The Compulsive Reader: Lesbian Protagonists in YA Fiction

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lesbian Protagonists in YA Fiction

If you follow me on Twitter (I'm @compelledtoread), you might have noticed some tweets in which I complained remarked upon a paper that I was writing. As some of you may know, I will be graduating with a BA in English in two weeks, and part of the requirements for my "magical piece of paper" (aka diploma) is that I write and present a loooooooooong paper. And so naturally I chose to write that paper on something that I am passionate about....kittens. I mean, YA literature.

About a year ago I read The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, and then not too long after Ask the Passengers by A.S. King was released. I loved these books because they were so realistic and well-written and had excellent protagonists that I felt very strongly about. These books also made me realize that I haven't read a lot of books with teen lesbian protagonists--I could think of exactly one other book (A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner, which is tragically only available in e-book format). I did a quick internet search, and came up with more titles, but the more I looked, the more I realized that there is a significant lack of books with gay girls as protagonists, especially in YA fiction. This seemed so crazy to me, especially since the majority of my blog readers are female, and it seems to me that there are way more women writing and reading YA than men (I know that this is a vast generalization, and I apologize for it).

I wrote my paper on the history of lesbian protagonists in YA fiction, and how they've developed from the stereotyped, punished side characters in various novels to the "tragic" depictions like Eliza and Annie in Annie on My Mind, to a more modern (and in my opinion, much more realistic) depiction of a teen lesbian who may face discrimination, yet whose stories aren't centered around issues of coming out or discrimination.

I had a lot of fun researching, and I think that if you are interested in learning more about the hard facts of under-representation of LGBT characters in YA, check out Malinda Lo's amazing blog post, "I have numbers! Stats on LGBT YA Books Published in the US." In fact, her blog is a gold mine of great discussions and information about diversity in YA, especially when it comes to sexuality. Her website is a great starting point for research and education.

Another book I found extremely helpful was The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature With Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004 by Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins (a little pricey, but widely available through inter-library loan). This draws upon so many sources and the two authors offer great insights (even when they sometimes have different views on certain subjects--I loved that they weren't always perfectly agreed on everything). Plus, Christine Jenkins's bibliography of novels is an amazing resource (available online, and Lo has supplemented it on her own website).

I won't post my paper here word for word, since it is rather long and dense (it weighed in at 25 pages and I can't seem to keep myself from tweaking it). But, I think that awareness of a lack of diversity is an important step in correcting this lack, and I hope that you will check out Malinda's blog if you are interested in learning more about the issue, and that you will read her excellent books if you wish to expand your scope. The four books I analyzed in particular were The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Ask the Passengers, Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George. I encourage you to follow the links to read my blog reviews!

Also, if you are interested in reading more modern YA books with lesbian protagonists, here is a list that I compiled for an appendix! I'm going to make a note that these are books that have protagonists that are lesbians, and not necessarily just secondary characters:

Charlton-Trujillo, e. E. Fat Angie. Boston: Candlewick, 2013.
Farizan, Sara. If You Could Be Mine. New York: Alongonquin Books, 2013.
Horner, Emily. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend. New York: Dutton, 2010.
Lo, Malinda. Adaptation. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2012.
--. Ash. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2009.
--. Huntress. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2011.
--. Inheritance. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2013.
Magoon, Kekla. 37 Things I Love (in no particular order). New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
Rodrigues, Carmen. 34 Pieces of You. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.

I had a lot of fun researching this topic, and I am feeling pretty optimistic about all of the new books that have come out in the last year (and are coming out this year) that will provide more diversity in YA. But! There is still a huge gap--where are the books about bisexual characters? And when can we start reading about characters who aren't secondary or protagonists that aren't just stars in contemporary novels that only explore social issues? (This is why I like Malinda Lo's books--she writes fantasy and science fiction!)

I really welcome any comments, opinions, or book recommendations!

ETA: Here is a list of books with lesbian protagonists, alphabetical by title. I'll update it as more come out!

34 Pieces of You by Carmen Rodrigues
37 Things I Love (in no particular order) by Kekla Magoon
A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Dare Truth or Promise by Paula Boock
The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George
Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
Far From You by Tess Sharpe
Fat Angie by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo
If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan
Keeping You a Secret by Julie Ann Peters
Kissing Kate by Lauren Myracle
Lies My Girlfriend Told Me by Julie Anne Peters
Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
My Best Friend, Maybe by Caela Carter
Pretend You Love Me by Julie Anne Peters
Rage by Julie Anne Peters
Rules for Hearts by Sara Ryan
She Loves You, She Loves You Not by Julie Anne Peters
Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow
The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi 


Amanda said...

This is a really interesting topic! Is this for a thesis? Or just a research paper? I can't actually think of too many books I've read with lesbian protagonists - not because I'm against reading a book with a lesbian protagonist, but rather because I don't feel like they are very common or promoted as extensively as other types of books. I have read Lo's Ash and Huntress. I have the ebook of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and I've heard great things about it, so I can't wait to read that. I'll definitely have to look at some of your other suggestions!
Good luck with your paper's presentation!

The Compulsive Reader said...

It was a senior thesis! And it is definitely true that books with lesbian protagonists tend not to be heavily promoted by publishers, but I think that the success of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Ask the Passengers will hopefully change that!

Raquel Stecher said...

I recommend Sister Mischief by Laura Goode if you haven't read that one already! This is a great idea for a senior thesis. Good luck!

emmy said...

I'm so glad to see someone else in academia tackling the YA/lesbian topic! I'm working on my master's thesis and focusing on rewriting fairy tales with a lesbian slant. I also wrote a paper in undergrad about the history of lesbian fiction using Sarah Water's "Tipping the Velvet". I'd be really interested in reading your thesis if you don't mind sharing...

The Compulsive Reader said...

Emmy: Email me at thecompulsivereader@gmail.com and we can talk!