Far From You by Tess Sharpe – a review & giveaways!

far fromA few weeks ago there was a longform article in the New York Times about scientific studies being done with the goal of proving that bisexuality exists.  I suppose it was interesting enough, reading about the motivations of the researchers, hearing about the history behind studies like this.  And yet.  And yet at the same time … it also felt brutally dehumanizing.

How demeaning – how beyond demeaning – to have your identity up for “scientific debate” like this.  Studies like this?  Real, academic studies and articles about them in a paper as significant as the NY Times?  They are the embodiment of WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

When you see portraits of yourself – your life, your feelings, your struggles – when you see those in the world around you, in popular culture, in mass media: that matters.  It tells you that you are not alone, that you have a right to exist, that people before you have felt this very same thing.

Those of us who work with books for children and teens – we can NEVER forget this.  We can never get tired of sounding like a broken record, of buying and promoting and discussing these books and demanding more. Never, ever, ever.  Because they bring the truth to light.

The truth in Tess Sharp’s masterful debut Far From You is a slippery thing and that is part of what makes this story so very compelling.  What’s true is that Sophie, our main character, used to be an addict.  She got hooked on pain pills after a bad accident and has only recently been clean.  What’s true is that Sophie’s life-long best friend Mina was gunned down right in front of her in shattering, traumatic event.  What’s true is that everyone, even Sophie’s own mother, believes Mina was killed during a drug deal gone bad when she went with Sophie to score. What’s true is that Sophie has just returned home after Mina’s murder and after another stint in rehab.

But everything else, well, that’s not as clear.  Sophie knows the truth is that she was clean and she and Mina were following up on a lead in a story Mina was writing for the paper, which means that Mina was the target not the collateral. But Sophie doesn’t know who attacked them and doesn’t know the lead Mina was chasing And Sophie also knows that, no matter the cost, she is going to get to the bottom of what happened to Mina, no matter what anyone else believes.

One of the things I love the very best about this book (and I love so much about it) is that while there are multiple threads happening at once, it never feels overstuffed or distracted.  Instead, everything comes together to tell the singular story of Sophie finding her own path in the world.  Of course, this is a classic YA narrative and that’s part of what makes Far From You so satisfying – it is familiar and yet very fresh.

Far From You is a mystery: what happened to Mina and why?  How is all connected to the story Mina was digging into?  Sophie knows the scariest thing of all: whoever committed the crime is from their town and knows their stories because they planted drugs on her to throw the investigation off. Far From You is a story of recovery and addiction.  Sophie became addicted to painkillers after she was in a terrible accident that left her in agonizing pain and left her disabled.  How she copes with this and how it changes the person she was is fundamental to the larger elements of the story and her character development.

And I truly believe that beyond all that – Far From You is a love story. It’s a love story about the deep love between friends, between someone you have known for a long time and who has held your hand through the worst of your life.  Definitely.  And it’s also a love story between two teenage girls who have been friends for a long time but are on the cusp of finding themselves drawn to each other in a whole new way.  Yes, Far From You is a bisexual teen romance – one that is tender, tragic, a little swoony in parts, and, yes, very, very real.

I had to literally set the book down to blink back my tears at the moment Sharpe makes it clear that Sophie is bisexual. She doesn’t just like girls and she doesn’t just like boys.  She doesn’t like “only Mina” but then totally boys!  She is drawn to, romantically and physically, both sexes.  This realization is not dismissed, not disbelieved, not over-explained.  It just is.  It’s just part of who Sophie is.  And while it’s an important part of who Sophie is, it’s not the only defining one.  Just as important is the fact she’s a recovering addict, a girl who wrestles with chronic pain, a person mourning loss and trying to get to the bottom of a mystery.  I know it seems like so little but that moment, the moment when it all clears in Sophie’s head that she likes boy and she likes girls – she just doesn’t like this one particular boy … it just took my heart with all it meant. Being bisexual doesn’t mean you’re attracted to everyone.  Being bisexual doesn’t meant you’re attracted to just anyone.  It just means you’re attracted to members of both sexes.  In Far From You it is that simple and that simplicity is beyond. powerful. 

I think teen readers will LOVE Far From You.  The timelines shift between the “now” of Sophie’s life and investigation and the “then” of everything that brought her and Mina to their fateful final night, which creates natural cliff-hangers that keep you turning the pages.  And Sophie is a great lead character: her faults make her feel real and her determination to chart her own course makes her both sympathetic and someone you root for. It’s also the just right mix of sad and mysterious and romantic, with no one element overshadowing the others, giving it wide appeal across readers.

