Graduate Journal Reprint: The Library and LGBTQ+ Literature, Reader Representation and Recognition

(Note: This is one of a few blog posts I’ve decided to republish here, from a course journal blog I put together as part of my MLIS graduate program. I’m thinking I’d like to do more posts like these in the future, and so I’m reposting these as a sort of inspiration/reminder for myself! Original publication date: September 29, 2017)

Required Primary Reads:

  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out / Susan Kuklin
  • Between Mom and Jo / Julie Ann Peters

Read for Annotated Bibliography Project:

  • Amy Asks a Question: What’s a Lesbian? / Jeanne Arnold (Lesbian Representation)
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe / Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Gay Representation)
  • Carry On / Rainbow Rowell (Gay Representation)
  • Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen / Garth Nix (Asexual Representation)
  • How to Be A Normal Person / T.J. Klune (Gay/Asexual Representation)

Overall Thoughts: the Librarian’s Responsibility to the LGBT+ Reader

“Under the very best of conditions, navigating adolescence can often be a confusing, lonely, and occasionally overwhelming experience, as teens seek to find their way between the expectations others have for them … and the drive to lay claim to their newly independent self … Identity formation, the main task of adolescence, requires a relatively safe and supportive framework within which adolescents can come to know their true selves … Identity formation is a much more difficult task for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth … LGBTQ adolescents struggle with the decision of not just who they are, but whether they are, and who they dare to tell about it.”

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ)-Themed Literature for Teens: Are School Libraries Providing Adequate Collections?” (Sandra Hughes-Hassell; Elizabeth Overberg; Shannon Harris)

As librarians, we have a responsibility to provide information and materials to our patrons, including the LGBTQ+ community, especially now that the community is thankfully becoming more and more accepted by society. A wide variety of works including LGBTQ+ characters and narratives are being published at a much faster rate than before, where before there was an unquestionable lack of material for readers to enjoy, and our libraries – public and school alike – need to reflect this. Where before a book with a LGBTQ+ character would have been few and far between (and even then, enforced stereotypes or was not of the best literary quality), today’s readers find a plethora of options to choose from when looking for their next LGBTQ+ read, with diverse representations and quality writing. It is important to make these books available for the general public’s consumption, regardless of sexual orientation (including those who do not identify as LGBTQ+!), as exposure to this topic encourages empathy towards, and understanding of, the community and their experiences, while providing the much-needed support and insight for those patrons who identify with the community.

Studies and articles, such as the one quoted above, have discussed the fact that LGBTQ+ teens, in particular, struggle with adolescence and identity formation much more than their non-LGBTQ+ peers; the availability of texts and materials to this community that reflect their own personal experiences and thoughts is crucial in that it gives readers in this vulnerable age group the opportunity to recognize themselves in various works (both fiction and nonfiction) and the confirmation that what they’re feeling is entirely normal and in no way wrong. Books in which the protagonist, or another main character, is a part of the LGBTQ+ community give their LGBTQ+ reader an opportunity to recognize themselves in the text and feel represented, and less alone; books in which LGBTQ+ characters can be found as side characters or in the background remind their LGBTQ+ reader, again, that they are not alone, that others like them (a whole community!) exist and share similar experiences.

Evaluation of Selected YA LGBTQ+ Texts

For this particular post, I plan to evaluate the novels I read for my annotated bibliography contributions, and examine how each represents/discusses the LGBTQ+ community in regard to the following aspects:

  1. Which aspect(s) of the LGBTQ+ community is/are discussed or included in the book?
  2. Is the LGBTQ+ character a main/POV character, or a side/background character?
  3. Is the narrative a realization/coming-out story, or is the character already secure in their sexuality?
  4. Is the character’s sexuality a central plot point, or just an aspect of their personality/identity (for example: the protagonist might be a lesbian, but this fact has no importance in how the plot plays out)?
  5. Do the characters have a happy ending, or does this book perpetuate the tiresome and controversial “bury your gays” trope?

Amy Asks A Question: What’s a Lesbian? / Jeanne Arnold

A work of Children’s Lit.; this informative book introduces children to the notion of what it means to have family members or neighbors who are lesbian/gay, and portrays the history of the LGBTQ+ community pre-1997 (inability to get married – until recently! -, as well as discrimination in the workplace) and their experiences (gay pride parades, secret signals to portray oneself as a member of the community to others).

