On the night after the messy Iowa caucuses, tidy, self-possessed U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg addressed his supporters. “Looking out at you,” he said. “[I’m] remembering how it felt to be an Indiana teenager, wondering if he could ever belong in this world. Wondering if something deep inside him meant he would forever be an outsider.”
It’s unclear, at present, how Buttigieg will fare in the hurly-burly of the coming campaign, but that evening, with indications that he’d won more support than many had predicted, he looked like a one-man embodiment of the “It Gets Better” campaign of a few years ago. When he was growing up, there were relatively few books and movies pointing the way for children who worried their sexuality would take them outside life’s pale.
The cultural landscape has changed since then. A slew of recent young-adult releases present role models for LGBT teens (and others), with one fictional youngster engaging with the Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde, another worshipping at the altar of British pop star David Bowie’s androgynous persona Ziggy Stardust and a third attending writing workshops named for award-winning African-American, lesbian sci-fi writer Octavia Butler.
At the outset of Marvel Comics writer Gabby Rivera’s rollicking, strong debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath (Penguin Random House, 320 pages, 14-17), the title character, a young Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, comes out as a lesbian to her skeptical family, and her mother assures her it’s a phase – she just hasn’t met the right boy. In addition to participating in the workshop named for Butler, Juliet interns for a white, feminist author in a hilariously woo-woo Portland, full of lesbian drama. She learns some stuff, but mainly realizes that she’s a charity project for the author. Juliet finds more comfort and guidance from the author’s Black girlfriend, a race, gender and sexuality activist. She embarks on a fling with a motorcycle-riding librarian – when in Portland – and gets a life-changing haircut at a dance party for queer and trans people of colour. That she manages to stand up to her loving but angry family as well as her misguided patroness is a tribute to this character’s precocious smarts and resourcefulness. She has more to teach her elders than to learn from them, although she could find worse role models than her tough, fast-driving cop aunt, Titi Wepa.
Author-playwright R. Zamora Linmark splits his time between his birth city, Manila, and the one where he went to school, Honolulu, and has made up a Pacific island, Kristol, as as setting for his book The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart (Delacorte, 352 pages, 12-17). He has his haiku- and list-writing young hero, Ken Z, speaking with Wilde, seeking his counsel on his developing affair with another Wilde-loving boy from the other side of the partitioned island. The course of Ken Z’s first love doesn’t run true – whenever does it? – and he finds himself questioning Wilde’s romantic advice, given that, by Ken Z’s reading, the Irishman sacrificed his own fame and fortune for a selfish and imperious young nobleman, Lord Alfred Douglas. The imaginary setting is a bust, an overcomplicated block to the story, but the invented exchanges between the young man and the dead author are gold, as is its sweet depiction of the up-and-down (and up-and-down again) ride of a first love.
Inspiration for San Francisco actor-author James Brandon’s first book, Ziggy, Stardust & Me (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 368 pages, 12 and up), came from a radio show about the December, 1973, decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. The book starts earlier that year, in the author’s native St. Louis, Mo., with its Bowie-loving teen Jonathan enduring electric shock-therapy treatments to help him get past his same-sex affections. But a handsome, sensitive Native boy comes to town, fresh from the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., and jeopardizes Jonathan’s intentions to tamp down that part of himself. The book positively bathes in the heady 1970s, with Watergate playing on TV; Bowie, Carole King and Roberta Flack on the turntable; and Vietnam body-counts coming in. We watch the boy try to come to grips with his widowed, drunkard father’s hatred of this part of his son. Jonathan’s psychiatrist senses what she’s doing to the boy is wrong, but carries out the treatments nonetheless.
Nigerian-born author Akwaeke Emezi’s extraordinary YA debut Pet (Make Me a World, 208 pages, 12 and up) is set in a postrevolutionary future where progressives have slaughtered monsters of the past: sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. In the Utopian society of Lucille, people have non-gendered names, and the child at the centre of this story, Jam, transitions from boy to girl. But all is not well in Lucille, and Jam, without meaning to, conjures up a monstrous creature, the Pet of the title, who promises to rampage through Lucille, in search of, well, what? The book mines the vein opened by fantasy writer Madeleine L’Engle, where a child finds herself in the midst of a cosmic struggle between good and evil.
For boys at least, the sleuths in YA mysteries have tended to be he-men in training. The reluctant detective in Ottawa-author Tom Ryan’s latest, Keep This to Yourself (AW Teen, 320 pages, 12 and up) is gay and if the book’s setting, a pretty coastal town with mysterious caves, is very Hardy Boys, 18-year-old Mac Bell decidedly is not. The crime is also not one that you’d find in an old-school YA thriller: A serial killer has, apparently, murdered several locals, including Bell’s best friend. The plotting is deft, but, as important, the reader watches Mac fall for another boy who lost someone in the killing spree and gets a real sense of the town’s characters and ethos.
French-Irish writer Moïra Fowley-Doyle also conjures up an ethos in the thriller All the Bad Apples (Kathy Dawson Books, 320 pages, 14 and up), exploring the Irish side of her heritage, specifically, that Catholic island nation’s treatment of female sexuality. At the book’s outset, Dubliner Deena turns 17 and comes out as a lesbian to her family. Her much older sister has disappeared and is presumed dead, although Deena doesn’t believe it. She and her gay best friend end up on a quest through the countryside to understand and end the curse put on the family’s “bad apples” – hence the title – and to figure out what happened to her free-spirited sister.
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