But more than that – I think teen readers NEED Far From You.  It’s a book we’ve been asking for. It’s a book that brings the truth to light, that gives faces and hearts and loves and losses and real damn life to bisexual girls and lesbians.  These are portrayals teens need.  This is a book that matters.

Far From You is out today!  You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library.  If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it. Far From You is highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and high school libraries.  It’s a book that should be widely shared and widely known. And that’s why I’m giving two away.

How To Win A Copy of Far From You

I know not all library budgets might have the cash in them they deserve.  So since I want YOUR library to have this book on the shelves, I’m giving one away JUST FOR LIBRARIES.  To enter THIS drawing you must be working in a library and you must make sure your copy ends up on your library’s shelves for circulation.  Far From You should be in as many teen hands as possible and the goal of this drawing is to make sure it ends up in your library.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!  I’m giving away another copy … that’s signed by Tess Sharpe!  Tess has awesomely agreed to sign a copy for my other winner.  You can keep this one, share it with a lucky teen, give it away as a drawing prize, whatever you’d like.  THIS drawing is open to everyone.

All you have to do is comment on this post (with a working way to contact you) and mention which drawing you are entering.  I’ll choose two random winners on Tuesday, April 14, so make sure you’ve entered by then..  Sorry, no international entries.

I am so glad I had the experience of Far From You.  It was an amazing read that was also a humanizing moment of recognition.  Far From You is the truth and, more than that, it’s the way into the light.


Also worth your reading time: this awesome interview with Tess on Diversity in YA

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LGBTQ Non-Fiction for Teens: A Collection Development Guide

“I read books about schools that have gay/straight alliance clubs.  These are fictional books.  And so I believe gay/straight alliance clubs must also be fictional. ”
-A.S. King, Ask the Passengers

A few months after starting my new position, I culled Deal With It!  A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL by Esther Drill from a donation pile to be added to my library’s collection.  I knew the book was a few years old but the level of information was perfect and appealing for teens.  A few days later when our cataloger came to me with the book and said, “I don’t think this book belongs in the children’s section.”  Knowing about the sexual content, I had to agree.  “Yes,” I told her, “that’s why I want you to add it to the teen collection.”  She looked at me for a second, probably thinking about how new I was to my position, how much I still had to learn.  “Well, the problem is that we don’t actually have a teen non-fiction collection.”

Imagine my surprise!  My library didn’t even have a separate collection for teen non-fiction.  Imagine how many books we’d skipped buying.  Imagine how many books were misfiled in the children’s collection where they simply did not belong and weren’t circulating.  Imagine how many teens had walked away because they refused to go look in the children’s area.

Naturally, there was only one thing I could do.  I had to start a teen non-fiction collection.

The teen non-fiction collection is now almost five years old (that’s just how long I have been at my library) and it’s not only consistently expanding but it circulates quite well.  It contains everything from biographies to video game guides, books on how to make clothes and memoirs about recovering from drug addiction.  There’s poetry and books about getting into college.  Creating and growing this collection is one of my proudest achievements at this job.

I thought about that moment my chagrined cataloger told me we had no teen non-fiction again the night of a teen event when one of my openly gay teen patrons held out to me the book Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens.  “This book,” he asked, entirely serious, “will it help me get gaydar?”

I explained that you can’t really “get” gaydar but that he’d picked a GREAT book and that it would help him figure out dating and flirting and it even talked about gaydar.  “Perfect,” he said, adding it to his huge pile of books to be checked out, “That’s just what I need.”

I thought, later, about how glad I was that book was on my library shelves, that it had a place where it belonged so it could end up in that patron’s hands and his life.  In that moment, I knew I had to write this post.

It is so important that EVERY public library have fiction books featuring LGBTQ characters.  We, as a library profession, have spent years getting this message across – there are blogs (great blogs!) and professional development books (great books!) and pre-conferences and seminars and workshops and panels (I was on myself back at PLA in 2010) and it’s AMAZING, all of it.  I am beyond words glad that these books keep getting published and that, more often than not, the conversations we find ourselves having now revolve around not “Should I buy these books?” but “Why can’t I buy more of these books?” 

But the moment my patron came up to me with Queer in his hand – that was an indelible moment for me.  He also had a giant pile of fiction books he couldn’t wait to check out but not one, might I add, had an LGBTQ character in it.  He had no interest in fiction with LGBTQ characters but a book that could help him understand gaydar and dating and coming out and kissing boys?  He wanted that immediately. 

In that moment, I knew one thing absolutely: We owe our teen patrons all the fiction they can read about LGBTQ life, that’s for sure.  But we have another responsibility to them too: we owe them the facts.

Does your library own Queer?  If not, why not Does your library have Queer shelved somewhere teens can easily access it, in a collection of non-fiction of their own?  If not, why not? Does your library have other books  similar to Queer – the kind of books that speak honestly to LGBTQ teens about their lives and about queer life in general?  If not, why not?

Sure, there are budget issues.  And sure there might even be community issues.  But I know librarians who probably wouldn’t even blink twice at buying YA fiction with LGBTQ characters and that’s the place we need to get at when it comes to buying LGBTQ non-fiction: it’s a no-brainer, it’s being published and by buying it and having it on our shelves we’re not only supporting our teen patrons who need to find it but the publishers who are putting it out there.

This is my rally cry to all of you! Librarians: start today!  Don’t have a teen non-fiction collection?  It’s time to start one.  Do have a teen non-fiction collection?  It’s time to make sure it’s LGBTQ friendly.  Patrons and community members: ask your library to purchase these books!

This post is going to hightlight some of my favorite LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly titles published for teens.  By no means do I claim this is all of them and, of course, there is always the hope more will be published.  But these are great titles I recommend for library shelves, titles that can enrich a teen non-fiction collection for all your readers and researchers.

If you are on a limited budget, there are four titles I think are essential.  Start with these.

Gay America: Struggle for Equality by Linas Alsenas (Abrams, 2008) The first book of its kind: a non-fiction book tracing the history of the LGBTQ liberation and activist movement.  This one, more than any other, is my most recommended.  This is the book that tells teens they have a rich history of activists who have protested and worked for change, that they are not alone and never have been, that their story is America’s story.

Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke (Zest Books, 2011) This book has it all: gaydar, flirting, sex, dating advice, quizzes, and first person narratives from queer co-authors Kathy and Marke.  It also contains a truly great and special chapter, one I can see being a lifeline for LGBTQ teens: Navigating Your Queer Sphere: Finding Your People.  

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens by Kelly Huegel (Free Spirit Publishing, 2011, second edition) It’s amazing and gratifying to have a second edition of this ground-breaking book.  This is a comprehensive and even-handed book that covers a wide range of topics using straight-forward and clear language.  There’s a chapter on coming out, one about growing up and facing challenges in the workplace or college, and even one about religion and culture.

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corrina  (De Capo Books, 2007) I’m going to be completely honest with you: this book pulls no punches.  It is frank and explicit.  It has lots of detailed information about sex.  It’s also a wonderful book for teens: it speaks honestly and clearly to them about real questions they have, it covers STIs, birth control, masturbation, changing teen bodies and so much more.  You, as a librarian, need to make the decision if this is a book your community will support.  That having been said: if you want to have a relevant non-fiction collection for teenagers, no matter their sexual orientation, you must have at least one contemporary, progressive sexual education book.  That’s just the plain truth of it.  (I also have Christian books that tell teenagers about the joy of waiting until marriage because, again, that’s how balanced collection development works). And this is about the best progressive sexual education book out there.  Well, one of the best anyway.  There will be others in my list!  Corrina’s is just particularly awesome and relevant because she is the founder and editor of Scarleteen, still the best sex education site for teens.  And, no coincidence, this book is also one of the most frequently browsed books in my entire library collection.  It doesn’t circulate outside the library much, but it has off the charts in-house circ.

So, there they are.  The four books you MUST HAVE for the LGBTQ teens in your community who are looking for answers, looking for a reflection of the truth about their lives, and looking for reassurance that, no, they aren’t alone in all this.  But now, of course, you must certainly want more.  So let’s start collection developing!

 Recommended Queer Non-Fiction For Teens

(a note about this list: Not all of these books are focused only on the experiences of LGBTQ teens.  Some are LGBTQ positive sex education books, books that present LGBTQ sexuality as an accepted part of the sexuality spectrum.   Further, remember that none of these books are perfect, there are faults and weak areas in them.  As ever, you should evaluate multiple reviews before you chose to add them to your collections.

Most importantly: these are all books published specifically for teens.  There’s an exception for It Gets Better, which was published by Dutton adult but is really, so much, a YA publication.  But while there’s LOTS of great non-fiction about this subject published for adults that no doubt has  high teen appeal, this is NOT a crossover list.  I wanted these titles to be books published for teens because I really feel it’s important we buy, promote, and feature these books first.   Why?  Well, because we want to promote young adult non-fiction, is why.  Because by doing this we want to show publishers that, yes, non-fiction books about this subject written specifically for teens are something librarians/the buying public want to BUY MORE OF.  That’s what will motivate them to publish more.  So, yes, this list could be longer and yes, there are adult books that could fit in a YA non-fiction collection but that’s not this list.)

Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex by Bronwen Pardes
The Gallup’s Guide to Modern Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Lifestyle (I haven’t reviewed every book in this series, but the ones I have seen are pretty good but not what I’d rate as outstanding.  These can be VERY expensive in HC but are cheap in PB.  They’re short and easy to read and would be great for curriculum and reports, though, which is important.  The two I really recommend are Statistical Timeline and Overview of Gay Life and Gay and Lesbian Role Models)
Gay Power! The Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement, 1969 by Betsy Kuhn (let me give a shout-out to this entire Lerner series, Civil Rights Struggles Around the WorldEvery title is really amazing and this one … it was overwhelming to see that a book like this had finally been published.  I choked up a tad.)
Hear Me Out: True Stories of  Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia  a project of T.E.A.C.H. and Planned Parenthood Toronto
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller
It Will Get Better: Finding Your Way Through Teen Issues by Melinda Hutchings
The Letter Q: Queer Writer’s Notes to Their Younger Selves edited by Sarah Moon
The Little Black Book for Girlz and The Little Black Book for Guys compiled & edited by the St. Stephens Community House
Sex: A Book for Teens by Nikol Hasler
Speaking Out: LGBT Teens Stand Up, edited by Steve Berman
What if Someone I Know is Gay?  Answers to Questions About What It Means to Be Gay and Lesbian by Eric Marcus

And, as always, I direct you to The Rainbow List, which features non-fiction.

What I’d MOST Like To See Published (PUBLISHERS/AUTHORS TAKE NOTE!) 

A YA biography of Harvey Milk.  Seriously, how has this never been done?!  I mean, frankly, more YA biographies of famous/well-known LGBTQ  people in general.  Or even any YA biographies of LGBTQ people that, you know, manage to mention their sexual orientation. Larry Dane Brimner’s SUPERB We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin is a great example/template for this, but it skews a little too young for YA).

Anything I missed?  Have any favorites that you think should be included in a teen non-fiction collection?  Share them in the comments.

* * * * *

Every day we have the chance, as librarians and educators, to raise questions.  “Why doesn’t my library have a teen non-fiction collection?  What can I do about that?  Why doesn’t my library have LGBTQ friendly non-fiction for teens?  What can I do about that?”  I think these questions deserve legitimate, well-reasoned, and defensible answers.

And perhaps most importantly, I think, whether we know it or not, whether they can articulate it or not, our teen patrons are asking these very questions too.

So I think today you should start answering them.

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Make It Better

“The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives.”
–Armistead Maupin

Happy National Coming Out Day!

I thought it was important to begin this post with the word “happy” because … well, that’s an important part of an important conversation, something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Recently, as most everyone knows, a rash of suicides involving young men from all across the country has seized the national conversation.  All of their suicides were undoubtedly linked to sexuality and gender based torment, intimidation, and harassment.  (see how much more accurate and powerful those words are instead of “they were bullied.”) While we know that LGBTQ teens are more likely to commit suicide, while we even know that the harassment of LGBTQ students is endemic, there was something about these suicides that made people really stop and think.  It really took hold when Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better project, which has moved beyond “going viral” and is now everywhere, with celebrities recording PSAs, your mom posting that video of Ellen on Facebook, and People doing a cover story.

And while “it gets better” is an absolutely vital message, one worth spreading, while it’s amazing this has made people actually talk about what the nightmare of being harassed as a LGBTQ kid (or even a child who is perceived to be) is like – I think it’s important that it doesn’t dominate the conversation and become the only message.

