What is “Good” LGBTQ YA?

No matter how many charts I make, none of them tell me anything about how good a book is. Obviously, individual taste varies, and no book is for every reader, but there is a way to assess which books are judged to be of high quality: examining the top awards for LGBTQ YA books.

Every year, books that are considered high quality by certain experts in the field are given awards. Within the young adult category, the most prestigious American awards are the Printz Award, given by the American Library Association, and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, given by the National Book Foundation. These awards don’t focus on LGBTQ characters or issues, but in the past they have been given to books about LGBTQ characters or issues. For example, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (Dial), won the Printz in 2015; and We Are Okay by Nina La Cour (Dutton) won the Printz in 2018.

Additionally, several awards focus specifically on books about LGBTQ characters. The American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award, which began as the Gay Book Award in 1986, started to honor LGBT children’s and young adult books in 2010. The Lambda Literary Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ literature, established the Lambda Literary Awards in 1988. They began recognizing LGBT children’s and young adult books in 1992.

LEFT: The Stonewall book award medal. Right: the lambda literary award medal.

LEFT: The Stonewall book award medal. Right: the lambda literary award medal.

The Stonewall is an award granted by librarians, and anyone may suggest a title for consideration by the award committee; there is no fee to suggest a title. The Lambda, on the other hand, is an award granted by a nonprofit organization devoted to furthering LGBTQ literature. Lambda award committee members are “literary professionals” and may be authors or editors. There is a fee to submit a book for consideration ($50 per book plus four copies of the book), and this fee may prevent some books from being considered.

Simply because a book has been given an award does not necessarily mean that the book is well-written or well-loved. The Stonewall and Lambda awards are judged by different committees, and the people on these committees change (Lambda’s committee changes annually; Stonewall committee members serve two-year terms). There is no guarantee that a consistent standard of quality (which is itself a debatable concept) is applied from year to year. Nonetheless, I believe that these award committees are doing their best to highlight the better books of the year, at least according to the taste of the committee members.


I’ve decided to examine the past ten years of the Stonewall and Lambda book awards for children’s and young adult books, from 2010 to 2019. The awards are typically given the year after the books were initially published, so 2010 awards are for books published in 2009.

The winner of the Stonewall in the children’s/YA category is given the Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award, and usually one or two books win. Each year there are also a few Stonewall Honor books (essentially, runners up); the number varies. The Lambda usually names one winner in the children’s/YA category, and up to nine finalists.

Within children’s and young adult publishing, awards are often divided according to age group. For example, the American Library Association awards the Caldecott Medal to picture books; the Newbery Medal to books for children up to age 14; and the Printz Award goes to books for young adults (ages 12-18).

The Stonewall and the Lambda awards do not distinguish between age groups within children’s and young adult. That means that these awards honor picture books, middle grade books, and young adult books all together. The following two charts show all Stonewall and Lambda award winners and honor books or finalists for the past decade by age category.

You can see that the Stonewall and the Lambda predominantly honor young adult books, with the Stonewall giving a bit more recognition to picture books and middle grade than the Lambda.

Picture books, middle grade books, and young adult books can be extremely different from each another, and it seems to me that lumping them all into one category is kind of like comparing apples and oranges.

The American Library Association does have models for how to distinguish between age categories within book awards focused on a particular cultural group. For example, the Coretta Scott King Award, given to books about African American culture, are separated into awards for authors and illustrators. This effectively separates out picture books from books for older readers. It may be that when the Stonewall and Lambda Book Awards began, there simply weren’t enough books about the LGBTQ experience to enable splitting authors from illustrators. I’m not sure if there are enough books now, but I suspect (and hope) that soon there will be.


I also examined the award winners by gender. In my usual data analysis I only count the gender of main characters in YA novels (omitting nonfiction) so I decided to similarly limit my analysis here to YA novels (omitting picture books, middle grade, and all nonfiction).

If the winners only are examined, gender representation is fairly equitable in both the Stonewall and the Lambda. Note this is a very small data set: Only nine YA novels have won a Stonewall, and only eight YA novels have won a Lambda in the last decade (the 2019 winner has not yet been announced). The category of Multiple Characters in the Lambda chart includes two books that have transgender characters in their cast.

When all winners and honorees/finalists are considered, however, gender representation in YA novels becomes substantially more skewed toward cisgender male characters. The Stonewall is particularly skewed, with only 20% of its YA novels about cis female main characters, and 56% of its YA novels about cis male main characters. 

Historically, the majority of LGBTQ YA books have had cis male protagonists, but in the last few years, this has changed. In 2017 and 2018, more LGBTQ YA books were published about cis girls than about cis boys. I find it particularly perplexing that the Stonewall Book Award for 2019 (which recognizes books published in 2018) did not honor a single YA novel about a cisgender queer girl—in a year when more books about cis queer girls were published than in any previous year.

