A Decade of LGBTQ YA Since Ash

ASH on Rainbow Pie Chart.jpg

My first novel, Ash, was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers almost ten years ago, in September 2009. It was a retelling of “Cinderella” with a twist: Ash, the Cinderella character, falls in love with a woman rather than with Prince Charming. Ash lives in a world in which same-sex love is normal, so she doesn’t have to suffer through any coming-out angst. She gets her happily ever after.

Ash was received so warmly by readers in 2009, and in the years since then I almost feel like I’ve ceased being the author of Ash and instead become the keeper of memories for this book. So many readers have emailed me or told me in person how Ash made them feel seen; how it showed them that it was OK to be gay; how comforted they felt by the story. This is not something a writer can ever expect or hope for, and I’ve been deeply touched by every person who has shared their love of Ash with me.

I’m incredibly honored that Little, Brown has published a special 10th Anniversary Edition of Ash with an introduction by Holly Black, one of my favorite authors, as well as a Q&A between me and Ash’s editor, Kate Sullivan, and a letter to readers from me. It’s now available (Barnes & Noble | Amazon | IndieBound), and you can order signed and personalized copies from my local bookstore, Porter Square Books.

When Ash was first published, I was a debut author who didn’t know much about publishing or YA. I had been working in lesbian and gay media for years before Ash came out, and I lived in San Francisco, so I was essentially living in a gay bubble. That bubble popped pretty quickly.

For the first couple of years of my YA career, every time I described Ash in public I felt as if I were holding my breath, knowing that it would probably lead to me coming out (again). I vividly remember strangers asking me almost accusingly, “Are you a lesbian?”—as if that was the logical response to my description of Ash as a lesbian retelling of “Cinderella.”

There were other surprises. When I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose during the fall of 2009, I was on a panel during which an audience member commented that having gay people in a fantasy world was unbelievable. I responded, “Ash also has fairies in it. Are fairies more believable than gay people?” For this person, the answer was yes.

The question of believability also arose around the issue of coming out—or the lack thereof—in Ash. Kate Sullivan, the editor of Ash, later told me that some reviewers and YA award committee members felt that not including a coming-out story was unrealistic, and that might have prevented Ash from receiving more accolades.

When Ash was published, it received one starred review (from Kirkus, no less!), and was a finalist for many awards, including the William C. Morris Award for YA debuts, the Andre Norton Award for for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Lambda Literary Award. Although it didn’t win any of the awards it was nominated for, I felt overwhelmed by the critical acclaim heaped on Ash. Sure, there were a few weird reviews (one commented that there were no positive male role models in the book, which is sort of a funny take), but overall, the experience of publishing Ash was wonderful and life-changing for me on many levels.

But it was very clear to me from the beginning that Ash was unusual. Often, I was the only openly lesbian author at a YA book event; I was almost always (probably always!) the only Asian American lesbian YA author.

Being the only one is both lonely and stressful. I didn’t want to be the only one, and that’s one of the main reasons I dived into advocating for greater diversity within YA, which was and still is a white and straight-dominated world. I did this through Diversity in YA, a website and book tour I organized with my friend and fellow author Cindy Pon. I also did this by compiling increasingly detailed statistics about the representation of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) characters in YA, beginning in 2011. I wanted to count all of the LGBTQ YA books. I wanted them to count.

In the decade that has passed since Ash was published, things have changed a lot. There are so many more LGBTQ YA books published now, and so many more of them are fantasy or science fiction than in the past. The way they’re published and publicized is different, too. Queer characters are often celebrated online, and let me tell you: talking about queer books at book events feels much less fraught than in the past. Now, there are queer readers in the audience who applaud—which is something that didn’t often happen ten years ago.

And so, in honor of Ash’s tenth anniversary, I’m taking a look back at the last decade of LGBTQ YA and how Ash fits into that history. Today I’m beginning by bringing my LGBTQ YA Books by the Numbers posts up to date with data from 2017 and 2018. Then I’ll examine how LGBTQ YA has changed in the last ten years. And tomorrow I’ll delve into what makes a “good” LGBTQ YA book by looking at award winners and what they tell us about what is judged to be “good.”

TERMS AND SOURCES

If you’ve read one of my statistics posts before, this will be familiar to you, but for newcomers and for the record, I count young adult books with LGBTQ main characters published by mainstream American publishers. Within this data, I examine gender representation and genre representation.

