|From Publishers Weekly, Judith and the other panelists on "Crafting True-To-Life LGBTQ YA Characters -- Writing Beyond Stereotypes"|
Ever wonder what it takes to craft great queer characters when writing for children and young adults? This question was explored at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) this April in Minneapolis. I had the privilege of moderating the only queer panel focused on children’s/YA literature at the conference, entitled “Crafting True-to-Life LGBTQ YA Characters--Writing Beyond Stereotypes.”
Along with picture book and YA author Molly Beth Griffin and poet and YA author Kirstin Cronn-Mills, we looked at a variety of ways writers can add more diversity to their works starting with the well-rounded LGBTQAI+ character.
Our goal was to encourage all writers to become inclusive, to not default to a straight main character due to apprehension or fear. We focused on four areas of character development in order to frame our discussion: understanding stereotypes, the role of queer social history, the significance of queer literary history for young people and the importance of understanding queer identity.
We started our discussion with stereotypes.
The key to understanding stereotypes is to explore their historical context, understand why they exist and how they serve the queer community. Stereotypes often grew out of a need for queer people to find a safe space, a place free from judgment about one’s own identity or self-expression. Components of stereotypes can be used as strengths in order to build a familiar character or setting for the reader.
Of course, there are downsides too. A stereotype is harmful when it is used to demean, demoralize or flatten a character. A champion for explaining the pitfalls of stereotypes is author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We highly recommend her TED talk
“The Danger of a Single Story.”
Adichie emphasizes that if a stereotype is the only thing one knows about a person or group of people their knowledge is incomplete. Only by fully understanding the impact of stereotypes can a writer explore the struggles their characters face on a daily basis.
So, how does a writer learn empathy and gain understanding?
That is where research comes in.
All writers do some kind of research when developing a character. Whether writing historical or contemporary fiction or conjuring up the most fantastical worlds, our characters have to be real. For writers and readers interested in LGBTQ history this often requires more effort, since queer history is not traditionally taught in American schools. LGBTQ archives in New York and San Francisco, public libraries and the Library of Congress are some examples of electronically accessible LGBTQ collections and often feature oral histories.
Because history gives characters context, reading books by Lillian Faderman, John D’Emilio, Randy Shilts, Kate Borstein, Micheal Bronksi and Leila Rupp, to name a few, writers can learn about the impact that gender, sexual orientation and the LGBTQAI+ community has had in the shaping of history.
Character context is also developed by reading the literary works that frame the LGBTQ experience in children’s/YA writing.
Our panel compiled a recommended reading list of queer middle grade and young adult works as a starting place for understanding this canon of literature.
Where to Start…
Middle Grade Fiction
Federle, Tim. Better Nate than Ever
Five, Six, Seven, Nate!
Howe, James. Totally Joe
Moskowitz, Hannah. Marco Impossible
Polonsky, Ami. Gracefully Grayson
Telgemeier, Raina. Drama
Young Adult Fiction
Barakiva, Michael One Man Guy
Beam, Cris. I am J
Block, Francesca Lia. Love in the Time of Global Warming
The Island of Excess Love
Brezenoff, Steve. Brooklyn Burning
Charlton-Trujillo, e.E. Fat Angie
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Clark, Kristin Elizabeth. Freakboy
Cronn-Mills, Kirstin. The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
danforth, emily. The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Duyvis, Corinne. Otherbound
Farizan, Sara. If You Could Be Mine
Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel
Griffin, Molly Beth. Silhouette of a Sparrow
Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince
King, A. S. Ask the Passengers
Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight
LaCour, Nina. Everything Leads to You
Lam, Laura. Pantomime
Levithan, David. Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story
Two Boys Kissing
Lo, Malinda. Ash
London, Alex. Proxy
Magoon, Kekla. 37 Things I Love
Myracle, Lauren. Kissing Kate
Nelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun
Peters, Julie Anne. Lies My Girlfriend Told Me
Ryan, Sara. Empress of the World
The Rules for Hearts
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Sharpe, Tess. Far From You
Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle
Talley, Robin. Lies We Tell Ourselves
Watts, Julia. Secret City
Alsenas, Linas. Gay America
Andrews, Arin. Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen
Angel, Ann. Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing
Belge, Kathy and Marke Bieschke. Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook
Cart, Michael and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has Its Reasons: YA Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content 1969-2004
Cronn-Mills, Kirstin. Transgender Lives: Complex Stories, Complex Voices
Hill, Mel Reiff and Jay Mays. The Gender Book
Hill, Katie Rain. Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition
Kuklin, Susan. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out
Setterington, Ken. Branded by the Pink Triangle
Encompassing a variety of genres, these nonfiction works and character-driven novels are excellent examples of diverse queer experiences.
Finally, there is the question of identity.
Often, this is the most challenging component of queer character craft. Human sexuality, gender identity and gender expression all play into how queer characters identify. These concepts are complex and should be approached with empathy and respect. Identity is further complicated by how safe characters feel in revealing themselves to others. Like people, queer characters may be reluctant to express themselves due to homophobia, bullying or a bigoted social climate. Only by crafting a safe space on the page can queer characters be free to explore their full potential.
Ultimately, the LGBTQ experience is not merely an adult experience. Whether discussing young children or young adults, their interpretation of themselves is valid. Their expressions of gender and their understanding of their own bodies need to be respected. Young people deserve to be empowered by our writing, to see their lives on the page and know that they are not alone. When we craft true-to-life LGBTQAI+ characters we are emphasizing to readers that their lives matter and so do their stories.
Judi Marcin is a MFA student in her final semester at Hamline University’s graduate program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Some of her short stories for young people appear in Community Health Narratives: A Reader, which uses fiction to explore health challenges faced by middle grade and high school students. Her passion is to improve queer, gender non-conforming and diverse character visibility within the world of children's/YA literature.