Queer & Questioning Teens
June 26, 2003
by Darla Linville,
Young Adult Specialist,
Staten Island Borough Office
[Originally presented at the American Library Association Annual Conference, June 21st 2003]
In her introduction to the collection of short stories entitled Am I Blue? Coming out from the Silence, Marion Dane Bauer says "Ten years ago, an anthology of short stories dealing with gay and lesbian themes probably would not have been considered by any major young adult publisher. It is my dream that ten years from now such an anthology will not be needed, that gay and lesbian characters will be as integrated into juvenile literature as they are in life." That was 1994, and here in 2003 we are working toward her goal.
This has been a wonderful publishing year for the gay teen character and for the gay teen readers who are looking for a wide variety stories in which to find their lives and experiences reflected. I brought with me today a selection of fiction published over the last 10 years, my favorites with my favorite characters and stories which give teens positive outcomes. Not all the stories have happy endings. Not all the queers are valiant. But all the characters are people you might want to meet in your library, facing decisions that your teens face.
Am I Blue? by Marion Dane Bauer
In the title story from this collection, Bruce Coville brings us Vincent, the kid who is always being called a fag and beat up by Butch Carrigan. He's lying in the puddle where Butch left him when his Fairy Godfather, Melvin, shows up. Yes, that's right. A fairy godfather. Perfectly pressed khakis and spotless loafers, not a drop of mud on him. He gives Vincent a hand up and takes him to a local coffee shop, where he offers Vincent three wishes. Melvin is a little "swishy" for Vincent, and he worries about who will see them together.
At first Vincent doesn't believe in the Fairy Godfather stuff, but Melvin is able to convince him with wish #1: changing his coffee into a Swiss double Mocha and by giving him an education lesson, showing him the great gay fantasy #3. Gay Vision. That is, everyone who they see, who has any gay leanings, any queer tendencies, turns an appropriate shade of blue. Vincent, who has been trying to figure things out for himself, notices that his face is just slightly bluish. Melvin explains that he's still confused, and will figure it out in time.
But the amazing thing is walking around town. So many people are blue, people Vincent never would have imagined. Even the grocer, who is married with three kids. And the librarian, who all the kids call a dyke, not blue at all. And on the evening news, a noted political homophobe was bright blue in Vincent's vision.
That's when he got his idea for his second wish: Gay fantasy #3 worldwide. Everyone, starting at midnight, turned the appropriate shade of blue. And for wish number 3, Vincent wants Butch Carrigan to be bright blue, too. Melvin returns from that errand, grinning ear to ear. Still one wish left, he assures Vincent, Butch is already as blue as a summer sky.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky
Dear Friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don't try to figure out who she is, because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don't want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don't want you to find me. I didn't enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.
So this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.
Charlie is in 9th grade and everything is confusing and overwhelming to him. He lost his best friend Michael to suicide at the end of 8th grade. Charlie's English teacher Bill tells him he needs to participate in life, not just observe it, not just write about it. Actually, it's because of Bill that Charlie decides to go to a football game. At the football game he first meets Patrick and his beautiful sister Sam. And that's where Charlie starts really experiencing high school.
His new best friends are Sam and Patrick. They are seniors. They are step-siblings. Sam is a beautiful girl, strong, confident and warm. Charlie is sure he is in love with her. Patrick is a great guy, a wonderful friend to talk to and gay, and Charlie wonders if he is in love with him, too. Charlie has a lot to figure out.
My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr
Ellen is wondering herself about all the unspoken rules in her house. They are not all about gender roles, although some certainly are. There are also rules for arguments, discussions, dinner, movies and sexuality. These rules pertain to the family, Ellen and her brother Lincoln (he goes by Link) and to Link's best friend, James. When James sleeps over he has to stay in the guest room, because Ellen's father says boys need lots of privacy.
James and Link have rules for their friendship, too. They usually agree on everything. What they don't agree about, they don't talk about. When they fight, it's awful, and Ellen can't stand to be around. She doesn't understand why they fight, why they don't agree on things and why that makes them feel so betrayed and hurt by each other.
