee is busy looking for a job and trying to find her real father. Lee’s life is complicated by magic, and her singing voice makes people do things like unconsciously walk into traffic. She’s distracted. She’s a girl who happens to be gay, whose story has nothing to do with kissing.
She’s a real kid. And I’m happy there’s a place on the bookshelf for her.