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Looking for Reading Material Featuring LGBTQ+ Characters and Themes?
Alright, everybody, don’t panic! But it’s happening for real! Fasten your seatbelts and lock your doors because today, we are NOT going anywhere! We are cosying up in oversized sweaters and comfy armchairs and reading LGBTQ+ books!
First, let’s talk about the LGBTQ+ genre. What makes a book LGBTQ+? Is it having queer characters? Is it written by a queer author? Questions, questions.
LGBTQ+ has not really been recognised as a genre on its own (even though we could put an argument in favour of it). But … if a literary genre is defined by the text’s length, tone, narrative mode, and thematic focus, then we are onto something. LGBTQ+ books are focused on exploring queer characters, relationships, and themes. They can vary in length (short stories, novellas, novels), form (poetry, prose, drama), and tone. Historically, you cannot pinpoint an LGBTQ+ era on its own – as I said, these texts have always been around, existing across genres, forms, and modes. So what do we do?
So far, the best solution literary scholars have is coupling the LGBTQ+ denominator with another genre-specific descriptor, e.g. LGBTQ+ romance, LGBTQ+ fantasy, etc. And we’ll stick to that to make things easier.
LGBTQ+ Books: Fiction Recommendations
If you’re not a fan of fiction, you need to re-evaluate your attitude to reading! Fiction can be highly educational, and it has been shown to increase empathy and boost imagination. It can also truly take you to other worlds and into other lives by opening doors into cultures, countries, and universes you would have never visited.
There are many non-fiction books tracing the history and impact of the LGBTQ+ movement and rights, but today we’re focusing on fiction. So, let’s stay at home and explore:
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Right through the big entrance, this book is a heart-warming, comforting tale of two boys navigating their teenage lives and discovering how they feel about one another. The boys, who come across as polar opposites, befriend one another in school, share a special bond, and learn to define who they are and what life means to them. Bonus points for intersectional representation. Extra bonus points for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audiobook narration.
- The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Now here’s a historical monument. Straight out of 1928, Hall tells a story about Stephen: A model child from a wealthy family meant to excel at everything he does. From sports to school to work, Stephen has it all. Except that Stephen is a woman and dates women and is facing immense pressure from society to be something he isn’t. This book explores deep dissatisfaction and abandonment, tracing shared experiences of the LGBTQ+ community long before their freedoms were won.
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. I’ve never read a romance so human and deep as this one. Two ranch hands, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, meet one Summer as they work and spend a lot of time together, exploring the caveats of their attraction before their time runs out and they have to head home to get married and have children in heterosexual relationships. Because that’s what cowboys do. But years apart and life’s circumstances lead them to revisit their days in the mountain …
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. An aged Hollywood star invites a little-known journalist to share her life story about Hollywood in the 1950s, about her seven husbands, and about her great forbidden love. A novel simultaneously classy and scandalous explores the fear of being queer on the dark side of history. This is a great tale of false moralism and social pressures against true love.
- Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender. Felix Love is looking for love but is afraid he may be just a bit too marginalised to find it. Black, queer, and transgender, Felix struggles with his sexual identity throughout the novel while desperately seeking love. When it seems that the only thing he’ll find is abusive and threatening messages from his peers, Felix concocts an evil plan. But can he make it work, and more importantly, can he make it work with himself?
Among other award-winning and attention-grabbing novels exploring LGBTQ+ themes, I recommend The Colour Purple by Alice Walker, Little Blue Encyclopedia: (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante, and Exquisite Mariposa by Fiona Alison Duncan.
And if you don’t feel like reading? Listen to book on Audible!
LGBTQ Fantasy Books: The Otherworldly Love
Seeing queer couples in fantasy is always refreshing, especially if they’re done right. I’m not going to lie; there are books that attempt to queer-ify their content but end up looking worse than half-baked teen romance fanfiction (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, WOLFSONG!). Here are some excellent fantasy reads for you:
- The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. Linus works as a social case clerk checking on various foster homes and deciding whether they pass the bar for staying open. When a TOP SECRET mission directs him to a house on an island in the Cerulean Seas, Linus is met with a cast of magical children, including, guess what, the son of the boss of Hell himself. In addition to charming kids living in the house, Linus also meets their guardian, a man of few words but immense emotional significance for Linus. Can the two of them make the foster home work and fight the unjust system while nurturing their relationship? Guess you’ll have to see for yourself.
- The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. I’ll be honest with you, this is not one of my favourite fantasy novels, but I do appreciate the slow-burn relationship between the main characters. You’d think an alternate world ruled by women would be easier to navigate, but with a pinch of social stigma and a spark of dragons, things get far more complicated.
- Dreadnought by April Daniels. When a superhero falls flat and dies in front of Danny, there’s little left to the imagination. However, when the said superhero passes the mantle to Danny, there’s much more turned into reality: including Danny’s body, or what Danny feels her body should have always been. This novel’s clever premise of exploring transgenderism and superheroism will keep you entertained and spark your imagination.
- Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. The first in the Riverside series, this high fantasy novel follows Richard St. Vier who has just discovered that life at the sword’s point also means the life right between heroism and villainy. One wrong move leaves him stranded in a city full of animosity. Be warned, though; romance is not in the foreground of this one – after all, high fantasy loves politics.
- The Deep by Rivers Solomon (and Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes). This collaborative novel steeped in Afrofuturism follows the underwater civilisation of water-breathing descendants of slaves thrown overboard from a slave ship. Yetu, the protagonist of this poignant tale, is the historian of the water people and the only one who remembers their entire painful history. However, the only way to save her people is to make them remember. A super unique and original novel inspired by a rap song, this one is an absolute treat for everyone looking for something extraordinary.
LGBTQ Picture Books and Graphic Novels
Pssst, I’ll tell you a secret: I’m teaching a course on marginalised literature, and you wouldn’t believe how many people think graphic novels are not literature at all because iT’s NoT sErIoUs EnOuGh. NONSENSE, I decry, whipping out Art Spiegelman.
PS I cannot stress this enough, but I’m loving all the LGBTQ+ representation in picture books, although we still need tons more to call it even. Now, to begin with:
- Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. This is a 25(ish)-page picture book that’ll warm your heart and leave your belly full of fuzzy feelings because Julian, your four-year-old protagonist, wants to be a mermaid. Seriously, I won’t spoil it (it’s less than 30 pages), but I will say that it has a beautiful message about being who you are🧜.
- Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American by Laura Gao. Being a Wuhanese immigrant in America at the peak of the pandemic is not fun, but Laura has even more problems to deal with: nostalgia for a home she doesn’t remember, navigating high school, and her surprising feelings for other girls. Oh, AND having to define her Chinese-American identity on top of that?! Impossible! Or is it? See for yourself. I promise you, this graphic novel is unputdownable!
- Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! by Joy Ellison. To quote the blurb, this is a non-fiction picture book about ‘Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the two transgender women of color who helped kickstart the Stonewall Riots and dedicated their lives to fighting for LGBTQ+ equality.’ The two women, who were not afraid to speak their truth, navigated New York City in the 1960s until they decided to start that revolution for LGBTQ+ rights! You go, girls!
- Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker (author) and Wendy Xu (Illustrator). This is a mouth-watering piece of eye candy in the form of a graphic novel. Teenage witchcraft, family, love, werewolves, and ancient magic? Sign me up! In fact, sign yourself up!
- The Backstagers, Vol. 1: Rebels Without Applause by James Tynion IV, Rian Sygh (Illustrator), Walter Baiamonte (Illustrator). If you love theatre, this graphic novel is for you. A story about fitting in where you don’t belong, this all-boy-school story takes Jory, the new kid, right behind the curtains into the magical world of theatre, lifelong friendships, and self-discovery.
The list wouldn’t be complete without a few popular choices, like Heartstoppers (by Alice Oseman), The Prince and the Dressmaker (by Jen Wang), and The Tea Dragon Society by (Kay O’Neill). Check them out if you haven’t already. Also, don’t forget about Lumberjanes for a wild ride!
Best LGBTQ Books of 2022
In celebration of Pride Month 2022, here are a few of the best-rated LGBTQ+ books published this year:
- Young Mungo (novel) by Douglas Stuart
- A Dream of a Woman (short stories) by Casey Plett
- C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor
- Rainbow Milk (novel) by Paul Mendez
- Every Word You Never Said (graphic novel) by Jordon Greene
- The Chandler Legacies (novel) by Abdi Nazemian
Why You Should Read More Books by LGBTQ+ Authors
Most books listed here are written by queer authors – that’s why they work. To truly understand or relate to LGBTQ+ stories and their protagonists, you should read more books written by LGBTQ+ authors because who else will have a real perspective? Naturally, there are non-LGBTQ+ authors and allies who can pen a great novel with a convincing plot (and props to them), but, among other things, we need to give queer writers more visibility.
In any case, I think I’ve supplied you (and myself, to be frank) with lots of new reading material for the upcoming weeks. Avoid the high UV rays and Summer rains and stay in and read 😉!
Image courtesy: Goodreads.com