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.)

Reading Recap: January 2022

So far this year, I’ve managed to read a book a week – we’ll see if this keeps up! – and even better, all four titles were ones I enjoyed. One of them especially so; you can imagine my surprise when, two weeks into January, I found myself sure I’d just read one of my favorite books of the year! But without further ado, here’s my January-2022-reads-in-review (reposted from my Tumblr):

Bird Box / Josh Malerman

This short novel was the first book I picked up this year. I remember the Netflix film pretty well – I think I watched it three or four times when it was first released (not because I was so in love with it but because I just kept watching it with different people, haha)! But it’s been a few years since then, and the adaptation differed plenty from the source material, both character and plot-wise, so it was almost like reading a different story set in the same universe. It was just as fast-paced and exciting, though, too, so this was a great choice for an easy, beginning-of-the-year read.

The City Beautiful / Aden Polydoros

THIS BOOK! There’s just so much I could say about The City Beautiful, I think I’ll probably end up writing a post at some point dedicated to it. Set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it’s a new Jewish YA historical fantasy about a young man who finds himself possessed by the dybbuk of his close friend Yakov after his murder. I don’t remember where I first heard about the title (maybe a BookRiot newsletter?), but I put in a staff recommendation of purchase at the library for this title months ago (and to be honest, I think I submitted it twice), so I was the first one to get my hands on it when it was finally added to the collection at the beginning of the year. It’s just so well-written, and I loved the characters, the setting, and and and… You can definitely expect me to write another post about this book, there’s just so much I want to say about it! I loved it so much, I went out and bought myself a personal copy as soon as I finished reading the one I’d gotten from the library!

We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep / Andrew Kelly Stewart

This novella was my second post-apocalypse title of the year – a theme I didn’t intend on focusing on, but seeing as my hold arrived at the library on a day when I had a free afternoon…We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep is a distinctive story set in an alternate-timeline, post-nuclear-apocalypse version of the 1980s, and focuses on a group of doomsday cultists living on a submarine. The main character is a young girl who must pretend to be a boy to ensure her survival amidst the all-male cultists, an issue she must deal with in addition to planning her escape after discovering the new captain’s plan to release a decades-old nuke on what remains of Australia before sending their decrepit submarine to the depths of the ocean to die. Very niche novella, intriguing idea, and well-executed.

The Cat Who Saved Books / Sosuke Natsukawa

This one was my second favorite read of the month, behind The City Beautiful. Another quick, atmospheric novel, this one is about a high schooler in Japan who, after his grandfather’s death, faces the loss of the bookstore the two owned and called home for years – and the sudden appearance of a talking cat, who convinces him to follow along on journeys into mysterious worlds to save books in peril. It’s a fun work of magical realism, and I feel like I read it at the perfect time, as I’m currently playing through Persona5 again (a video game that shares some similarities with this book – talking cat and all!). In fact, I listened to this track off the Persona5 soundtrack the whole time I was reading, since it fit so well with the vibes of the story 🐈 Fun read for cat and book lovers alike!

Three of My Favorite Novels…with a 700+ Page Count

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I really don’t read super long books all that often. I have read a few with 600+ page counts – of course there’s she-who-must-not-be-named’s The Deathly Hallows, and then Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (one of my favorite books to reread), as well as Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker, which I read in a course I took for my English degree. But when we get into the 700+ territory, I believe there’s only a handful I’ve read – and the three on this list were not only the first to come to mind, but are also three of my favorites. And so, without further ado:

The Passage // Justin Cronin

Goodreads Synopsis:

IT HAPPENED FAST. THIRTY-TWO MINUTES FOR ONE WORLD TO DIE, ANOTHER TO BE BORN.

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse. As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. Wolgast is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors, but for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—toward the time an place where she must finish what should never have begun.”

Starting with the title I’ve read most recently, Justin Cronin’s The Passage clocks in with a total of 766 pages (at least, my hardcover copy does. I can’t speak for other editions, of course). I got my copy from a friend at work for Christmas (thanks Tony!), a couple months before the Covid-19 pandemic really began here in America, so I definitely ended up with the time to read it. It’s the first sci-fi book I’ve read in a good long while, and it reminded me a lot of Michael Crichton’s work (granted, I haven’t read anything of Crichton’s since probably 2009, aside from Timeline, which I reread every three years or so; but the summer after eighth grade I discovered the author and then devoured nearly every book he’d ever written, for some reason).

The Passage isn’t a book about vampires, but at the same time, it’s a book with vampires – just, not the ones that typically come to mind. My favorite part, though, was the fact that 1/3 of the book takes place in one century; the other 2/3 are set after a time jump of nearly 100 years. You’re given the chance to see the lead-up to the end of the world as we knew it, and then move on to a completely new setting and cast of characters, dealing with the fallout of the first third of the novel. The abrupt change was jarring at first, but where I’d thought the first group of characters was great, the second cast was even better. And where the first 1/3 had been interesting, the last two parts were even more riveting. All three novels on this list are worth a reread, in my opinion, but this is the one I see myself most likely to reread first.

The Mists of Avalon // Marion Zimmer Bradley

From the Wikipedia page:

“The Mists of Avalon is a generations-spanning retelling of the Arthurian legend that brings it back to its Brythonic Celtic roots. The plot tells the story of the women who influence King Arthur, High King of Britain, and those around him.

A photo I took of my copy of The Mists of Avalon on my desk, while I was reading it back in August 2016.

The Mists of Avalon is a 1983 historical fantasy novel by American writer Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which the author relates the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters. The book follows the trajectory of Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), a priestess fighting to save her Celtic religion in a country where Christianity threatens to destroy the pagan way of life. The epic is focused on the lives of Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), Viviane, Morgause, Igraine and other women of the Arthurian legend. The Mists of Avalon is in stark contrast to most other retellings of the Arthurian tales, which consistently cast Morgan le Fay as a distant, one-dimensional evil sorceress, with little or no explanation given for her antagonism to the Round Table. In this case, Morgaine is presented as a woman with unique gifts and responsibilities at a time of enormous political and spiritual upheaval who is called upon to defend her indigenous heritage against impossible odds.

This was a book that had been on my TBR for at least two or three years before I finally picked it up, though I suppose that’s not all too long, considering. My British Studies minor advisor had listed it as one of his favorite novels, and I’d dutifully made a note of the title, purchased a copy, and then promptly forgot about it until halfway through 2016. Despite it’s hefty page count (884 pages!) I somehow managed to read the book in it’s entirety during the first two weeks of my senior year of undergrad – if only I still had that same sort of fervor today! I can’t even imagine what I’d get done.

But back to the book. Like the synopsis says, not only is this an amazing retelling of the Arthurian legends, from the POV of the female characters who’d long been overlooked, it’s also a retelling (or redesign, perhaps, would be the better word) of Morgaine’s character, and her story, within the larger Arthurian legends. She goes from the shallow villain she’d so oft been portrayed as to a much more complex, interesting protagonist; similarly, many of the other familiar names from the legends undergo such positive transformations (aside from the fact that Bradley decided to give Merlin the name ‘Kevin’, of all things, a detail which I’d rather forget).

The Sunne in Splendour // Sharon Kay Penman

Goodreads Synopsis:

“A glorious novel of the controversial Richard III – a monarch betrayed in life by his allies and betrayed in death by history. In this beautifully rendered modern classic, Sharon Kay Penman redeems Richard III – vilified as the bitter, twisted, scheming hunchback who murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower – from his maligned place in history with a dazzling combination of research and storytelling. Born into the treacherous courts of fifteenth-century England, in the midst of what history has called The War of the Roses, Richard was raised in the shadow of his charismatic brother, King Edward IV. Loyal to his friends and passionately in love with the one woman who was denied him, Richard emerges as a gifted man far more sinned against than sinning. This magnificent retelling of his life is filled with all of the sights and sounds of battle, the customs and lore of the fifteenth century, the rigors of court politics, and the passions and prejudices of royalty.”

Last, but certainly not least, we have Sharon Kay Penman’s debut novel, and a work of historical fiction –The Sunne in Splendour. A debut novel that just so happened to fill 1,248 pages. OVER A THOUSAND! Not to mention the fact the author had to completely rewrite her manuscript and start from scratch when her only copy was stolen (as it was the 1980s, and so of course it would’ve been more difficult to back-up drafts).

One of my favorite quotes from the book, directly referencing the historical phenomena that would become known as the “Tudor Myth”: the portrayal of Richard III, and other Yorkists, in as negative a light as possible, to support the Tudor dynasty’s weak claim to the English throne…but that’s another topic for another day, so I’ll just stop myself while I’m ahead.

I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be able to read any another fictionalized work of Richard III’s life, because The Sunne in Splendour simply set the bar so high. Richard III is one of my ‘historical faves’, and someone I’ve studied and read about for years; reading this portrayal of him was so interesting, and a refreshing look at how the king may have been seen and remembered, had the history of the Wars of the Roses not been written by the victors (as history nearly always is). In addition, Penman’s work was clearly so meticulously researched, something I (as an avid medievalist and Wars of the Roses enthusiast) greatly appreciated – other novels I’ve read on the time period and the historical figures it contained can’t even hold a candle to how well-written Penman’s book is. I was so sorry to see that she’d passed away from pneumonia early this year, in January 2021. I’ve still got plenty of her other books on my TBR, and a few already on my personal bookshelves – I already know I’m going to enjoy them.