Beyond Judy Blume: Which Young Adults are They Courting?

Beyond Judy Blume logo

We've spent the first couple weeks of this series talking about the need for YA lit that explores teen identity and sexuality, and remembering books that changed the way we thought about ourselves, our identity, and our worlds. Teens and adults continue to embrace YA lit, and characters with diverse identities continue to make their way onto the pages of YA books. This is great, of course, but it's important that we look at the stories that feature these characters as well. Because it's not enough to simply publish a few coming out stories and call it good.

McSweeney's released several articles last year on the state of the publishing industry, including one from Hannah Withers and Lauren Ross called "Young People Are Reading More Than You." In it, Withers and Ross quote Booklist magazine critic Michael Cart, who stated, "Kids are buying books in quantities we've never seen before… And publishers are courting young adults in ways we haven't seen since the 1940s… We are right smack-dab in the new golden age of young adult literature."

But which young adults are publishers catering to? Whose stories are popular YA books telling? And when YA lit featuring characters with diverse gender and sexual identities gets published, what messages do those books send?

It's crucial that teens be able to find books with characters like themselves, but it's also important they be able to find books with relatable characters who are part of diverse plot lines—whether that be a story about the ups and downs of a teenage romance or a book full of adventures and dragon-slaying. In "Yes to Gay YA–But Don't Stick It In the Issue Books Corner," s.e. smith discusses the importance of queer and other minority characters in YA books that are not billed as "issue" books:

There's a tendency to believe that books with minorities belong in a special section. They aren't 'regular' books, because the characters aren't 'normal.' Whic h is not such a great thing, when you're a young person looking for people who look like you. Some folks really love issue books, and I have a soft sport in my heart for them myself, but I also love it when minority characters are allowed to just be and it's a natural part of the story, rather than the focal point. The reality is that we don't go around being walking issues; we have lives, we do things, our minority identities are part of us but they aren't the focal point, and with YA in particular I think it's critical to make sure that representation includes not just a centring of issues, but also a showing of us in our natural habitat, so to speak.

As s.e. mentions, Karen Healey's The Shattering is a YA book that features a lesbian character, but the plot is not centered around that character being a lesbian. Eon: Dragoneye Rebord by Alison Goodman is a YA book with a trans characters whose trans identity does not create the arc of the story (read more about Eon in this post about trans teens in YA lit). Tamora Pierce is also hailed for creating diverse characters whose identities are not necessarily what create her stories. We should be asking for more books like these, that feature identity and sexuality in honest and complex ways while still working on another storyline.

Have you read YA books that include teens with diverse identities and sexualities that don't rely on those identities to tell the story? Let us know in the comments!

Previously: We've Come a Long Way, Baby; The Gatekeepers

Oregon Humanities logoThis program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Queer Greer by A.J. Walkley

Have you heard of Queer Greer by A.J. Walkley? This is a great example of YA lit for LGBT youth. It actually is about a girl coming to terms with her bisexuality, which is even rarer to find in literature right now.

A great book that leapt to

A great book that leapt to mind for me here is My Most Excellent Year by Steve Klueger. It's a light romance, told via notes and letters, that's the story of two best friends in 8th grade and their first experiences dating. One is straight, one is gay, and-- though he does come out in the book-- it's approached with lightness and charm and definitely not an "issues" book. I adore it and recommend it highly.

Graceling, Fire and

Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue and all books by Kristin Cashore that have many lesbian and gay characters (admittedly, all of the main characters whose perspectives are being shown have been straight thus far, but they're also some kick-ass females). The LGBT characters aren't defined by their sexuality, it's just one small part of who they are.

YA books that include teens with diverse identities, sexualities

I've written on which will be published in October from Musa Publishing. It is called "New Girl"


Here Here!!!

Thank you for this blog. As a writer who is also lucky enough to be black, I concur. I wrote my children's book, Introducing Sophia Firecracker (for ages 7 to 9, not YA) for this very reason. She is a young girl who thinks she's a superhero. Her biggest problem is trying to find out her teacher's superpowers and how to stay out of the Principal's office so she can get into Superhero College.

As I try to get my book in bookstores, I'm constantly told that there isn't a big enough to for children of colour books. How about just a good book? Please read it and judge it on its merits. Children love to laugh and read a good story! All kids need positive images of themselves. I grew up reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary and I loved them. I missed reading about a black girl just wanting to have fun and going on adventures.

In the end, it has worked out for me, I am a writer with a mission to tell the stories of black women and girls. Introducing Sophia Firecracker is the first of many.

thanks for the blog

A. A. Riley

Great article! I recommend

Great article! I recommend the lyrical ASH by Malinda Lo, a fairytale retelling with a lesbian Cinderella. This is not an issue book. And David Levithan's hilarious and highly entertaining BOY MEETS BOY set in a gaytopian world. My first YA novel, MY INVENTED LIFE, is about the rift between sisters, and has a cast of gay, lesbian, and bi characters.

More recommendations

Great article! I recommend the lyrical ASH by Malinda Lo, a fairytale retelling with a lesbian Cinderella. This is not an issue book. And David Levithan's hilarious and highly entertaining BOY MEETS BOY set in a gaytopian world. My first YA novel, MY INVENTED LIFE, is about the rift between sisters, and has a cast of gay, lesbian, and bi characters.