How Young Adult Anthologies Are Making Space For All Kinds Of Diverse Love Stories
A Black teen with a chronic digestive condition writes a love advice column. A bruja falls in love with a trans altar boy. Two Bay Area teen girls meet because of cranky customer service and a disdain for our tech-obsessed world.
These are the kinds of relationships you can read about in some recently released young adult anthologies: Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft; Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined to Meet; and Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens. YA anthologies like these are making space for the stories of all kinds of romantic relationships — and that's a big win for the push for diversity in literature.
Since anthologies by nature include multiple stories by different authors, they allow authors to tell stories and write characters that they might otherwise struggle to get traditionally published.
That’s the reasoning behind the publication of We Need Diverse Books' anthologies, including Fresh Ink edited by Lamar Giles, a label-defying and genre-bending collection that includes short stories, a graphic novella, and a one-act play.
“The intended impact is to provide glimpses into a number of different experiences in a compact space," says Lamar Giles, who is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and the author of several novels. “When We Need Diverse Books set out to do our anthologies, we realized it's easier to provide one book of 12 stories as opposed to 12 separate books — which is sort of an across the board benefit of anthologies.”
"The intended impact is to provide glimpses into a number of different experiences in a compact space."
These anthologies are purposefully designed to give space to at least one unpublished author per anthology.
“Getting published in an anthology means getting your name out there,” says Elsie Chapman, a YA author who co-edited the YA anthologies A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and Hungry Hearts. In editing A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, Chapman and her co-editor Ellen Oh intentionally sought out up-and-coming marginalized authors.
Anthologies can question the status quo on a variety of topics — and romantic relationships are no exception: Who gets to be in a romantic relationship? What do relationships look like? How do relationships begin and evolve? Which teens can see themselves in relationship stories? Are romantic and sexual relationships the end goal for everyone or are there other ways to build a fulfilling life?
“We often say that everyone deserves their own love story if they want one, and I think anthologies allow readers to imagine themselves into love stories that reflect them and who they love,” says Katherine Locke, an author who contributed to Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens and who is contributing to and co-editing the forthcoming anthology, It's A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories.
Anthologies also allow room for stories about relationships in all their forms — romantic relationships, platonic relationships, deep friendships, family bonds, chosen family, unrequited love, breakups, grief, and loss.
“We often say that everyone deserves their own love story if they want one, and I think anthologies allow readers to imagine themselves into love stories that reflect them and who they love."
Not all of the relationships in anthologies are romantic in nature, and that’s a positive step for inclusion. “I can't tell you how many ace/aro kids have reached out to me because All Out had their very first ace/aro protagonist,” says Saundra Mitchell, the editor of All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens and author of All The Things We Do in the Dark. “Those mirrors mean everything to our teens.”
By making space for characters who don’t pursue romantic relationships, anthologies are expanding the young adult literary canon. Young adult fiction often keeps romantic pairings at the center of stories, even when the main plot of the book isn’t romance. Marginalized characters are featured less-frequently in YA novels overall, which affords them far fewer storylines, so they also don’t experience a wide range of relationships on the page. Christine Jenkins, LGBTQ+ YA researcher and associate professor at University of Illinois, says that queer girls in young adult fiction are less likely to be single than queer boys, and books with queer girl characters are more likely to have romance as a key theme.
Anthologies also contend with the problem of a single story — the idea, coined by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that one story about a marginalized character or a marginalized author speaks for all people who share that identity.
“I think anthologies—and specifically anthologies that focus on a certain type of lived experience or marginalization — are a fantastic way of showing that no experience is a monolith,” says Marieke Nijkamp, a #1 New York Times bestselling author and the editor of Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens.
Nijkamp set out to create a collection that spanned a wide range of disabled experiences and a variety of voices, and it was important to find a good balance between different types of disabilities. She also prioritized not having an anthology that was a majority of white authors, since that’s so often an issue in conversations about disability (as evidenced by Vilissa Thompson’s viral hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite).
Jessica Spotswood, who co-edited Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft with Tess Sharpe and edited the historical feminist anthologies A Tyranny of Petticoats and The Radical Element, feels similarly about her process as an editor.
“I asked authors to provide story pitches for us to review before they started writing, to make sure that there was a wide range of stories and try to prevent overlaps or gaps in representation,” she says. She’d like to include trans authors, Native authors, and more queer stories if she’s able to work on a third historical anthology. She believes “there is always room to do better,” which is both a challenge and an opportunity with collections. It’s not possible to include every experience in one book of short stories, but anthologies have an edge over novels by their nature of publishing work by multiple writers.
“I think anthologies—and specifically anthologies that focus on a certain type of lived experience or marginalization — are a fantastic way of showing that no experience is a monolith."
Another unexpected benefit of anthologies is that they enable authors to work with tropes in unexpected ways. “Marginalized authors are finally allowed to explore any option, when they don't have to be (or feel like they have to be) a good representative of their marginalization!” says Saundra Mitchell.
When Mitchell was editing All Out, one of the contributors, Kosoko Jackson, asked if he could kill a queer character in his story. He was wary of the Bury Your Gays trope, in which LGBTQ+ characters are killed to further the plot of the story. Mitchell explains that the beauty of an all-queer anthology is that you can’t bury every queer character, so she gave Jackson the OK to write his story the way he wanted.
This gives authors room to experiment with form and style, to lean into tropes that have become tired by giving them a new lens. In Meet Cute, authors challenged the idea that a "meet cute" has to happen between one white boy and one white girl. In Three Sides of a Heart: Stories about Love Triangles, authors redefined the love triangle, a trope that has always reigned supreme in young adult fiction. In Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi and (Don't) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen, writers explored what it means to have relationships as a young Black person or a neurodivergent teen.
There’s no hard data that proves whether or not the publication of anthologies is encouraging the book industry to greenlight more feature-length novels that center on diverse relationships, but the current landscape seems promising. If publishing more YA anthologies means breaking down barriers for marginalized authors and widening the scope of what relationships in literature look like, perhaps it's time to turn the moment into a movement.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified one of the editor's of the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings.