Representing LGBT Romance on Young Adult Book Covers

Two Boys Kissingby David LevithanLast month, the news that David Levithan’s fall 2013 book Two Boys Kissing was going to feature two boys actually kissing on the cover raised quite a bit of excitement in my neck of the woods. I was amazed to see the cover because I thought I’d never seen a YA book cover that was so in-your-face about the same-sex romance inside. Sure, plenty of people might be shocked by it, but let’s face it: Young adult book covers feature a boy and a girl kissing all the time. I think YA books with same-sex romances should get the same option. A quick search of Goodreads and Barnes & Noble turned up all these book covers that show kissing, almost kissing (telegraphed by the title) and very clear making out (sometimes shirtless or in the shower!):


But then I thought: Surely an LGBT publisher has published a YA novel with two same-sex teens in a romantic clinch on it before? And some research showed me that yes, this has been done before — and not only by LGBT publishers. Here's a look at the YA book covers I managed to find that depicted same-sex romance on the cover — ranging from suggestive imagery to full-on you-can't-mistake-what's-going-on photos.

First, we have suggestively gay images of two people of the same sex being very close to each other. The suggestiveness is not only about the image (which could read straight out of context); it's the image combined with the title. Why is "Annie" on this girl's mind while she's holding hands with another girl? And who keeps secrets about lying next to another girl except, well, lesbians?


Interestingly, these are both paperback reprints that took a step forward in frankness from the initial hardcovers’ depiction of the romance. (I believe that the cover of Keeping You a Secret above is actually a recent repackaging of the original paperback edition, but I'm not sure.) Here are the original hardcover jackets, which are certainly way less gay:


The next step up from suggestively gay proximity is suggestively gay hand-holding (although there’s hand-holding on the paperback edition of Annie on My Mind too):


Homo is a pretty darn bold title, and that book is published by a Canadian publisher. I think it's quite clear from the title and those very masculine hands that the two guys are gay. The God Box is a tricky cover because those hands could be a boy and a girl, although I think the cover designer did a pretty good job of finding typically masculine-looking arms. On Tessa Masterson, it's clear here that these people holding hands are two girls — and one of them is wearing a tuxedo shirt, which is a nice gender-bending touch. I really like the Tessa Masterson cover.

Once again two of these covers are paperback reprints that took a step forward from their hardcovers: Tessa Masterson, which just came out in paperback on April 9, and The God Box. Here are their original, much less gay hardcover jackets:


Then we finally get to a couple of very suggestive queer covers:


These are both original covers that haven't changed in reprint editions. Boyfriends With Girlfriends is provocative based on the title alone, and the cover really makes you look closely. Who's touching whom? Wait a sec, are they all involved with each other? (Sort of!)

Crush was published by Orca, a Canadian publisher, and it's intriguing because the girls are not quite kissing, and you can't see their faces, which means someone could see that cover and not fully understand they're two girls. In this case I think you're dealing with a mainstream public that is accustomed to seeing heterosexual kissing on covers, but not same-sex kissing, so I wouldn't be surprised if a mainstream viewer might see that and assume by default that it's a straight couple. (Note: I've read Crush, and it's a very fast-paced, yummy little romance that I believe is actually targeted for reluctant readers. Recommended!)

Finally, we get to the jackpot of same-sex romance on YA book covers:


Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone was originally published by HarperTeen in hardcover in 2008 with a lone girl on the cover; that sexy cover above is the paperback reprint from Bella Books, an LGBT publisher. And on the right that's Steve Berman’s anthology of gay teen romance short stories, published by Bold Strokes Books, an LGBT publisher.

I think it's telling that before David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, the most direct representations of same-sex romance on YA books came from LGBT publishers. Notably, those covers were only released last year. Prior to the last few years, LGBT publishers rarely published YA fiction, instead focusing on adult LGBT fiction (some of which certainly features same-sex romance on the cover). Overall, I think it's great that mainstream publishers have been moving toward more frank representations of LGBT romance on their YA covers. Now, it's mostly up to the buying public as to whether or not more of these kinds of book covers are released. Will they sell? That's the real question.