Exploring LGBT Themes in YA Lit & Everyday Library Life

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Review: The Culling

CullingRelease Date: 8 March 2013
Publisher: Flux
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 9 & up

On Recruitment Day, Lucian “Luck” Sparks is forced to become a pawn in the Trials–a set of tests forced upon 5 Recruits by the totalitarian Establishment.  The penalty for losing a trial–the choice of having someone close to you killed.  For Lucky, that means his younger brother Cole is at risk and he’ll do anything to keep him safe–he’ll be ruthless, brave, and ultimately, deny himself the love staring him in the face the whole time.  With it’s Battle Royale storyline, The Culling is not a story for the faint of heart.  It will tug at each and every one of your heartstrings along the way while simultaneously taunting you to close the book when the going gets tough.  Steven dos Santos’ world is cruel, dark, and dangeous.

When I first stumbled upon The Culling on Goodreads, my first reaction was this: “FINALLY!!!!” There is a lot of room in the dystopian landscape for LGBT characters and yet it is a vastly unexplored possibility.   What I liked most about the LGBT aspect of this book was the fact that the main character’s sexuality was really a non-issue.  It is what it is.  No one harasses him because of it–it’s just an accepted fact.  It’s not the reason that he’s chosen for the Trials.  It’s not used against him during them.  It just is.  He stands solidly in the center of an all male semi-love triangle and that part makes this refreshing.  While the story itself isn’t new (although perhaps a bit darker), the inclusion of an LGBT main character felt flawless.  The author didn’t try to make it more than it was and I appreciated that.


Review: Ask the Passengers

Release Date: 23 October 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown BYR
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 9 & up

Astrid’s life in small town Pennsylvania may seem perfect from the outside, but on the inside, it’s a mess of secrets. Astrid spends her days keeping secrets–both her own and those of her friends–and many hours laying on a picnic table sending love to strangers flying through the sky. As Astrid’s feelings for another young woman grow deeper, she is unsure how to deal with them, both internally and externally. Her parents would never understand and her friends might be too understanding, especially when she isn’t sure what it all means yet. Through Astrid’s character, Ms. King deftly portrays those moments when adolescents come to question their sexuality but aren’t necessarily ready to embrace it. Feelings aren’t cut-and-dry and choices aren’t black-and-white.

Ask the Passengers is a frank, honest examination of learning to accept who you are and how you feel.  It’s about rebelling against both conformity and rebellion because you don’t fit in either place.  King’s novel felt like a breath of fresh air that reveals intricate complexities of being a teenager and coming to terms with your sexuality.  It’s not a black and white world, even though many people often try to see it that way, and Ask the Passengers clearly examines the gray areas. Astrid’s questioning of her sexuality seemed very realistic, and I think that many teens will relate to her questioning and unwillingness to define it definitely and put a societally expected label on it.

Review: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Release Date: 8 October 2012
Publisher: Flux
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 7 & up

Gabe may have been born and grown up as Liz, but deep down he has always known that he is definitely not a girl.  As high school graduation approaches, he begins to make plans for transitioning from Liz to Gabe.  Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to get others to see what’s on the inside when the outside doesn’t match.  As Gabe puts himself out there through his radio show and starts to imagine a future without the shadow of Liz hanging over his head, complications and heartbreak set the stage for questioning and a hefty dose of reality. Set amid a cast of both loveable and irritating characters, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children captures a lot of what it must be like to struggle to come out as transgendered–not just for that person but for his or her loved ones.  Ms. Cronin-Mills has crafted a cast of supporting characters, from parents who are really trying and a mostly accepting best friend to the cooler-than-cool next-door-neighbor who’s there for Gabe through it all, who all have important roles to play as Gabe learns that he must accept and love himself before he can convince the world to do likewise.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children tackles a difficult subject and does so masterfully.  Ms. Cronn-Mills takes on transitioning from female to male and the many difficulties associated with that change, especially after 18 years of living or being forced to live as a female, and puts it into the perspective of Liz/Gabe–who is out to his parents, best friend, and (eventually) neighbor and anxiously awaiting the end of high school so that he can transition to the person he is meant to be.  The path is not at all easy and the book tackles a lot of difficult facets–from being bullied to gaining the acceptance of friends and family.  It’s clearly not an easy road for anyone involved and Ms. Cronn-Mills didn’t shy away from those aspects.  Acceptance wasn’t sugar-coated or made to seem easy, and readers will appreciate that honestly.

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Release Date: 7 February 2012
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 9 & up

When Cameron Post’s parents are killed in a car accident, her first thought is gratitude that they will never know that the day before she was kissing another girl. Cameron knows that she is supposed to like boys but she would rather just hang-out and party with them, not kiss and date them.  When an evening tryst with a close friend leads to the revelation of her sexuality to her aunt, Cameron is immediately sent to God’s Promise, a religious boarding school that claims to cure homosexuality and its underlying causes.  Through new friendships, Cameron comes to terms with who she is and learns that you can’t always be who other people want you to be.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a realistic tale of both prejudice and self-acceptance woven through the common experiences of loss, first love, and friendship.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post sets out to tell a story–not to hit you over the head with its MESSAGE.  The story holds wide appeal because it is well-written and would honestly be just as enjoyable of a story if the protagonist was not gay and was instead sent away because of her drug use. Having Cameron as the narrator of the story makes it all the better because the reader is allowed to struggle alongside her through her journey of self-acceptance. While you don’t always like her and the choices she makes, it is often her mistakes and foibles that make her such an enjoyable main character.

Review: I Am J

Release Date: 1 March 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown BYR
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 9 & up

J may have been born a girl, but inside he’s most definitely a boy.  Growing up, J believed that someday everyone else would realize it too and things come be more normal, but life doesn’t always go as planned.  As J begins to find ways to cope with and cover up his increasingly feminine body, he must find the strength to let in those who love him and find his own path to happiness.  Through a grueling process of self-discovery and acceptance, J discovers what it really means to be yourself and what it will take for him to get there.  I Am J is an important coming-of-age novel written with impressive insight into the world of a transgendered teenager. J is a dynamic, vivid character whose story is eye-opening and heartfelt.  The narrative is believable and effective as a result and readers are sure to find themselves wholly immersed in J’s struggle to prove “My gender’s not a lie. I am not a lie.” 

I Am J is an important story that I, personally, found engaging and eye-opening.  As one of only two books that I’ve read about transgendered teens, I think that it’s crucial for librarians to be aware of those books that do exist to tell these teens’ stories. It’s important for both questioning teens and their peers to read stories such as these in order to experience on some level the diversity that exists in their world, whether they are aware of it or not.

Review: Adaptation

Release Date: 18 September 2012
Publisher: Little Brown BFYR
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 8 & up

When birds begin crashing into planes and planes begin crashing, Reese and David are stranded at the airport with their debate coach after a failed debate tournament. Embarking on a journey that will take any number of unexpected turns, the three leave the airport and all too soon become just two. Reese and David are left alone to navigate the road home and meet their demise in a car accident involving a bird.  Twenty-seven days later the two wake up in classified military hospital with explicit instructions and a non-disclosure agreement that says they can’t tell anyone where they’ve been.  When they get home, both Reese and David experience strange side-effects from whatever treatments they received from the hospital.  When Reese meets Amber, she is just starting to hope that life can return to some kind of normal, but life is never that easy.  Full of government conspiracies, alien DNA, and budding romances, Malinda Lo presents readers with a science fiction novel that will have wide appeal.  Comparisons with X-Files comes easily and fans of government conspiracies and extraterrestrial possibilities will devour this fast-paced novel.

Malinda Lo is one author whose works come to mind automatically when considering teen fiction with LGBT protagonists.  While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Ash, I’m well aware that it is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella and after getting a taste of her writing with Adaptation, I can’t wait to read it. Adaptation is another novel that doesn’t focus on the LGBT aspect of the character’s relationship.  While Reese’s best friend and conspiracy extraordinaire, Julian, plays the role of gay best friend, Reese herself discovers after meeting Amber that she’s not necessarily entirely straight.  That aspect of the story is woven in seamlessly and doesn’t ever turn the novel into an issue type of book.  Instead, the characters’ relationships are woven into a well-written, fast-paced science fiction novel.  There are a lot of opportunities to incorporate a book like this into programming, whether passively into science fiction or diversity displays or actively into book talks, book clubs, or other science fiction programming.

Review: Don’t Let Me Go

Release Date: 27 December 2011
Publisher: Kensington
Reading/Interest Level: Grades 10 & up

Nate and Adam have a great relationship. They’re out and they’re happy.  When Adam gets an offer to pursue his dream in New York, Nate tells him to go, but once Adam is gone, the decision doesn’t seem like such a good one anymore.  With Adam by his side, Nate starts to falter and a lot of things start to go downhill.  Between difficulties at school with the administration and jealousy over Adam’s new roommate, Nate has a hard time keeing things together.  Nate and Adam’s relationship is messy and difficult, but readers will find that makes the story all the more honest and heart-wrenching.  The characters’ flaws make them the type that you connect to on an almost painful level and their struggles and decisions will start to affect the reader on an often personal level. Readers looking for a messy, honest kind of romance need look no further as Don’t Let Me Go is as heart-breaking as it gets.

Don’t Let Me Go falls into what I would call the “New Adult” level of books featuring older protagonists, with out main character Nate being a senior and his boyfriend having just graduated.  It’s actually refreshing to read about characters this age because I feel like there are certain things you can do with the content when your narrators are just a little older.  Don’t Let Me Go definitely tackles the issues associated with being gay and coming out, but it also really tackles normal “relationship issues,” like misunderstandings and jealousy and reads much like a traditional romance novel with non-traditional characters.  While in public libraries this is often shelved with adult novels, I think that for older teens this is a great read to promote because it offers up an open, honest portrayal of the “issues” commonly associated with coming out in high school.

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