Many often argue that young adult fiction is a genre, but even though a reader may find young adult books on a different shelf in a bookstore than the mystery section or the romance section, the work itself does not encompass a specific genre, the same way that middle grade and chapter books and picture books are not genres. The young adult label is generally thought of as an age range for readers, in this case, twelve or thirteen and up (although many readers read YA books at a much younger age, and of course adults read it, too). One wouldn’t consider an adult work of fiction to be a genre, the same way that a young adult novel shouldn’t be considered as one.
The other main reason I wouldn’t consider young adult fiction a genre is that young adult books can be a work of other actual genres — mystery, romance, horror, science fiction. If young adult was a genre, what would the science fiction element of a young adult novel be considered exactly? And just because something has LGBTQ characters and themes, does that make it a genre?
My answer is a definite no, even if I considered the wider net of all young adult fiction to be one. While bookstores are starting to (finally!) dedicate shelves specifically to LGBTQ YA fiction, considering these kinds of books a genre would necessitate the requirement for a straight-themed YA fiction genre. The same way that genres like mystery and romance can appear in young adult fiction, they can also appear in all kinds of LGBTQ fiction, adult and young adult, which makes me consider these kinds of novels more a designation of interest rather than an all-encompassing genre of one kind of book.
Despite my insistence that LGBTQ YA fiction is not be considered a genre, these works definitely have similar tropes and conventions. The first major element often found in these books is the emphasis on the family unit. While family is an important aspect to any young adult novel, it’s especially important to LGBTQ YA fiction because the main characters are often going through internal struggles that the parents play a major part in.
In Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, for example, one of the two protagonists Dante is unable to come out to his parents because for a long time he feels disconnected from them. Saenz writes,
“The thing is I love my dad. My mom too. And I keep wondering what they’re going to say when I tell them that someday I want to marry a boy” (227).
Sometimes the drama is so heightened that one of the teen characters has to fight back, as Cameron does to her Aunt Ruth in Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post after she ships Cameron off to a gay conversion camp and then pretends like nothing is wrong when she comes back to visit. Cameron screams at her Aunt Ruth,
“‘You can’t ship me away to get fixed and then show me off as your dressed-up niece starring in the role of Maid of Honor!’” (343).
To exclude the family element in a gay YA novel robs the story of drama and truisms, and these three novels offer great examples of how to use the family element well.
Another convention of LGBTQ YA fiction is the isolation theme. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Aristotle doesn’t discover he is gay until the final few pages, and instead most of the time fights away feelings he has for Dante. Saenz writes,
“Maybe moms and dads forgot about this one small fact: being on the verge of seventeen could be harsh and painful and confusing. Being on the verge of seventeen could really suck” (239).
Anyone being on the verge of seventeen knows life can be difficult in all sorts of ways, but it’s especially hard for many closeted gay teens to find a light in their world. This theme is also present in out-and-proud characters, as in Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys when Nelson says,
“‘I get bashed every day for being queer, and I haven’t even kissed a guy yet […] that’s pretty pathetic’” (89).
A third convention is the theme of a gay teen’s first kiss, which is often presented as a major plot point in each LGBTQ-themed YA novel. In David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, Levithan writes,
“I touch his lips, I breathe him in. I close my eyes, I open them. He is surprised, I can tell” (61).
Even John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, published in 1969 and universally considered the first gay young adult novel, features two characters kissing:
“I guess I kiss Altschuler and he kisses me. It isn’t like that dumb kiss I gave Mary Lou Gerrity in Massachusetts before I left. It just happens” (150).
The truth is that every young person’s first kiss is a monumental event, and it’s even more monumental for young LGBT individuals because the kiss means even more. When this particular book was published, homosexual practices were illegal in every state but Illinois, so the fact that he got any homosexual subtext through in this published work is quite astonishing. He features the two characters kiss, per the quote above, but he also kills the protagonist Davy’s dog in the final few pages and makes Davy think it was his kiss with his friend Altshuler that murdered the dog. Donovan writes,
“It’s my fault. Because of everything I did. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for me. It is too my fault! All that messing around. Nothing would have happened to Fred if I hadn’t been messing around with Altshuler” (180).
The never allowing a gay teen to actually be happy in young adult fiction finally became a thing of the past with Rainbow Boys and especially Boy Meets Boy. Rainbow Boys is a serious novel, with attention paid to homophobia on behalf of Jason’s athlete friends and his closed-minded parents, but this was one of the first LGBT YA titles to have all three main gay characters find love with others by the end, and, more importantly, peace with their sexuality; at the end, Sanchez writes,
“Maybe [Jason] was in love with Kyle. Would that be such a bad thing?” (228).
Boy Meets Boy fights the conventions of LGBTQ YA fiction by featuring a world where everyone is accepting of gay teens. Unlike the other YA novels on my list, this book’s central drama is not whether the main character Paul will come out to his parents or if he’ll be ridiculed by bullies at school, but if he will be able to find true love. Levithan in a way treats this like any straight YA novel would read, without the isolation and family drama aspects. He writes,
“We hold hands as we walk through town. If anybody notices, nobody cares. I know we all like to think of the heart as the center of the body but at this moment, every conscious part of me is in the hand that he holds. It is through that hand, that feeling, that I experience everything else” (136).
This was the first novel to my knowledge to treat young gay love in this accepting way, and this thinking paved the way for more complex LGBTQ YA titles that went beyond only the coming-out and isolation themes.
Danforth, Emily. The Miseducation of Cameron Post. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2012. Print.
Donovan, John. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. New York: Dell Pub Co, 1969. Print.
Levithan, David. Boy Meets Boy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.
Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012. Print.
Sanchez, Alex. Rainbow Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Younger Readers, 2001. Print.