Walk into a bookstore during Pride Month and you will probably see at least one rainbow-colored display featuring books with LGBTQIA+ characters. And in that display, you will probably spot more queer girl young adult books than you would have just 10 years ago.
According to new research by Malinda Lo, more young adult books about LGBTQIA+ characters are being published than ever before. Lo is the author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, which was recently released in a special 10th anniversary edition, and she has compiled statistics about LGBTQIA+ representation in YA since 2003. Each year, Lo tallies the number of young adult books with LGBTQIA+ main characters published by mainstream American publishers and cross-checks trade reviews and book blogs to make sure the books meet her requirements.
"I’m thrilled because more YA books about queer girls means more opportunities to help today’s queer teen girls feel seen and understood."
Lo’s current statistics show that young adult literature appears to finally be catching up on queer girls: In 2018, 108 LGBTQIA+ young adult books were published by mainstream publishers, and 56 of them are about cis queer girls. That's a 522% increase from 2009, when nine were published. "As an author who has been the recipient of countless emails and messages from readers over the years, I’m thrilled because more YA books about queer girls means more opportunities to help today’s queer teen girls feel seen and understood," Lo tells Bustle.
But there's still much work to be done. There still aren't many YA books being published about trans or nonbinary main characters, but there has been an increase in YA books with multiple LGBTQIA+ characters in the cast. While it’s not enough for trans and nonbinary characters to only exist within ensemble casts, the upside to having several LGBTQIA+ protagonists, is that queer and trans characters can thrive within a community instead of being isolated and tokenized.
Lo’s statistics don’t specify for identity intersections, like LGBTQIA+ characters with disabilities or LGBTQIA+ characters of color, but 2018 research about Black girls’ representation in young adult literature by librarian Edith Campbell shows that among books traditionally published over a three-year period, only one — Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert — had any LGBTQIA+ content.
"Queer women are not just part of the LGBTQ+ community, we’re in communities of color. We’re part of religious communities. We’re queer girls with disabilities," says Anna-Marie McLemore, author of magical realist novels rooted in her queer identity and Latina heritage, including Wild Beauty, Blanca & Roja, and the forthcoming Dark and Deepest Red. "Our identities intersect with so many identities. Without acknowledging that, the world loses not only our stories, but a piece of so many different communities."
Sabina Khan tells Bustle she wrote The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali because she wanted to see more stories about South Asian Muslim LGBTQIA+ teens and because she wanted readers to know that no culture is a monolith: There are both homophobes and allies in every community. "When I wrote it, I was a little bit terrified of the response I would get from my own community. I was expecting some backlash," she tells Bustle. Fortunately, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, she says.
"The best way to make sure books about queer girls continue to get published is to buy them."
The path to publishing more inclusive LGBTQIA+ young adult books is heavily tied to the amount of support provided to books that already exist, including midlist and backlist titles. "The best way to make sure books about queer girls continue to get published is to buy them," says Lo. "Buy them for yourself; buy them as gifts; request that your library buy them. And then talk about them to everyone. Word of mouth is still a huge driver of book sales."
Dahlia Adler, a YA author and blogger and the founder of LGBTQReads, works hard to spread the word about LGBTQIA+ young adult books, through her posts on LGBTQReads and the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog and her posts on various social media channels. Adler explains that YA Pride, a masterlist of YA books by LGBTQIA+ creators, has a similarly profound impact. "For both authors and publishers, knowing there's a space like that to turn to for promotion is a very big deal," she says. "I feel it all the time as the blogger behind LGBTQReads, that promotion is being handled for authors that might not be done otherwise if there wasn't an obvious and welcoming space to turn to."
Booksellers are another crucial piece of the puzzle. At stores like the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California and Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, booksellers have created welcoming spaces to promote YA books about LGBTQIA+ characters. One of Porter Square’s May 2019 events celebrated the rise of queer girls in young adult literature in the decade since Malinda Lo’s Ash was published, and the event highlighted both pioneers and newcomers who are writing these stories. We Need Diverse Books created an award — the Bookseller of the Year Award — to highlight independent bookstores that actively promote diverse books.
"The best way to ensure queer books keep getting published is to get them in as many hands as possible, not just queer ones."
Abby Rice, a bookseller and buyer at the Briar Patch in Bangor, Maine, believes that handselling, the practice of promoting books by personal recommendation instead of publisher-sponsored marketing, is one way to get books into the hands of readers. She’s careful to not only handsell LGBTQIA+ books to queer and questioning readers, but to all customers. "The best way to ensure queer books keep getting published is to get them in as many hands as possible, not just queer ones," Rice tells Bustle.
