Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin
Let's start by saying this: it’s basically impossible to condense the entire history of LGBTQ YA into 15 books. It’s like trying to squash all your stuff into a suitcase before going on holiday – no matter how much you skimp and scrunch, and even sit on top of your battered old wheely number to try and zip it up, you inevitably end up having to leave out some really good stuff.
The YA, coming-of-age genre has such an amazing history of exploring love stories and relationships of all kinds, and pioneering new voices and styles, that it’s totally unsurprising that it’s been a major trailblazer in bringing a whole range of LGBTQ books to the fore and changing the landscape of LGBTQ literature across all genres and ages.
by E. M. Forster (1971) Maurice
English novelist E.M. Forster wrote
Maurice in 1913 but it was only published after his death in 1971. It tells the story of Maurice Hall, aged 14 at the start of the book, and his experiences of same-sex love throughout university and in his early adulthood. Forster avoided publishing it during his lifetime because of public attitudes towards gay relationships. A note was found on the manuscript which said “Publishable, but worth it?”.
by Truman Capote (1948)] Other Voices, Other Rooms
Truman Capote’s first published novel follows a 13-year-old boy called Joel who, after his mother dies, goes to live with his father in Mississippi. There, he becomes best friends with a tomboy called Idabel, and he meets his stepmother’s cousin – a plantation-owner called Randolph, who is openly gay and cross-dresses. Joel eventually meets his father and gradually gains a sense of his own identity amidst the characters at Skully’s Landing. When it was published in 1948,
Other Voices, Other Rooms hit the New York Times Bestseller List.
by Dorothy Strachey (1949) Olivia
Dorothy Strachey was the sister of novelist Lytton Strachey, and was part of the famous Bloomsbury Group. In 1949, she anonymously published
Olivia, an artful and understated novella about an English girl who is sent away to a small finishing school outside Paris, where she observes the romantic relationship between her two headmistresses. Olivia was dedicated to the memory of her friend, Virginia Woolf.
by Rita Mae Brown (1973) Rubyfruit Jungle
When it was published in 1973,
Rubyfruit Jungle was completely game-changing due to its open portrayal of gay relationships which aren’t totally angst-inducing. Confident heroine, Molly Bolt, is comfortable in her sexuality and works hard at school to win a scholarship to the University of Florida. However, once at university, her scholarship is cut when the college authorities discover her relationship with her room mate.
by Jeanette Winterson (1985) Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel is about a young girl growing up in the Pennines, who is adopted by evangelists from the Pentecostal Church. As a teenager, she finds herself falling for another girl – so her mother’s friends from church subject her to a series of exorcisms… This absolutely brilliant, darkly comical read won the Whitbread First Novel Award back in 1985.
by Stephen Chbosky (1999) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age classic, The Perks of Being a Wallflower consistently appears on the American Library Association’s list of Top 10 Most-Challenged Books. It’s an epistolary novel (a book-in-letters), from the point of view of “wallflower” Charlie, whose friend Patrick is gay – a fact which is totally accepted by all the main characters without a second thought. A beautiful, thought-provoking, empowering read.
by Julie Ann Peters (2004) Luna
16-year-old Regan is the only one who knows about her brother Liam’s secret: he really identifies as a girl. By night, Liam transforms into Luna, and – after several years – Luna asks Regan to help her transition into a full-time female. Regan worries about her sister’s safety and her family’s reaction but ultimately agrees to help… In 2004, Luna was the first YA novel to feature a transgender character.
by Jacqueline Wilson (2007) Kiss
Jacqueline Wilson’s heartfelt story,
Kiss, was published in 2007. It’s about best friends Sylvie and Carl who have referred to each other as “girlfriend and boyfriend” since they were young kids, and how their friendship shifts when Carl gets a new friend, Paul, and later confides to Sylvie that he’s gay. Like Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, it was a crucially empathetic novel which dispelled “gay best friend” stereotypes.
by Andrew Smith (2013) Winger
Hot on the heels of
Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith’s genre-bending exploration of bisexuality (and the insect apocalypse, naturally), the sensational Winger was published in 2013. It has a stellar line-up of characters, including Joey, the captain of the rugby team who also happens to be gay – a subject which is still taboo at their prestigious boarding school in Oregon. It also has a bite-my-tongue-incredible twist.
by Sally Green (2014) Half Bad
Half Bad trilogy places an unexpected – but completely tangible – LGBTQ love story in a contemporary world of witches, brutal authorities and white-knuckle fantasy. It refreshingly allows the gripping story to take the front seat, whilst the characters’ love is a deep, intense undercurrent that infuses the trilogy with even more jeopardy and even higher stakes. Breathtaking.
by Becky Albertalli (2015) Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
This 2015 gem brings the coming-out story into the digital age, as the eponymous Simon is outed on his high school’s Tumblr messageboard. He also falls in love over email with ‘Blue’, whose identity is a mystery beyond the fact that he attends Simon’s school – cue a rollicking, heartfelt rollercoaster of a whodunit.
by Moïra Fowley-Doyle (2015) The Accident Season
The Accident Season brings a subtle but spine-tingling gay love story into its gorgeous swells of magical realism set amidst a group of teens in Ireland. Cara and her family are deep in the throes of their annual Accident Season when, every year, they become inexplicably accident-prone (in the worst Accident Seasons of years gone by, people have died…). All the while, two of the girls in the group are falling in love. This is a beautifully-told story with magical accents that makes the future of LGBTQ coming-of-age stories look very bright indeed.
by Dean Atta (2019) The Black Flamingo
Poet Dean Atta’s debut novel is the story of a boy coming to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen. When he arrives at university, he finally finds his wings as a drag artist known as The Black Flamingo. Told in verse, Atta’s book is a bold and beautiful tale about embracing our uniqueness and learning to show ourselves to the world as we are.
by Kevin van Wye (2020) Date Me, Bryson Keller
Date Me, Bryson Keller is a joyous read that deals with big issues – coming out, deciding on your next steps in life – with a light touch. Bryson Keller, Fairvale Academy’s super-hot soccer captain, has accepted a dare to date the first person who asks him out every week. For weeks, he’s dated girl after girl, but no one stipulated that Bryson would only date girls. When Kai Sheridan finds himself in a position to ask Bryson out, he and Bryson both realise they’re in a position to form a deeper connection.
Kevin van Wye’s charming story takes a high school trope – geeky kid has crush on popular kid – and gives us a new spin on it, proving along the way that gay coming-of-age stories don’t have to be full of angst to be meaningful.
by L. C. Rosen (2020) Camp
L. C. Rosen’s latest novel takes place at a summer camp for queer teens called Camp Outland. There, Randy Kapplehoff has made friends, found his place on the stage and fallen for Hudson Aaronson-Lim - who's only into straight-acting guys.
This year’s camp will be different, with Randy reinventing himself as ‘Del’, a buff, masculine guy who’s determined to get Hudson to fall for him.
Rosen’s tale of love is also a study of masc4masc culture and internalised homophobia.