  • Which aspect(s) of the LGBTQ+ community is/are discussed or included in the book?
    • Amy has two grandmothers who are lesbians, and it is mentioned in passing that she has a gay uncle as well.
  • Is the LGBTQ+ character a main/POV character, or a side/background character?
    • Side characters.
  • Is the narrative a realization/coming-out story, or is the character already secure in their identity?
    • Amy’s grandmothers are definitely secure in their identity and sexuality – they’ve been together for twenty years!
  • Is the character’s sexuality a central plot point, or just an aspect of their personality/identity?
    • Central plot point, since the book aims to educate it’s readers on the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Do the characters have a happy ending, or does this book perpetuate the tiresome and controversial “bury your gays” trope?
    • Happy ending! 🙂

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe / Benjamin Alire Sáenz

A work of YA literature; this beautifully-written book portrays the coming-of-age story of two inseparable Mexican-American teenagers, Ari and Dante, best friends who first meet at the swimming pool over summer break in 1987, as the two struggle with their feelings towards each other as they grow up. Dante immediately falls in love with Ari but tries (unsuccessfully) to move on, while Ari represses his own sexuality out of fear and repeatedly denies his own love for Dante. After both boys find support in their families, they are able to accept their feelings and give readers the happy ending they’ve been waiting for.

  • Which aspect(s) of the LGBTQ+ community is/are discussed or included in the book?
    • Ari and Dante are both gay; there are a couple other gay men mentioned in the book, and Ari is told by his parents that his beloved late great-aunt was a lesbian who lived with another woman for decades, despite her immediate family’s immense disapproval.
  • Is the LGBTQ+ character a main/POV character, or a side/background character?
    • POV character/main character.
  • Is the narrative a realization/coming-out story, or is the character already secure in their identity?
    • This book absolutely centers around a realization/coming-out narrative, with the conclusion coming after Ari, the protagonist, is able to accept his love for Dante (who is more secure in his identity throughout the book) after finding a support system in his parents.
  • Is the character’s sexuality a central plot point, or just an aspect of their personality/identity?
    • Central plot point.
  • Do the characters have a happy ending, or does this book perpetuate the tiresome and controversial “bury your gays” trope?
    • Happy ending! 🙂

Carry On / Rainbow Rowell

A work of YA literature; Carry On is a parody of the popular Harry Potter series, complete with magic, dragons, a Wizardry boarding school, and a chosen one – albeit “the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen”. Eighteen-year-old Simon Snow, the Chosen One, struggles with learning magic while keeping a watchful eye on his roommate Baz Grimm-Pitch, his self-proclaimed nemesis since their first year who he’s convinced is a vampire out to get him. Of course, it turns out that Baz has been watching Simon too, but for other reasons! The two declare a truce in their rivalry to solve the murder of Baz’s mother, but end up discovering their feelings towards the other along the way.

  • Which aspect(s) of the LGBTQ+ community is/are discussed or included in the book?
    • Baz is gay, but Simon’s sexuality is ambiguous (as stated by the author in various interviews): he’s previously perceived himself as straight, yet feels attraction to Baz – but no other males. There is also a lesbian couple mentioned throughout the book, but they are never introduced to the reader other than in passing.
  • Is the LGBTQ+ character a main/POV character, or a side/background character?
    • POV characters.
  • Is the narrative a realization/coming-out story, or is the character already secure in their identity?
    • For Simon, there is definitely realization towards his feelings for Baz; Baz, on the other hand, has always been secure in his identity as “queer”.
  • Is the character’s sexuality a central plot point, or just an aspect of their personality/identity?
    • Central plot point.
  • Do the characters have a happy ending, or does this book perpetuate the tiresome and controversial “bury your gays” trope?
    • Happy ending! 🙂

Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen / Garth Nix

A work of YA literature; this is the fourth book in Nix’s The Old Kingdom series but serves as a prequel to the first three, setting up the backstory of the series’s villain, the feared and immortal necromancer Chlorr of the Mask – known as Clariel before her turn to dark magic. This novel portrays the incendiary components that bring about her turn to necromancy (the ignoring of Clariel’s own choices and desires by her parents, her usage as a political (and magical) pawn by her family and friends, and ultimately, a violent betrayal) in an attempt to both gain control of her life and avenge the political murders of those close to her.