Another reason to market LGBTQIA+ books widely is because not all teens are out in middle or high school. "Teens who don't identify as queer today might come to question that aspect of their identities in the future," says Robin Talley, author of Pulp and four other novels about LGBTQIA+ teens. "When a teen reader encounters a queer character for the first time, and it could be that very encounter that causes them to recognize a part of themselves they may not have understood before." Books like Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All The Best or Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Summer Bird Blue might be the first introduction to nonbinary or asexual identity that readers have, and seeing yourself in a book is a transformative experience.
In bookselling communities, discussions about how to best promote LGBTQIA+ books are common, says Rice. At Briar Patch, they have a shelf of new releases and favorite queer titles, and for Pride Month, that was expanded into a larger display. Booksellers still also rely on marketing materials from publishers, and Abby says both Harper Collins and Scholastic sent out kits that highlight their forthcoming and newly released LGBTQIA+ titles. Nicole Brinkley, an independent bookseller at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York, says that the best practice for booksellers is to stock their stores and read inclusively, and then turn those books into staff picks and recommend them to readers.
Organizers of panels and events at bookstores and conferences like BookCon should be wary not to tokenize LGBTQIA+ stories and authors by pigeonholing them into diversity-centric topics only. "I love getting myself on YA panels that aren’t about queer issues and treating LGBTQ books as a regular part of YA literature," says Amy Spalding, the author of several young adult novels, including the bestselling The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles).
And while booksellers help get published stories into readers’ hands, literary agents and editors are similarly important in making sure they get acquired in the first place. Agents like Jim McCarthy and Rebecca Podos have both helped facilitate the growth of queer girl YA books, according to Adler, as has Beth Phelan, who launched #DVpit, a Twitter book pitch event for marginalized writers to get their work seen by agents, in April 2016.
“If we as agents aren't advocating diverse representation, there's a risk that those stories just won't appear in the mainstream."
Alexandra Franklin, an associate agent at the Vicky Bijur Literary Agency, explains that because most major publishing houses don’t accept un-agented submissions, literary agents are often literally the gatekeepers who decide whether queer girl YA books get published. “If we as agents aren't advocating diverse representation, there's a risk that those stories just won't appear in the mainstream,” she says. When her client Brynne Rebele-Henry’s novel Orpheus Girl’s cover was revealed, the response was overwhelming: So many people were amazed to see two girls holding hands on a book cover, even though many covers feature mixed-gender couples holding hands.
Miriam Newman, an editor at Candlewick Press, believes that being vocal about the types of books she wants to publish (often called a Manuscript Wish List by editors) is one way to make sure authors and agents are aware that the industry is hungry for queer stories. “When agents ask what I’m looking for, I make sure to say very pointedly that I’m looking for queer rep, and that I’m especially looking for bi, pan, trans, nonbinary, ace, and aro rep,” says Newman. As a bisexual woman married to a cisgender man, Newman says she consciously outs herself because her default state is bi invisibility. “I am not just an editor looking for queer books, I am a queer editor,” she says. “By being visible, I let aspiring editors see that there is a place for them, openly and proudly, in this industry.”
Not only are more YA books about queer girls being released today than ever before, but many are being marketed and promoted to a wider audience. Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan and Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy were both marketed for their widespread, mainstream appeal. More authors of queer girl YA are being sent on book tours, which serve as both a promotional tool and direct access between authors and their readers.
Amy Rose Capetta, the author of The Lost Coast and several other YA books with queer main characters, tells Bustle that “we need to get past the cycle where some people insist that queer girl books don’t exist, the queer book community vehemently point to the ones that do, and then nobody new actually reads them or elevates them.”
"Our society values stories about men over those about women, period. If the women are queer, they’re even less valued."
The cycle is fueled by a lack of promotional support for queer girl books, Capetta says, and a lack of visibility for these stories. Marketing buzz, financial support, and word of mouth recommendations are three things that help create visibility in the book industry, she adds. When publishing houses prioritize LGBTQIA+ stories and market them widely, they’re sending the message that these books are worthwhile.
"This may sound like a downer, but I don’t believe that stories about queer women have ever been seen as important and worthy — not by the mainstream," says Malinda Lo. "Our society values stories about men over those about women, period. If the women are queer, they’re even less valued."
Given that Lo’s research shows that the spike in LGBTQIA+ young adult books, especially for girls and gender minorities, has only begun in the last decade, she believes that we’ve lost countless good stories and silenced writers who were turned down by the industry in years past. "The challenge is to not let this fact get you down, and instead, to allow it to make you angry," she says. "Let it motivate you!”