Off the Shelf – LGBT Fiction for Young Adults

Listen here.

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia so I thought this was the perfect time to talk about books that feature LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) characters.

First off – I’m no expert so if you are wondering what it all means there’s a great glossary at the UC Davis Resource Centre.

I’ve often talked about how important it is for young readers to recognize themselves in the books that they read, and for that reason it’s obviously important for LGBT characters to have access to books with characters that reflect their own experiences. I don’t know whether those books existed when I was a teen – although that was a million years ago.

I spend a lot of time choosing books for my classroom library. I’d love to have a little bookstore someday, but stocking the shelves in my classroom is almost as much fun. But I digress. When I’m buying books for my class I try to keep in mind all my students – so I have to buy books about hockey and skateboarding and kids from other countries. I have to buy non-fiction.I have to buy easy books and challenging books.  I have to appeal to all my readers and, more importantly, I have to give my kids an opportunity to read books that will expand their worlds. Books have done that for me; I want books to do that for them.

Having the opportunity to read about someone’s journey – regardless of what that journey is – goes a long way to developing understanding, acceptance and the most important human quality – empathy. We seem to be inching our way towards a world of acceptance – lots of positive things happening out there – the straight guy who asked his gay friend to the prom, for example…but the world that I dream of for my own kids is one where people are just people and that kindness extends to everyone and that a story like that is the norm…and therefore, not news, really.

So I have some book suggestions.

16BLEVITHANEvery Day – David Levithan

So every day the main character ‘A’ wakes up in a different body. He spends 24 hours in that body and he is essentially that person. This is a strange way to live, but it gets even stranger when A falls in love with Rhiannon, the girlfriend of one of his ‘host’ bodies. This book really blurs those gender lines and asks its readers to consider what love is and, more importantly, what it is not. I recommend this book a lot in my classroom.

morethanthisMore Than This – Patrick Ness

So everyone knows I am a huge Ness fan and I loved this book, too. The fact that Seth, the main character in this confounding novel is gay is only incidental, really. The novel starts with Seth drowning and then waking up in a bizarre sort of post-apocalyptic world. More Than This is a page turner, for sure. It’s philosophical and difficult and profoundly moving.

aristotle_and_danteAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Bejamin Alire Saenz

I just finished this book and I loved it. Aristotle is a 15 year old Mexican American and lives with his parents in Texas. It’s 1987. He’s angry and sort of depressed, too. He meets Dante at the pool and they become friends when Dante (also Mexican-American) offers to teach Ari to swim. This is a coming-of-age story and a story about family and community and it’s a love story. I may have teared a few times reading it. So good.

Here are some other books featuring LGBT characters and I encourage everyone to expand their reading horizons to mark May 17th, sure, but beyond that – let’s make every day a day of acceptance.

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

aristotle_and_dante Aristotle (Ari for short) is a 15-year-old Mexican American living in Texas in 1987. He’s bored and miserable and pretty much hates his life.

Dante is also 15, and also Mexican-American, but he’s “funny and focused and fierce.” Ari says “there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you. How could a guy live without some meanness?”

Aristotle and Dante meet at the local pool where Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim. “All that summer, we swam and read comics and read books and argued about them.” It’s the beginning of beautiful friendship, something that Ari seems to desperately need.

Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that. Maybe it had something to do with my birth order. You know, I think that was part of it. I didn’t like the fact that I was a pseudo only child. I didn’t know how else to think of myself. I was an only child without actually being one. That sucked.

Ari has older twin sisters and an older brother who is in prison. He was born after his father returned from serving in Vietnam.

Sometimes I think my father has all these scars. On his heart. In his head. All over. It’s not such an easy thing to be the son of a man who’s been to war.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming of age story. It’s a story about fathers and sons and mothers and sons. It’s about sacrifice and loyalty. It’s a story about friendship.

I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.

It’s a love story.

I was the age of these characters somewhere around 1976. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Okay, looking back – of course I did, but we didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t acknowledged. As far as I know, they weren’t out. I am profoundly grateful as a teacher and a parent, just as a human being, that books like this exist. Alire Sáenz has written a story about boys who are smart and fragile and flawed. I admit it – I got teary a few times reading this book.

What are the secrets of the universe? As Ari discovers “we all fight our own private wars.”

This is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it.