To that end, I was reading an article in the New York Times about a LGBTQ support group for 11-14 year olds and one bit stuck out in my mind.  The leader of the group was showing them videos from It Gets Better and encouraging dialogue about Tyler Clementi.  One boy, aged 12, said: “But he was in college.  I thought it was supposed to get better after high school.”

It’s our job, as librarians, as people who work with and are involved in the lives of teens and children, to let them know that, yes, it gets better.  But they can help make it better, it can be better now.

How do we do that?  Here’s five simple steps I recommend all librarians who work with children and teens take. (or teachers!  or teen advocates!)

  1. 1. For all of you who spread the message of the It Gets Better Project on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, or anywhere else, please take a minute or two to share the Make It Better Project.  Make It Better is an initiative for teens to  help make it better in their schools and communities.  There are YouTube videos of teens speaking out and a whole bunch of tools and action steps for interested teens.  Teens deserve to know that they have the power to share their stories too, to be part of making their world better.
  2. 2. October is GLBT History Mont, so celebrate GLBT History Month at your library.  At my library, we have just about every kind of seasonal or thematic display you can imagine, why shouldn’t your teen section have a display for GLBT History Month? Visit and use the resources of the amazing online GLBT History Month which, every year, features the biographies of 31 GLBTQ icons.  (this year some of the downloadable bio-sheets will include Maurice Sendak, Jane Lynch, and Jamie Nabozny, who spoke out against bullying when he was still a teen.)  You can feature books by LGBTQI authors and books with queer content.  If you’re worried about possible objection, you can start planning for next year now.  I wrote a more comprehensive guide for how to do this in the Summer 2009 YALS, but I will say that one of the most important elements is using what you have.  For instance, I used my library’s long range plan and mission statement in my proposal, something my administration was wild about and gave us real standing and justification if anyone in the community complained.  (and not only did no one complain, but the head of the adult services department was inspired and bought a bunch of new books and made a display in the adult section.) If you start the research and planning now, by next October you’ll have something amazing ready to go!
  3. 3. Don’t tolerate hate speech in your library.  My library Code of Conduct forbids “obscene language” and I consider “that’s so gay!” and all derivatives to be just that; obscene.  You can’t control what teens will say out of your earshot, but you can monitor what they say around you and in public spaces where you can hear.    More than that, you can use it as a teachable moment, a chance to discuss why this language is unacceptable, hurtful, and, yes, obscene.
  4. 4.  Related to that: make use of the tools and information provided by ThinkB4YouSpeak, a joint project between GLSEN and the Ad Council.  While the whole site is full of useful information, worth particular note is the Download & Share section, where you can find downloadable .PDFs that challenge teens casual use of slurs.  Think what great conversation starters and/or shows of support these would be if printed up as flyers or posters in your teen area!
  5. 5. Buy those books!  Yes, here we are again, back at the what might be the simplest of steps.  Buy the books.  Get them on your shelves.  Have them available for teens who are browsing Amazon or your catalog or “heard about it from a kid at school.”  Buy the books that may get stolen off your shelves, that no one may ever ask you about but someone might find and be anchored by.  Read reviews, share good titles on lis-serves, on blogs, with colleagues.  Include LGBTQI titles on your “If You Like Sarah Dessen…” read-alike list, on your “Recommend Books for High School Students” list.  Booktalk one during a teen advisory meeting.  Familiarize yourself with YA authors who often write books with LGBTQI content and keep a watch for their new titles.  Contact publishers or stop by their booths at conferences to tell them we want more: more diversity, more titles, more age ranges, we want to buy more.  Buy the books, put ’em on the shelves, put them out there as our way to change the conversation, as our way to show LGBTQI teens an accurate reflection of their world, a world where it can get better, a world where their lives and their stories matter and are told.

Now is the moment, as librarians and adovcates for teens, to do something for the teens that we serve, to do something that can matter in their lives.  Now is the moment that we can stand up for what’s right, when we can do something that could actually save lives. 

It does get better, but we can help make now better.

And we can be happy about it.

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10 Great Books for LGBTQ Teens (published in the last five years)

Thanks to the amazing Amy Reed (You guys have read Beautiful, right?!  It’s like Go Ask Alice but only 100 times better and less full of crap and more full of awesome writing.) I was alerted to the Huffington’s Post recent feature “13 Great Books For Gay Teens.”  First, I want to applaud the Huffington Post for publishing such an article, it’s always good to see positive content about teen books in more “mainstream” sources.  Also, kudos go to Jessie Kunhardt and Alexandra Carr, the piece’s authors, for putting together a good starter list of 13 titles.

