Beyond Judy Blume: Queer YA Characters Need Friends Too!
On Tuesday night, Bitch Media hosted a book club in Portland as part of our Beyond Judy Blume series. We gathered at the Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center to discuss Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole, a YA book about a Cuban American teen who is kicked out of her house when her mom finds out she has a girlfriend. We'll talk more about Down to the Bone further next week with a Q&A from author Mayra Lazara Dole, but today I want to focus on one of the things everyone at our book club really liked about this YA novel, and that's the close-knit circle of friends at its center. While the main character in Down to the Bone struggles with being kicked out of her home and her school, she also finds a home within a diverse community of people who don't just accept, but actively celebrate who she is.
The glbtq encyclopedia entry on young adult literature breaks down how queer characters in YA lit have been historically painted as quite lonely people; coming out in these narratives results in losing friends, family, and community in general. This omnipresent "threat of loneliness and unhappiness" is present even in celebrated YA books such as Annie on My Mind (1982), often credited for being the first YA book to feature a lesbian relationship and a happy ending. There are many great YA books that feature queer teens who also struggle with loneliness and unhappiness, and most of us will probably agree that these books shouldn't disappear, as many queer teens do struggle with these things. But when queer teens go to novels looking to find people like themselves, they should also be able to find characters they can relate to who have friends they can relate to! And there are books that feature characters who are already part of or are able to find or create vibrant communities of queer teens and allies.
Down to the Bone is one of these books. The main character has a straight best friend who loves her unconditionally, one of the first friends she makes in the book is genderqueer, and she works with a girl who is comfortable letting co-workers know that she's a "hard-core bisexual." She meets people who identify in many different ways, and while her best friend calls her a lesbian even though she's not sure she identifies with the word, she is comfortable calling her friend out on this and further discussing her identity with her.
Two of the books we featured in a recent Beyond Judy Blume post also contradict the notion that queer teens aren't able to find people like themselves. It's Our Prom (So Deal With It) by Julie Anne Peters is narrated by Luke and Azure, two queer high school characters who are working on creating a prom that is free of gender restrictions (and it turns out they also both want to go to prom with the same person). And in Chulito by Charles Rice-González, Chulito struggles with his sexual identity, but his neighborhood is sprinkled with queer characters who help to normalize queer identities. There's also Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, set in a small gay-friendly town in New Jersey where the main character brought a report card home in kindergarten that read: "PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF." And in I Am J by Cris Bean, 17-year-old J starts going to an LGBT high school after transitioning, and finds himself in a transgender support group with a great community of other trans people.
What YA books have you found with vibrant communities of queer characters? Let us know in the comments!
Are you in Portland and interested in participating in our next book club? We'll be discussing Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger on October 23rd at SMYRC. Find our more on our events page!
This 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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