Your New School Library: “Parrotfish,” “Down to the Bone” and “How Beautiful the Ordinary”


“Your New School Library” is a new column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.

Sometimes, I find myself getting wrapped up in the excitement and optimism of strides the queer community has made in very recent history: increased visibility in the media, gay marriage in six states and DC, openly gay elected officials, and California requiring the inclusion of gay history in school curriculum.

Then I walk into a middle school or a high school and it doesn’t take long to realize that marriage equality in New York hasn’t stopped both casual and violent bullying of any boy who’s too feminine or any girl who’s not feminine enough. That increased visibility of gay teens on TV hasn’t magically made school or home safe spaces for gay teens. That a lot of youth today still haven’t even heard of Dan Savage and It Gets Better, because there’s no one to tell them about it. That Lady Gaga may be played at the prom, but you can still be shunned for wanting to be Lady Gaga — someone loudly and vibrantly different.

Being young and gay today can be thrilling in a way it never has been before. It can also feel like someone punching you in the stomach over and over, while everyone else watches and asks why you’re crying.

There are things that can help, and AfterEllen.com has thankfully been covering them for years. The young queer icons and characters in movies, TV, and music today are immeasurably important. There’s another avenue that can also help provide hope and assurance to youth, which is the reason for this new column, an avenue that those on the margin have turned to for time immemorial: books! Glorious, glorious books!

While gay literature for adults is a well-established niche, queer texts for children and young adults are only recently starting to truly explode in awesomeness. This is in large part due to the fact that the young adult market as a whole is one of the fastest-growing in fiction publishing today, allowing publishers to release an increasingly diverse catalog of titles for youth.

While Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, released in 1982, was practically the only teen lesbian selection on bookshelves for well over a decade, there’s now enough literature for gay teens to have a number of literary awards designated specifically for them. The Stonewall and Lambda awards now each have a children’s/Young Adult category; the American Library Association publishes their top gay youth selections in their annual Rainbow List.

Being able to read what you want to read remains a challenge for young people, though. Books like And Tango Makes Three continue to top the ALA’s Most Challenged book list (Gay penguins! Hide yo’ kids!), and a lot of texts can be hard to find for young adults who may not have the time or resources to locate them. In an ever-competitive publishing world, even important books are quickly removed from production if they don’t make enough money. And in schools and communities, loud parents can often trump librarians. We have to fight for these crucial books to be celebrated. Reading a book where you find yourself on the page can often be an even more personal, nuanced experience than seeing yourself on the screen, and it’s an act that has the potential to save lives.

Like a lot of things in the queer world, however, the dudes have the slight upper hand in queer lit for youth. As an aspiring educator and children’s librarian, I’ve made it my mission to devour as many of these gay books possible, and the majority have been told from the gay male perspective. While I still love these stories, and a lot of them seem to feature a good sassy dyke friend side character, my brain still screams, “Dude, where are the ladies?”

Female-centered queer lit for youth is out there, and I’m going to tell you about it here. I also hope to highlight good reads featuring strong female protagonists in general. Girls deserve the opportunity to read about stereotype-stomping females as much as they have the right to read stories about being in love. If you want to squee over The Hunger Games, I am with you. There are even more Katnisses out there in the world, ready to teach girls how to kick ass.

While my idealistic hope is that these reviews reach out to the young girls who need them who may be lurking on this site, I also think there’s something extremely cathartic and comforting as an adult in reading the books that you wish had existed when you were a kid. Many of them also aren’t just good books for gay kids; they’re just good books. I like reading books for youth not just so I can recommend them to kids; I read them because they constantly remind me that reading is fun.

So get out your sexy reading glasses. Prepare yourself for a new type of “kid book.”

How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart (HarperTeen/HarperCollins) 

This short story collection contains twelve stories from some of the best (and many openly out) authors in YA lit today. The introduction by the wonderful Michael Cart provides a clear and eloquent explanation of the brief history of queer lit for youth. While the collection features really strong male-centered stories from the likes of David Levithan and Gregory Maguire, there are some real lesbo winners in here as well.

Julie Ann PetersFirst Time, written in a rapid interchanging two-voice format, describes the most graphic teen lesbian sex scene I’ve ever read in a book for youth. While a lot of gay teen stories delve into the idea of sex, whether just thinking about it or actually participating in it, the descriptions are usually vague at best. Here, not only are there specific body parts, there are tastes and smells. There is sweat and detail. After I got over my shock, I wanted to do a cartwheel just thinking about this story being printed by a major publisher.

Ariel Schrag’s Dyke March is a delightful breath of fresh air in this collection. Its realness, humor, and irreverence is wonderful to read in a genre that can often get bogged down in melodrama. It follows Ariel through a San Francisco dyke march from meeting a friend at the BART to passing out in said friend’s brother’s bed by the end of the night, with all of the highs, lows, and paranoia in between. One of the panels in this short comic includes staring at “the world’s smallest penis,” along with other various types of imbibing. That combined with First Time will probably really bring out the censors. Dear high school librarians: try to be brave enough to keep this on your shelves anyway.

Everyone’s favorite enchanting and whimsical freakshow of a Young Adult author (and when I say freakshow, I mean it in the most loving way possible), Francescia Lia Block, also shows up with a piece about the solace and importance of Internet friendships in My Virtual World. Told mainly in exchanges between Rebecca — a  girl who’s struggling with cutting — and Garrett, a character who eventually reveals himself to be transgender, it’s a dramatic but realistic teen Myspace world. The story starts with lines that anyone who has ever made a friend — who has really needed a friend — online can relate to:

i don’t have a body here. it is a relief not to have a body … we don’t touch but it’s all right. our words touch. it’s easier to live in this world we’ve created, everyone beautiful in their pics, all the pain contained in poetry and drawings and photographs. you feel seen. you feel heard.

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