But, wow, that list is old!

Ron Koertge’s The Arizona Kid was published 22 years ago.  Jack, A.M. Homes’s story about a 16 year old who discovers his father is gay, was published 20 years ago.  Jack, were he real, would be 36 today.  There was even mention of the well-loved classic Annie on My Mind.  But, believe it or not, Nancy Garden’s groundbreaking book was published a whopping 28 years ago.

Young adult literature has sure changed in 28 years and young adult literature about the LGBTQ experience has changed right along with it.  Reading 13 great books for LGBTQ teenagers today would be scratching the surface of a field that is rapidly expanding and contains, frankly, some of the best young adult literature being published.

As many of you probably know, research and writing about LGBTQ teen books is my first love, so I decided this Huffington Post list was the perfect opportunity for me to compile my own list  of  “Great Books” and include some of the newest, lesser known, and what I consider really special books in this genre.  Almost all of these books were published in the last  two years, but there were a few that were just tooo good, so I set my limit at five years.  With the way this genre expands, re-invents, and grows, even five years was pushing it!

Gosh, I’m so excited this is a whole freaking genre.  What a long way we’ve come, huzzah!

In my opinion, EVERY public and middle/high school library should own this book.  Perhaps more than any other, it speaks to the giant leaps in publishing we’ve seen in this area.  This non-fiction title covers not only the history of LGBTQ life in America but on the struggle for equality and civil rights.  Alsenas incorporates personal narratives and historical documents  to make perfectly clear to teenagers struggling with their sexuality and gender identity that not only are they not alone but that, as a community, they have a rich cultural and historical legacy and they are, and have always been, part of America’s story.  So far the only book of its kind, but we can hope for more!

A good read-alike for fans of The Bermudez Triangle, this is another story of three friends dealing with coming out.  Tara, Whitney Blaire, and Pinkie have always been best friends, but bow Tara is discovering feelings for her marathon-training partner and new girl in town Riley.  What I liked about this one was the realistic way Diaz dealt with all of the friends coming to terms with how Tara’s new relationship changes their interactions, there’s complications and negative reactions and all kinds of realistic things teens in this situation might face from friends.  Pinkie and Whitney Blaire must really examine their assumptions and weigh them against their life-long friendship.  And, nicely, Tara and Riley have a charming, interesting romance.

What’s the genre still missing?  DIVERSITY.  (shocker, that.)  This book is a worthy heir to Alex Sanchez’s neo-classic Rainbow Boys.  It tells the story of Maui, Trini, Isaac, and Liberace: four gay Hispanic teens who are best friends and who decide in their senior year to start their high school’s first GSA, which they dub The Mariposa Club.  What I love about this book:  the close-knit, supportive  friendship between the gay teens (there’s token straight friends in this book!) and the wide diversity of gay identity presented.  Just because they’re gay and Hispanic doesn’t mean they’re all the same.  A under-the radar gem from Alyson Books! (But a better cover please!! Liberace, my favorite character, is an unapologetic fattie!)

Sweet, funny, sad: this debut from Horner is a subtle, aching, sweet delight.  The coming out and sexuality angst-ing is kept to a minimum and the focus is kept instead on the main character’s charming courtship.  This story is a tear-jerker, though!  Cass is trying to pick up the pieces after her best friend Julia’s tragic death and the last thing she needs is to start to feel drawn to her middle school enemy Heather.  Cass and her friends are “putting on a show”, specifically the musical Julia wrote before she died: Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad and Heather has Julia’s part.  It’s not so much that Heather replaces Julia (because Julia and Cass really were just best friends) in Cass’s life, it’s about how Cass learns that, even when it hurts, life goes on after death.  I’ll probably write a longer review of this book later, but if you can read Cass and Heather’s climactic, romantic final scene together without sighing a little, you might have a heart of stone.

This was one I couldn’t leave behind.  You’ll see plenty of “Best Of” or “Essential” LGBTQ teen lists that have Levithan’s ground-breaking Boy Meets Boy, but  I think the real jewel in Levithan’s crown is this lesser known work.  Set in the future, after America has just elected our first openly gay Jewish President, this is a book that takes Boy Meets Boy gay-topia premise and puts in a real world with hard choices and angry opposition, it makes makes it work.  It’s a story of political activism, of choosing love over hate and fear, of finding your voice, and, of course, it’s a romance.   Levithan’s best work by far, it’s moving, wrenching, and (best of all) a call to arms.