  • Which aspect(s) of the LGBTQ+ community is/are discussed or included in the book?
    • This book is remarkable in that it is one of the few popular young adult novels with a clearly stated canon asexual protagonist: Clariel openly declares her disinterest in sex numerous times. (Asexuality – often defined as a lack of sexual attraction – has been nicknamed the “invisible orientation”, as many people do not understand or even know about this particular orientation; I thought, therefore, that it would be important to find a book or two that included characters who identify as “ace” for my annotated bibliography entries)
  • Is the LGBTQ+ character a main/POV character, or a side/background character?
    • POV character.
  • Is the narrative a realization/coming-out story, or is the character already secure in their identity?
    • Clariel is secure in her identity by the time the narrative begins.
  • Is the character’s sexuality a central plot point, or just an aspect of their personality/identity?
    • Clariel’s asexuality is mostly just an aspect of her personal identity, as it ultimately has no bearing on her quest for revenge.
  • Do the characters have a happy ending, or does this book perpetuate the tiresome and controversial “bury your gays” trope?
    • While Clariel doesn’t exactly get a happy ending, this is to be expected – this novel is, after all, telling the story of how a sweet caring girl became the terrifying necromancer of the Old Kingdom series.

How to be a Normal Person / T.J. Klune

A work of ‘new adult’ literature, this book tells the story of a relationship between an antisocial, gay, technology-averse man – Gus – and Casey, the asexual hipster new to town. Gus, realizing Casey is interested in him (albeit not sexually), decides to try to become “more normal”, setting off to buy new clothes, try vegan restaurants, and invest in not only a television, but a computer as well – an Instagram is just too much! It’s a comedic story about staying true to oneself, and a good example of how, despite stereotypes, asexual people too can participate in a loving relationship, without sex.

  • Which aspect(s) of the LGBTQ+ community is/are discussed or included in the book?
    • Gus is openly gay, and Casey is openly asexual; Gus’s close friends are three elderly women who are either three sisters or in a polyamorous lesbian relationship – he’s too afraid to ask; and Casey’s best friends are all introduced as either gay or pansexual.
  • Is the LGBTQ+ character a main/POV character, or a side/background character?
    • POV character/main character/side characters.
  • Is the narrative a realization/coming-out story, or is the character already secure in their identity?
    • Both characters are secure in their identities by the time they meet.
  • Is the character’s sexuality a central plot point, or just an aspect of their personality/identity?
    • Sexuality is a central plot point in the novel, as the narrative focuses on how these two characters can have a loving relationship despite their differing sex drives.
  • Do the characters have a happy ending, or does this book perpetuate the tiresome and controversial “bury your gays” trope?
    • Happy ending! 🙂

Other LGBTQ+ Lit. Recommendations

The books above are all very good reads for anyone looking for novels inclusive of LGBTQ+ characters; in addition to these, listed below are other popular books I’ve enjoyed that one can recommend for anyone searching for their next read inclusive of LGBTQ+ representation:

  • Our Bloody Pearl / D.N. Bryn (YA lit.)
  • History is All You Left Me / Adam Silvera (YA lit.)
  • The Song of Achilles / Madeline Miller (Adult lit.)
  • The Darker Shade of Magic series / VE Schwab (YA lit.)
  • If We Were Villains / M.L. Rio (Adult lit.)
  • Ice Massacre / Tiana Warner (YA lit.)
  • The Raven Cycle series / Maggie Stiefvater (YA lit.)
  • The Witch Boy / Molly Knox Ostertag (Middle Grade lit.)
  • Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the Heroes of Olympus series, the Trials of Apollo series, and the Magnus Bane and the Gods of Asgard series. (Children’s/Middle grade lit.)

(2022 Note: I’m happy to add, there have been so many great LGBTQ+ books published since I wrote this back in 2017, especially in for Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Children’s Lit readers! I will likely write up another post similar to this, examining newer publications.)

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