Ellen loves to hang around Link and James. She thinks they mostly let her hang around because she is quiet and they don't notice she is there. She tries not to upset them, tries not to stare too openly at James and tries not to make it too obvious that she is totally madly in love with him.
This year Ellen hears from another freshman at their school that people think that Link and James are boyfriends. Something clicks in Ellen's head. She never thought of that, but it does make perfect sense. Ellen and Link's father seems very scared of the possibility, but to Ellen it just seems normal. Go along with Ellen to find out who really loves whom in My Heartbeat.
Name Me Nobody by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Emi-Lou is 14 years old and she has not led an easy life up to this point. Her mom had her when she was 16, and left Emi-Lou with her grandmother to run off and follow her dreams in mainland USA. Emi-Lou grows up worried about her mom not loving her and about being fat. Luckily she has her best friend Von. Ever since they were little, she and Von have spent all their time together. They hang out together in school and when they are not in school they spend all their free time at each other's houses. She and Von stick up for one another and look out for each other. Von has saved Emi-Lou countless times from the mean, skinny Japanese girls who don't like Emi-Lou because she isn't cute or smart.
But Emi-Lou knows that the way Von loves girls is different from the way that Emi-Lou and Von love one another. When people call them "lezzies," it might be true about Von. Emi-Lou tries to keep Von from hanging out with the butchies and dating Babes, but in the process she is alienating her best friend and the person who loves her most in the world besides her grandmother.
Kissing Kate by Lauren Myracle
Lissa and Kate have been best friends for the last four years, since they were 12. When Kate and Lissa were in 7th grade, all the popular girls wanted to be friends with Kate. She was friendly. She was cute. But Kate chose Lissa. Lissa was going through an awkward moment, not really friendless but not really popular, sort of a loner, and Kate chose her as the person she wanted to spend time with.
Since then they've spent every weekend at each other's houses, gone to get a tattoo for Kate together, shopped for clothes that don't show off their figures and become inseparable best friends. This year, Lissa thinks, will be a continuation in that same evolution.
Things have changed for the much worse over the summer, though. For one thing, Kate got a boyfriend. Not any boy, but a popular, loud boy that takes up lots of time and makes Kate part of a crowd that Lissa's not in. She gets invited along, but as an extra. This summer, Kate and Lissa went to Rob's house, where Kate first hooked up with Ben. The guys were drunk, and smoking cigars, and to escape Kate and Lissa sneaked off to the gazebo. While they were talking, laughing, making fun of Ben for his ponytail and cigar, Kate leaned in and kissed Lissa. And Lissa, while she didn't know that that's what she was waiting for, was ready. And she kissed back.
Then they heard the guys outside, and they went back to the party. And by the end of the night, Kate was making out with Ben. Now a few months later, Kate wants Lissa to just forget about it. But that's the thing. Lissa doesn't want to forget.
The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr
All her life Nancy Takahiro has been working toward this year. This basketball season is her last in high school and she will be watched by college scouts. This is her chance to go to the school of her dreams. For Nancy basketball is more a calling than a sport. When she drives to her Junior Olympics team practice on summer mornings, seeing the other people driving or walking to church, she knows that what they are doing amounts to about the same thing, except that she is in sports clothes, not Sunday best, and she practices her religion every day, not just Sunday. As a 6'0" Japanese woman, who has been making the papers since freshman year, Nancy is noticeable. She may have been dreaming about the goal of becoming a college basketball star all her life, but she is also a little worried about the fame, the lack of privacy that it may bring.
Raina Webber plays on the rival team, is also a senior and is even more determined than Nancy to make her dreams of basketball stardom come true. They are competing against one another for the high school championship and for the best college recruitment. Raina is dedicated to the game in ways that Nancy isn't, though. She's a little tougher, according to Nancy. Raina moves around a gym like it's built for her-not arrogantly, but with the casual assumption that everyone knows it 's hers and won't mind that she'scome there to claim it. She is always the first person up the court, always weaving through people like they are rooted to the floor, not because she is so much quicker than everyone else, but because it doesn't seem to occur to her that she could fail. When she stands at the free throw line, she stares at the basket and holds the ball at her waist as if she's forgotten she has to shoot it, as if she could score the point just by concentrating hard enough. This attitude is typical of Raina-she approaches every aspect of the game as if it were a matter of will. She plays the game as it was meant to be played-as if her life depends on it.