  • Gravity by Leanne Lieberman (2008)

A Canadian title from Orca, this is another title I think deserves a wider audience.  Lieberman’s story is, at first look, just another about a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality, but the “complication” here is that the main character, 15 year old Ellie, is an Orthodox Jew.  Lieberman does an excellent job showing not just Ellie’s issues with her faith but the struggles of all the women in her family.  And this isn’t just a story about a teenager who abandons her religion because of her sexuality, it’s much richer and more complex.  Great writing, strong characters, a magnetic romance, and a completely original premise, what more could you want?

  • Ash by Malinda Lo (2009)

Hey, you know what the teens these days just love?  Fantasy.  Mix that up with some epic-destined-drawn-together-by-irresistible-forces-big-swoony romances and you’ve got the next big thing.    What else would be good?  Ah, how about a retold fairy tale!  Yeah!  Oh, and don’t forget the strong female character who kicks ass!  Totally!  Yes, when it comes to what’s “trendy” YA publishing, Ash has it all!  Except in this take on the Cinderella story, it’s not the Prince who is the dashing, magnetic love interest but the bold, brave Huntress.  Lo’s writing is rich and very literally sensual. It’s so wonderful to have some LGBTQ leading characters in fantasy to add to the canon.  (as an aside: this is a book that I’ve seen have lots of success with straight-identified teens: Strong females!  Big romance!  Fantasy!  Faeries!  Magic! it’s just the kind of book they gobble up.)

Another book I couldn’t leave off and another title from a widely read, widely loved author that I think gets too often neglected.  Julie Anne Peters, justly well-known and loved for writing titles like Luna and Keeping You A Secret, outdoes herself with this collection of stories ranging far and wide in the queer teen community.    There’s a little bit of everything in this collection from boi, a well-drawn, agonizingly immediate story about a teen wrestling with gender identity and gender presentation to After Alex, a drama-filled, passionate break-up story. I think Peters has particular talent as a short story writer and this is another book that gives a wide representation to the queer experience.  I hope she works on another short story collection soon.

Believe me when I tell you: there is nothing like this on your YA shelves.  This is because, really, there is no one in AY fiction like Billy Bloom, the utterly fabulous drag queen/”gender obscurist” who stars in James St. James’s novel.  Billy comes to school in full drag, gives a book report as Zelda Fitzgerald, wears beehive wigs and glitter boas, and he never apologizes for who he is.  He runs for Homecoming Queen and implores his fellow students to embrace their own inner freak shows.  Funny, audacious, joyful, sweet, even!  This is an essential YA novel about what it means to be an awkward teenager who longs for more, about finding that dreamy boy, about rising above fitting in, about “the universal freak show” within us all.  (Please write another YA novel, James St. James!!)

  • Kiss by Jacqueline Wilson (2010)

This British import is by Jacqueline Wilson, one of the grand dames of Brit kidlit, a writer who is exceptionally skilled at creating immediate, realistic stories about daily life.  It’s an interesting take on the “straight girl has a crush on her gay best friend!” convention, particularly because the friendship, the look at how friendships change and last, is so carefully and truthfully rendered.  I also have to mention that this is one of the very few titles with LGBTQ content that is suited for a middle grade audience.  The main characters have only recently turned 14 and it is very much appropriate for a middle school audience.  There’s a huge gap in the literature for books for this age group, so more are needed and always welcomed!

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR

  • I Am J by Cris Beam, forthcoming in 2011 from Little & Brown, I just finished the ARC of this book.  It’s an amazing, wonderful, powerful story about a FTM trans teenager.  Gonna be a great addition to the canon!
  • Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Mark Bieschke, forthcoming in October from Zest Books.  More non-fiction, thankfully. (from the high quality non-fiction publisher Zest) This one looks great, it’s a bit of  everything from an activist’s handbook to a dating guide.  (Read about it in Zest’s Fall 2010 catalog)

And even after all this talk, I feel like I’ve only just begun!  There are so many others I want to recommend.  You know what that means … I’ll just have to make this a series.

So, until then, please feel free to chime in with your own new favorites and suggestions!

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