I’m very grateful to librarian Madeline Tyner of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for sharing with me her detailed spreadsheets on LGBTQ YA books from 2017-18. I’m also very grateful to Amanda MacGregor, who blogs and reviews regularly for Teen Librarian Toolbox, for sharing with me her lists of LGBTQ YA books. Because I’m counting specific types of LGBTQ YA books (more on that below) my final list of books is not the same as Amanda’s and Madeline’s, but I would not have gotten to my final list without their data.

In order to determine whether a book fits my requirements, I cross-check trade reviews (such as from Kirkus) with the American Library Association’s Rainbow Book List, Goodreads, and book blogs, including Dahlia Adler’s LGBT YA roundups on the Barnes & Noble Teen blog and LGBTQ Reads. I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions in my counting, and if you find any errors or omissions, I invite you to email me at mlo@malindalo.com so that I can make a correction.

What do I mean by YA books with LGBTQ main characters?

  • A young adult book with an LGBTQ main character, or YA book that has a plot primarily concerned with LGBTQ issues. 

  • Some books have multiple main characters, and if one of that cast of primary characters is LGBTQ, I count that book as an LGBTQ YA book (e.g., Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore). 

  • In the cases of books about LGBTQ issues, those issues typically focus around a straight person’s relationship with an LGBTQ person who comes out to them (e.g., And She Was by Jessica Verdi). 

  • I do not include YA books with supporting LGBTQ characters (e.g., The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz) because I'm focused on books where the LGBTQ person is the star of the story, but I recognize that the dividing line between supporting and main can be pretty blurry. 

  • I do not include YA books that have subtextual gay story lines because I’m focused on books where the gay story line is overt. In other words, I’m tracking openly gay YA. 

  • I do not count comic books, because I don’t know how to count them when they come out as a series of issues (e.g. Lumberjanes). I do count YA graphic novels and graphic memoirs.

  • I only count anthologies if they are focused entirely on LGBTQ stories or issues (e.g. All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell).

  • For all the reasons above, I may have omitted some YA titles that others would count as “LGBTQ YA,” either on purpose or by accident.

What do I mean by mainstream American publishers?

  • By "mainstream" I mean the Big 5 publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster); major publishers Disney Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic; and general interest publishers that do not focus on LGBT books.

  • General interest publishers range in size from small independent presses (e.g., Page Street Publishing) to relatively large educational publishers (e.g., Lerner Publishing Group).

  • Since 2014, I've chosen to not analyze the output of LGBTQ publishers because my interest lies in analyzing mainstream representation of LGBTQ characters. LGBTQ presses still play an important role in producing stories about LGBTQ experiences, and for those who are interested in looking at how LGBTQ presses represent LGBTQ experiences, I encourage you to visit Bold Strokes Books, Dreamspinner Press, Harmony Ink Press, Interlude Press, and Riptide Publishing.

  • I only count books published by American publishers. In the past, a few Canadian publishers have slipped through accidentally, but I really try to limit myself to the United States. I recognize that due to the internet, those with means can buy books from all over the world, but it’s simply impossible for me to count all English-language publishers accurately.

  • I do not count self-published books.

What do I mean by gender representation?

Since I started counting LGBTQ YA books, I’ve been interested in analyzing gender representation; that is, how many “LGBTQ” books are about girls vs. boys? Initially I separated out books about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters, but as I learned more about gender, I realized this was not the best way to understand this. Sexual orientation is not the same as gender identity. That’s why I now examine books for whether they feature cisgender girls or boys; transgender girls or boys; or nonbinary, genderfluid, or genderqueer characters. 

I have chosen to not count characters' sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual) because it’s too complex for me to do on my own. It would require reading all the books, for one thing, and in cases where characters don't state their sexual orientation on the page, it would require guessing. In these LGBTQ YA novels, characters who are cisgender female typically identify as lesbian, bisexual, or queer, but in recent years some have also identified as asexual. Similarly, characters who are cisgender male typically identify as gay, bisexual, or queer. Transgender characters are fewer in number, and they may identify as heterosexual or queer.

Note: I use the term queer in these posts as an umbrella term that includes all non-heterosexual sexual orientations, e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual.

As our understanding of gender in contemporary American society continues to change, determining and counting a character's gender identity presents unique challenges. Terminology that was believed to be accurate and respectful even five years ago may have since become dated, inaccurate, and even offensive. I understand that the way I count these books may not hold up over time. All I can do is count them to the best of my knowledge right now. 

