“It Gets Better” and “The Letter Q”: Two books every queer youth should read


The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to their Younger Selves, edited by Sarah Moon, Scholastic 2012

While contributors to It Gets Better ran the gamut of society, The Letter Q is written by one faction of people alone: the crazy, glorious ones who call themselves writers. These are the types of weirdos I perhaps pretentiously like to consider my people, and I also found the whole concept of the book to be quite genius: queer writers writing letters to their younger selves, giving themselves advice they wish they could have had, assuring their young identities that their adult life was indeed going to be awesome, even if there were bumps along the way.

The cadre of writers included here is truly impressive, ranging from many of my favorite children’s and young adult authors to the folks more highbrow literary people admire, along with more than a handful of talented illustrators and artists. Our former managing editor Malinda Lo has a wonderful piece in it, as does Paige Braddock, the creator of the Jane’s World comic strip which is featured on our site weekly.

The illustrated aspect was actually one of my favorite things about this collection. I’ve read quite a few story/essay compilations over the past few years, and it seems like a recent trend to always include at least one or two graphic elements. I’m always glad for this, but just including one or two almost feels like the publisher is saying, “Look at us being edgy! We have a cartoon in here, too!” But when there are as many included as there are in The Letter Q, it feels like telling stories graphically is actually put forth as an accepted, equal part of the literary tradition. Which, of course, it is. Some of these illustrated pieces are long; sometimes they’re only one or two pages of panels, and it was these short ones that hit me the hardest. Erika Moen’s one page contribution is wise and powerful in its simplicity, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael DiMotta’s two page illustrated note to himself made me chuckle out loud.

In fact, along with the moving eloquence professional writers bring to the table in this book, a good deal of them also deliver what the most gifted writers can do best: they make you laugh. Ali Liebegott, Paul Rudnick and Gregory Maguire in particular made me laugh a lot. Like most humor, a lot of the laughter actually comes from a place of pain, but turning pain into humor — in a genuine, healing type of way — is a magnificent gift, and one that youth need to see and hear.

For you bisexuals out there who often feel ignored or misunderstood, I also must point out that Bruce Coville has a letter in here for you that is so excellent I can hardly stand it. Here’s an excerpt from it:

“Only rarely will people simply accept you for what you are. In fact, they will want ‘clarity’ of your identity so much that they’re going to tell themselves, and try to tell you, that what you are is imaginary. I’m not kidding. Many gay folk are going to believe you just haven’t finished coming out yet — or worse, that you’re afraid or ashamed to admit that you’re really gay. Straight folk, especially the ones who don’t want you to be gay, will cling to the belief that you’re ‘just going through a phase.’ You’re even going to believe it yourself for a while.”

Thankfully, Bruce goes on to say that for almost fifty years, he has been enjoying the pleasures of both men and women to the degree that he knows neither of those things are true. You go, Bruce!

With their writerly ways and the fact that they are speaking only to themselves as opposed to preaching to a crowd, many of the essays in The Letter Q are obviously more personal as well as more creatively executed than those in It Gets Better. There is something about the personal aspect that might make these more effective to reaching queer youth in a more direct way. A good speech to the masses can serve to inspire and empower us, but it’s the personal, individual stories that tend to move us. That’s why art is what it is: commentary on the greater world, told through the smallest, most personal stories.

And with the personal level of these letters, these authors were able to delve more deeply into two particular topics: parents and family, and sex. And if there are two issues LGBT youth are struggling with, it is these two. Some of the stories about parents and sex aren’t pretty, but the majority of them are hopeful. The one thing that’s true about all of these letters, regarding all subject matter: they are all honest, and in addition to optimism, honesty is always what we really need.

Yet having said all that, I still don’t believe that It Gets Better or The Letter Q are “better” or “worse” than each other, although I originally naively believed that was something I should determine when I decided to read both. They are different, but they are both incredibly important. They can both have monumental impact on kids. And when it comes to things that can help kids, I don’t want to leave anything out. I want it all. So parents, teachers, librarians, adults, humans: buy both of these books, if you can. Make them available. Oh, and you should read them, too.

For now, if you’re interested, I’ve started compiling my favorite quotes from each book onto a new Tumblr. Bookmark it or follow for those times you may need to be reminded that life doesn’t always suck. Have hope!

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