Nancy has a big crush on Raina. She has for most of their high school years. She loves to watch Raina move and to imagine being her girlfriend. She knows Raina dates girls, and Nancy does too. But she doesn't think she'll ever catch the eye of Raina. All of this is further complicated by the fact that Nancy and Raina are now living together. Nancy's father started dating Raina's mother, and they fell in love. So Nancy and Raina are sharing a bathroom now, too, and their rivalry and crushes sometimes make the household a little tense
Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez
Jason is circling the block. He wants to go into the Rainbow Youth meeting, but he doesn't. He's not really gay, you know. He's just curious, a little, and also a little troubled by some dreams he's been having. They involve sex and other guys. But they don't have very much to do with his waking life, when he is a star basketball player with a very pretty girlfriend.
The only queer Jason really knows is Nelson, or Nelly, from his school. Nelson is so flamboyant, I mean, Jason can't understand why he has to act that way. Can't he just try to blend in? But Nelson knows that it's impossible for him to blend in in his town. Since first grade, he's been coming home crying, bleeding, beaten because some boy or another suspected that he was a fag. Nelson's been out since he was about 12 and his mom is behind him completely, but still sometimes the insults and beatings catch up with him.
Another kid from their school is already at the meeting. Kyle is quiet and not terribly noticeable, but Jason recognizes him from some classes they've had together. He plays tennis. He always has a baseball cap on. He's normal. Jason doesn't think Kyle could be gay, could he. Kyle has known for a long time that he's gay, but he hopes that people at school don't find out. He doesn't think he could take the comments that Nelson endures every day. And especially he hopes that his dad never finds out. He thinks it would break his heart.
Nelson and Kyle are already friends, and they welcome Jason into the group as he begins his journey to discovering if he is one of the Rainbow Boys.
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
Russell knows that he is the only gay kid in his school. Probably the only one in his town. He's pretty sure, because he's been looking and he hasn't seen anyone else. It's possible that they would be hiding, though, just like him. He's well-camouflaged. He laughs at the jokes in the locker room and keeps his head down so he doesn't get caught staring, and no one seems to notice that he doesn't chase girls. Maybe they just think it's normal. He's not very popular, he hangs around with the nerds and outcasts, but he's not really picked on.
His main interaction with gay people is on the internet. One night in a chat room he talks to a guy who claims to be from the same hometown as Russell. Then, he says he's in high school. And he goes to the same school as Russell. Of course, right away, Russell wants to meet him. They refuse to reveal their identities to one another, but agree that if they meet, then they will both have something over the other, and both will be sworn to secrecy. They agree to meet at the gazebo in the park at midnight.
When Russell arrives he can see someone is already there. He's too far away to tell, but it really looks like Kevin, the guy from his gym class who he has had a crush on for months. Both guys gape in awe that there is another gay boy in their class. That's just the beginning.
When Russell comes out to his friend Min, he finds out that she is bisexual and has a secret girlfriend, Therese. They decided that all the kids who know about each other should meet. Min invites Therese and Ike, another friend, and Russell invites Kevin. They have so much fun being out and open with each other, they decide to start a club. They want to meet on school time, they don't want other people to join and they don't want to tell the whole school they are gay, so they decide to call themselves the geography club. It's so boring no one will even come looking for them. It's the perfect plan, but like all perfect plans, some things go wrong. At least Russell has his moment with his dream boy.
Gravel Queen by Tea Benduhn
Aurin is making a film of her life. Just in her head, because she doesn't have a camera, but that doesn't stop her from imagining the shots and working on the dialogue in the scenes of her everyday interactions. They just come out better on film with a tough, beautiful girl playing her.