I’m sure that the other books recognized by Stonewall, including two middle grade books about cis queer girls (Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender and Ivy Aberdeen's Love Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake), are deserving of the honor. However, the 2019 Stonewall’s lack of recognition for YA about cis queer girls, especially in light of the award’s overall bias toward honoring books about cis male characters, stands out.

I also noticed that both the Stonewall and the Lambda have honored several YA books that are not about LGBTQ main characters. While some of these books follow a traditional problem novel format and are about a straight main character dealing with a family member who is LGBTQ or an LGBTQ issue (e.g., The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, Stonewall winner, 2016), several aren’t even about LGBTQ issues or family members. Instead, these books are about straight main characters who have LGBTQ family or friends, for example The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Lambda finalist, 2019) and Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland (Lambda finalist, 2017). The supporting character is probably wonderfully rendered (I haven’t read these books), but I believe that awards for LGBTQ books should go to books about LGBTQ main characters. (Clearly, I wasn’t on the committees.)


Finally, I analyzed the award winners and honorees according to their genre. In this case, I counted all books including picture books and middle grade, as well as nonfiction. It’s clear that contemporary realistic books are the most honored, with science fiction/fantasy a distant second.

One of the few genre books to win one of these awards is Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor, a middle grade fantasy that won the Stonewall in 2017. The Hammer of Thor is about a straight main character who has a queer friend, Alex Fierro, who is gender fluid. As I stated above, I question giving LGBTQ book awards to books about straight main characters, but I am very glad that the bestselling Riordan chose to introduce a gender fluid character to his legions of fans.

When Riordan won this award, he posted his acceptance speech on his blog, in which he said, “So, what is an old cis straight white male doing up here? Where did I get the nerve to write Alex Fierro, a transgender, gender fluid child of Loki in The Hammer of Thor, and why should I get cookies for that?”

Great questions, Rick! When I began looking at these awards, I spent a long time considering whether I should attempt to discern the authors’ sexual orientation and gender identity. I decided not to, because I believe that all writers have the right to write outside their own experiences.

However, when a book about a straight main character, written by a straight cis author, wins an award for LGBTQ books, I do wonder what happened. Perhaps it’s just a quirk of the individual committee, and I’m not questioning the quality or the significance of the book. Each committee has to make their own decisions, and providing fodder for argument is one reason people enjoy awards. But when only one or two books are honored per year, I think it’s all the more important to consider every vector of identity associated with a book.

Moving on, when I examined award winners only, it’s even more apparent that contemporary realism almost always wins. This isn’t surprising; genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance) has always faced a battle for recognition in terms of literary quality. But I think in this situation it’s about more than what “literary” means. It’s also about what “LGBTQ” means.


Taking a closer look at the winning books shows that they’re almost all coming-out novels. Within YA overall, coming-out novels have changed from the way they were written in the 1980s and 1990s. Coming-out is no longer typically about overcoming homosexuality as a problem. I haven’t read all the winning novels, so I don’t know how they present coming-out. There’s plenty of room for complexity within a coming-out narrative, but the fact that almost all winning books are contemporary coming-out stories does make me wonder if these awards are too narrow in their focus.

Do book awards focused on LGBTQ books have to be contemporary, realistic novels? Is the point of these awards to recognize books about characters grappling with being LGBTQ in the real world today? Or is the point of these awards to recognize excellent writing about characters who simply are LGBTQ? These are two different goals, and they reveal different books.

Nina La Cour’s We Are Okay, which won the Printz Award in 2018, is about a cis queer girl, but it was not recognized by the Stonewall or the Lambda. Maybe it wasn’t submitted to the Lambda due to the fee, but I do wonder why it wasn’t recognized by the Stonewall. The librarians on the Stonewall committee presumably knew about We Are Okay because it received five starred reviews in 2018 (this is a lot of critical acclaim!). 

Perhaps the committee members simply didn’t connect with We Are Okay. Tastes vary, and I’m sure that the books honored by the Stonewall in 2018 are also wonderful books, but I wonder if it wasn’t recognized because it’s not a typical coming-out novel. Although the main character is a queer girl, and she has a relationship with another queer girl, the center of the book is not about being queer. It’s about grief.

Is there room to recognize books that are not about struggling with LGBTQ identity, but instead are about LGBTQ characters who struggle with other aspects of their lives? I hope so, because that will mean that LGBTQ characters are finally allowed to step out of the sexual orientation/gender identity lane, and are able to be fully human.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’ve been writing these posts since 2011, and this 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, because they are the reason I write these posts. Here are some handy links:


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