Anyone who knows the LGBT+ community will likely know that representation in the media is minimal, and this goes for young adult literature as much as anywhere else. Gay characters tend to be stereotypical, background characters, or labeled the so-called “gay best friend.” You are far more likely to see a unicorn in a YA novel than a transgender or bisexual character (which, sadly, is no exaggeration).
If you, like me, often find yourself longing for a good read with the depiction of characters whose struggles are a little bit closer to home, or if you want to branch out into the unknown and further your knowledge or understanding of gender and sexuality, here is a list of 5 top LGBT+ novels to add to your TBR list.
1. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Carry On is a fantasy novel about Simon Snow, the “chosen one” who is in his final year at the only place where he has been able to access the magical world: Watford, his school. Together with his friend, Penny, and ex-girlfriend, Agatha, Simon attempts to juggle his failing grades and his ongoing battle with the Insidious Humdrum, all under the watchful eye of the Mage, the mysterious Headmaster of Watford, who Simon reveres and the others regard with fearful respect and uncertainty. Meanwhile, he desperately tries to discover what his scheming, closeted-vampire roommate, Baz, has been up to — to the point where his interest surpasses rivalry.
Carry On is based on a fictional fan fiction within another of Rowell’s novels, Fangirl. The novel clearly mirrors J.K. Rowling’s Potter series, and yet manages make itself unique by adding that elusive LGBT+ element.
2. The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson*
David has a secret — They haven’t felt comfortable in their body, assigned male at birth, for years, and inside know they were always really a girl. They struggle with the changes they are experiencing during puberty, the ignorance and intolerance of most of their classmates, and the fear that their parents, loving and accepting though they might be, would struggle to understand and tolerate their gender identity. Soon, Leo transfers to David’s school, with a troubled past and secrets of his own, and they begin to support each other to levels neither of them would have guessed.
Lisa Williamson, who worked with the British health service for many years in a department for teens and young people struggling with gender identity, artfully captures the emotional struggles of a life with dysphoria and the opposition and bullying transgender teens might face in school or life in general. A must-read if you haven’t already!
3. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Written from the lesser-portrayed perspective of Patroclus, Song of Achilles chronicles the years before and during the Trojan War. Patroclus is sent away from his homeland and family in disgrace, and is raised in Achilles’ household. The two boys become fast friends, and become closer still as they train and live together into adulthood. Eventually, they are thrust into the Trojan war, forever sacrificing everything just to keep one another alive.
Though never explicitly mentioned in Homer’s original Iliad, Patroclus and Achilles were likely an example of ancient Greek pederasty, a culturally accepted and normal homoerotic relationship. This side of their relationship is often neglected or entirely ignored in western media (such as the film “Troy”) and Madeline Miller’s detailed knowledge of the original stories provides and enchanting and thrilling portrayal of an ancient love stronger than death.
4. Huntress by Malinda Lo
Huntress is a fantasy novel, in which the forces in the world have become unbalanced. Two students — intellectually talented Taisin with the power of a Sage, and strong Kaede, who has little success with work but far more with her sword — are fated to join the long journey down unknown paths to the Fairy Queen. Two girls, powerful in their own way, very slowly succumb to the feeling blossoming between them.
A story about lesbian girls of color, both incredibly powerful in their own way, both breaking stereotypes — a unique story with fantastic portrayal of gay girls and utter and wonderful disregard to typical literature. One thing I loved in particular was the minimal time spent dwelling on the sexuality, and the depiction of their love as entirely normal; whilst it can be comforting to sympathize with characters who are discriminated against, Lo’s decision to make their relationship seem normal made me feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin.
5. Every Day by David Levithan
A., the incorporeal, genderless spirit cast as the protagonist in Every Day, wakes up every day in a new body. Rather than try to explain the situation, they integrate into the life of the person whose body they are inhabiting to the best of their ability. They have no complaints — it’s not an easy existence, but they’re used to it. However, one day A. wakes up in Justin’s body, and meets his girlfriend, Rhiannon, and suddenly everything has changed. Each day, A. uses their body to try and get as close to Rhiannon as possible, confessing their secret and eventually their love to her.
This is the only book I’ve personally ever read with a non-binary, arguably gender-fluid protagonist. Rhiannon struggles with biphobia, and slowly begins to come to terms with her attraction to A., regardless of the body they’re inhabiting at the time. On the wider subject of LGBT+ literature, David Levithan, a gay man, has published many other works with gay characters, so look him up!
Some honorable mentions must go to some of the books which didn’t make my list or which have been recommended by friends: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Picture of Dorian Gray, anything written by David Levithan, I’ll Give You The Sun, More Than This, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Lily and Dunkin.
If you have any other books to add to this list, please comment below!