I've sorted the LGBTQ YA into the following categories to track gender representation:

  • Cisgender Female Main Character — A character who was assigned female at birth and continues to identify as female. 

  • Cisgender Male Main Character — A character who was assigned male at birth and continues to identify as male.

  • Transgender Female Main Character — A character who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female.

  • Transgender Male Main Character — A character who was assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is male.

  • Nonbinary, Genderfluid, or Genderqueer Main Character — A character who does not identify as male or female, or a character who does not have a fixed gender identity.

  • Gender-Destabilizing Main Character — This is a category I've invented to count characters who change gender, usually in a speculative fiction context, but are not necessarily transgender or genderfluid.

  • Intersex Main Character — “‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” (Source: Intersex Society of North America)

  • Multiple Characters — Books that are about more than one LGBTQ main character.

  • Problem Novel Relating to LGBTQ Issues — I realize this is not technically about gender, but I've had to create a category to encompass novels  that are about a cisgender, straight main character's engagement with LGBTQ issues. The plot is typically about a straight teen's LGBTQ parent or friend.

What do I mean by Genre?

I’ve sorted LGBTQ YA books into the following genres:

  • Contemporary — Realistic novels set in the contemporary world

  • Science Fiction and Fantasy 

  • Mystery/Thriller

  • Horror

  • Historical 

  • Novels in Verse

  • Cross-Genre — Novels that don’t fit squarely into one genre

  • Graphic Novel or Graphic Nonfiction — I realize this includes both fiction and nonfiction, but I've decided the illustrative aspect predominates

  • Nonfiction

2017-18 LGBTQ YA BY THE NUMBERS

The last two years have shown a tremendous increase in the number of LGBTQ YA books published.

In 2017, mainstream publishers published 84 LGBTQ YA books.

In 2018, mainstream publishers published 108 LGBTQ YA books.

How did the last two years track with regard to gender representation? Here are the results:

One development I noticed was the increasing number of books with multiple LGBTQ main characters. These books sometimes include one queer character among several straight characters, but increasingly they feature more than one queer main character, and this is often where you’ll find transgender characters. 

In 2017, at least four novels include transgender characters in addition to cisgender ones: Stranger Than Fan Fiction by Chris Colfer (Little, Brown), Looking for Group by Rory Harrison (HarperTeen), Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story by Sonia Patel (Cinco Puntos Press), and Monster by Michael Grant (Katherine Tegen Books). In 2018, at least three novels have transgender characters alongside cisgender ones: Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel and Friends), Feeder by Patrick Weekes (Margaret K. McElderry Books), and The Disasters by M. K. England (HarperTeen).

Although there were no YA novels in 2017-18 that centered on an intersex main character, an intersex character is one of the main characters in E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing (Dutton, 2017).

We’ve also seen a few more books about genderqueer, genderfluid, or genderqueer characters, including Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller (Sourcebooks Fire), Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (HarperTeen), Quiver by Julia Watts (Three Rooms Press), and the graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second).

I don’t separate out books according to the characters’ sexual orientation, but I wanted to highlight the publication of several books about asexual main characters. In 2018 there were at least six novels: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (Feiwel and Friends), That’s Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger (Scholastic Press), Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman (Simon Pulse), Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp (Sourcebooks Fire), The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (Katherine Tegen Books), and Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie (Delacorte). 

In terms of genre, 2017 and 2018 continued a trend from recent years: more genre fiction.

There is also a small trend within a trend: a rise in mysteries and thrillers. What’s interesting and wonderful is that these LGBTQ YA mysteries and thrillers generally avoid negative tropes about gay villains. For example, Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev A.C. Rosen (Little, Brown) involves a gay teen sex columnist investigating his stalker, but Kirkus describes it as “a sex-positive and thoughtful romp.” Cale Dietrich’s The Love Interest (Feiwel and Friends) involves two secret agent teen boys who fall for each other while completing a mission.

In a funny coincidence, both my novel A Line in the Dark (Dutton, 2017), and People Like Us by Dana Mele (Putnam, 2018) feature private schools, queer girls, and murder—and author Dana Mele and I both went to the same private college. I swear nobody was murdered there!

THE DECADE SINCE ASH

In 2009, Ash was one of 27 books about LGBTQ main characters or issues published by mainstream American publishers. Among those 27 books, nine of them featured cisgender queer girls as main characters: one anthology, How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart, which included several stories about queer girls; and eight novels. There was some variety among those eight novels, which ranged from contemporary coming-out tales such as Alexandra Diaz’s Of All the Stupid Things (Egmont) to Hidden Voices by Pat Lowery Nixon (Candlewick), a historical novel set in 18th-century Venice, and Killer by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen), the sixth installment in the popular murder-mystery series Pretty Little Liars, which included bisexual character Emily Fields among its cast of regulars.

The 27 LGBTQ YA books published in 2009 also included a few works of genre fiction apart from Killer. Three of them could be categorized as science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction: Evil? by Timothy Carter (Flux), an angel paranormal romance; (re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin (Random House Books for Young Readers), about a character who switches gender; and my own Ash.

Ash was not alone when it came out in 2009, but over time I’ve come to see that it was distinctive for a few reasons. The style of the book—the voice—was somewhat old-fashioned. It was a third-person fairy tale fantasy in the tradition of Robin McKinley, and it was published during the height of Twilight’s popularity. Although there is plenty of variety in YA, even I can see that Ash didn’t feel like most YA at the time. It also didn’t have a coming-out story, which was quite atypical for a book about a queer character.

In the ten years since Ash was published, things have changed quite a lot. The chart below tracks the total number of LGBTQ YA books published by mainstream publishers from 2009-18 in blue; the dark red line below it tracks the number of books about cis queer girls published in the same time frame. I’m interested in tracking books about cis queer girls because that’s where Ash falls; for a long time, the vast majority of LGBTQ YA books were about cis queer boys.

In 2018, 108 LGBTQ YA books were published by mainstream American publishers. That’s a 300% increase over 2009, when only 27 were published. Among those 108 books, 56 of them are about cis queer girls, which is a 522% increase from 2009, when only nine were published.

What’s interesting is that the percentage increase in books about cis queer girls is greater than the percentage increase in LGBTQ YA books overall, but the number of books about cis queer girls didn’t rise significantly until 2016. We’re only three years into a sudden, sharp increase in the number of books about cis queer girls.

When Ash came out, it was not the only SFF YA LGBT novel, but it was one of a very few. Historically, LGBTQ YA books have mostly been contemporary realistic novels. In the chart below, you can see that the number of SFF LGBTQ novels has risen significantly over the past decade.

Another way to look at it is by charting the change in the percentage of LGBTQ YA books by genre. In the chart below, you’ll see that the percentage of contemporary LGBTQ novels (out of all LGBTQ YA novels) has steadily decreased in the past ten years, whereas the percentage of SFF LGBTQ novels has risen.

By 2018, contemporary comprised 47% of the total number of LGBTQ YA books, and SFF comprised 34%. (It was highest in 2014, when 40% of LGBTQ YA books were SFF.) In the chart, I haven’t included other genres, such as mystery/thriller, historical, or nonfiction, which make up the remainder of LGBTQ YA.

Although Ash was relatively unique when it debuted in 2009, it has a lot more company now. There are dozens and dozens more YA books about cis queer girls and in the SFF genre. I’m especially encouraged by the growth in genre fiction. Genre fiction often allows LGBTQ characters to have stories other than coming-out narratives, which still predominate in contemporary fiction. There’s nothing wrong with coming-out stories; they’re necessary and real, and they’ve also evolved over the last ten years. But I feel that it’s important for queer characters to exist outside of sexual orientation narratives. We can be heroes, too.

Tomorrow I’ll post an analysis of the Stonewall and Lambda book awards—two awards that honor LGBTQ YA books—in an attempt to delve into what is judged to be a “good” LGBTQ YA book. I’ve been writing these posts since 2011, and tomorrow’s post will be my last statistics post. Not because I believe YA is perfect now, or that there’s no more room for growth, but because the topic has become bigger than I can handle on my own, and my interests are moving in other directions. 

Many people in the YA world are now counting books. If you want to keep up on new LGBTQ YA releases, I recommend following LGBTQ Reads, Amanda MacGregor’s posts on Teen Librarian Toolbox, or YA Pride. I’m really encouraged by the fact that so many people are engaged in this subject now, and I’m very happy to contribute my last statistics posts to this continuing conversation.

If you feel that this post or any of my statistics posts have been useful to you, I hope you’ll consider buying one of my books. I offer these posts for free, but they do take a lot of labor and time. I’ve considered posting a Ko-fi or PayPal link, but I’ve decided that the best way you can show your appreciation for my work is buying one of my novels (they make great gifts!), because they are the reason I write these posts. Here are some handy links:

Ash

A Line in the Dark

Huntress

Thank you for your support!


More LGBTQ YA By the Numbers: