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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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It all began with a boy and his dog. The boy was 13-year-old Davy Ross, and the dog, a dachshund named Fred. Davy loved that dog to distraction, and maybe he loved his buddy Altschuler, too. That possibility makes the book that the three inhabit—John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip—the first YA novel with gay content. Published by what was then Harper & Row in 1969—the same year the Stonewall riots sparked the gay rights movement—Donovan’s novel was a harbinger of a literature to come, one that would give faces to previously invisible lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning teens.
Unfortunately, those faces were initially scarred by author Donovan’s ill-conceived decision to kill off Fred (he’s struck by an automobile) in the wake of the two boys having made out. Naturally, Davy blames himself and his altogether-innocent action for Fred’s death, and, presto, the early LGBTQ fiction that followed was marked by an unfortunate tendency to punish protagonists who dared give expression to the love that dared not speak its name.
Enter the second YA novel with LGBTQ content, Isabelle Holland’s The Man without a Face (1972). The eponymous man is Justin McLeod, half of whose face is scarred from an automobile accident. When McLeod, who is gay, becomes a mentor to 14-year-old Chuck, the boy becomes smitten and is horrified by his heart’s desires. Though McLeod does nothing to encourage Chuck’s feelings, he is nevertheless made to suffer a fatal coronary—so much for his heart. Most readers will probably not mind his passing, though, since McLeod is easily the most annoying character in the literature. Anyway, the third LGBTQ novel, Sandra Scoppettone’s Trying Hard to Hear You (1974), features two boys who are in love. When they are discovered making out, one of the two—determined to show their friends he is straight—takes a girl on a date and dies in a car crash. Ever since, the deus ex machina car crash has been a hallmark of a literature that has featured the worst drivers this side of my grandmother!
Do you detect, in all of this, a trend emerging? Yes, the 1970s and early ’80s were definitely not a good time to be an LGBTQ teen. Death and despair were the order of the day, and no relationship was permitted to be happy until 1982, when, glory hallelujah, Nancy Garden gave readers her bellwether novel Annie on My Mind, the first lesbian love story with a happy ending! It was also one of the very first LGBTQ novels to acknowledge that homosexuality wasn’t simply about sex; it was about love, too, a theme that was superbly reinforced in 1989 with Francesca Lia Block’s beautifully and sensitively realized Weetzie Bat. Protagonist Weetzie is not herself a lesbian, but her two best friends, the couple Dirk and Duck, are gay, and their love for each other shines from every page. It would be another 14 years before a novel would match Weetzie for artful innocence and sweet insouciance: David Levithan’s memorable Boy Meets Boy. Like Weetzie, it incorporates elements of magic realism to create an idealized world in which love is never punished but celebrated.
If these two novels are notable for their generosity of spirit, the world of LGBTQ publishing was less, well, generous in terms of its total output. Consider that only 9 novels with LGBTQ content appeared in the whole decade of the 1970s. The pace picked up a bit in the 1980s, when 36 such works of fiction appeared, but even so, that’s a scant number to give faces to many millions of LGBTQ teens. Happily, as the years passed, the numbers continued to grow, with 78 appearing in the 1990s and 252 in the aught years of this century. The pace has picked up even more appreciably in the years since. Consider that in the first 10 months of this year alone, 81 YA books with LGBTQ content have been published, a number that exceeds the total appearing in the entire decade of the 1990s.
So the numbers are certainly growing, but what about the quality? It’s no secret that the LGBTQ fiction of the early years was made up mainly of problem novels. That this had dramatically changed by the early years of the twenty-first century was evidenced by Aidan Chambers’ gay-themed Postcards from No Man’s Land winning the 2003 Printz Award. That same year, Garret Freyman-Weyr’s My Heartbeat claimed a Printz Honor. Then there was Libba Bray’s 2010 Printz-winning Going Bovine. Though not technically an LGBTQ novel, it did feature gay content. And then came Jandy Nelson’s luminous LGBTQ novel I’ll Give You the Sun, which took the 2015 Printz.
As all of this evidences, LGBTQ fiction has come of age as literature. Oh, sure, the occasional problem novel is still published—usually featuring coming-out experiences and even occasional car crashes—but by and large, the literary quality of the books has increased exponentially. To the point where, I would argue, we are now living in a golden age of LGBTQ literature. We’ve gotten there, and, pace John Donovan, it has definitely been worth the trip.
For faces are now being given even to those who have been the most resolutely invisible; transgender teens, for example, have emerged as some of the most vital characters in the literature. Intersex characters and even asexual characters, too, are now coming out of the darkness into the light of understanding and acceptance. So what’s missing? Characters of color. Too often the literature continues to feature white, middle-class kids, leaving those who don’t fit that paradigm in the lurch. Advocates of the literature should demand greater diversity. For only when that is realized can we say, with Paul, the protagonist of Boy Meets Boy, “What a wonderful world.”
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