Aurin's best friend is Kenney. Kenney is tall, red-haired and dramatic. She loves to make plans and come up with schemes and dress up. Fred, their other friend, and Aurin usually go along with Kenney's bossiness, because things are more fun when Kenney is happy.
Fred is gay. Aurin is yet-to-be-determined, sexuality speaking. And Kenney likes boys, it seems. They usually go to the park and hang out on the swings, watching the guys from their class play Ultimate Frisbee. It's something they all can agree on.
Aurin never really pays attention until one day she sees a girl out on the field playing with the boys. She is grace in motion. All her muscles ripple and pull to make something beautiful out of the frisbee game. Aurin stands transfixed. Time stops. Everything stops till the Frisbee flies over and hits her in the head. Then, suddenly, the girl is in front of her. Her voice is gravel and music. Aurin can't talk.
Kenney wants to make Neila part of their group. It will gain them status. She is, after all, playing Frisbee with the kids who have the best parties. Aurin wants to become friends with her, because the air feels less oxygenated after Neila leaves. And little by little they start to get to know one another. It's funny, Neila and Aurin run into each other a lot when Kenney isn't around.
As Neila and Aurin get closer, Aurin wants to spend more time with her and less time with Kenney. She begins to see that Kenney is running her life the same way her mother runs her life, as if what Aurin wants doesn't make any difference. And Aurin recognizes the joy she feels the first time Neila leans in to kiss her. Can she stay friends with Kenney and get closer to Neila?
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
In Paul's town things have gotten all mixed together over the years. That is, the straight boys try to sneak into the Queer Beer Bar and the boys who love boys flirt with the girls who love girls. The dance floor anywhere is always open to couples of any configuration, even at the prom. The bookstore hosts performances by Gaystafarian musicians. Imagine the high school: The quarterback on the football team is a trans girl and the tallest homecoming queen the school's ever had. Her name is Infinite Darlene.
Things should be perfect for Paul. He just met a dream boy named Noah and the electricity between them tells him this is going to be something important. But within a few days the high school bookie is going to be taking bets on just how Paul will mess everything up.
For starters, his best friend Joni gets together with Chuck, who had a thing for Infinite Darlene last year, and when she turned him down, it got ugly. Now Paul is having trouble being friends with both Joni and Infinite Darlene.
Then, Paul swears he's not going to hurt Noah like his last boyfriend did, but he keeps getting caught in compromising positions with Kyle, his ex, who suddenly wants to work things out and get back together. And then there's Paul's other good friend, Tony. Tony doesn't live in their town, and his parents don't see things the way parents do here. They think Tony's going to hell for his homo leanings, and they tell him so all the time. So when a family friend sees Tony hugging Paul, Tony is effectively imprisoned in the house and not allowed to see his friends. And the rumor mills have Tony and Paul kissing. And Paul's brother is asking for an insider tip before Paul works things out with Kyle or Noah, so he will know which way to bet with the big bucks. At least someone will come out a winner.
Dare, Truth or Promise by Paula Boock
Willa's the new kid at school, but that doesn't make her intimidated or shy, like it would some people. When her boss at the Burger Giant tries to push her around and get a little too friendly, Willa makes threatening gestures toward body parts he holds near and dear and makes him back down and give her some space. When the school comedy show appears to be making racist and sexist jokes, and all the students are laughing along, Willa walks out of the auditorium, even though no one else does. In fact, Willa is really good at standing up for herself and what she believes in.
Louie, too, can outtalk anyone, and seems pretty sure of herself and her ideas. She's an actress and comedian, and she was one of the performers in the skit that Willa walked out of. She explains to Willa how the laughter was to remind the audience how quickly humor can become cruelty, and she and Willa understand that they have some common ideas. They become friends, and then, late one night while they are watching the planes land at the airfield, they kiss.
It's everything the each ever wanted. They fall for each fast, and begin to feel like this must be love. But when Louie's family disapproves of her love for Willa, she finds herself doubting what she feels. Willa becomes angry and defensive. This has happened to her before, and the last girl called her sick and said it was all Willa's idea. She curses herself for believing in Louie, and hopes she can make it through the school year before the hate letters begin. But Louie has some surprises for both of them.