A gradual increase: LGBTQ+ representation in YA literature

By Emily Mitchell

Young Adult or YA Literature is booming, appearing all across social media channels and enjoying a particular resurgence with the rise of BookTok. However, we’ve come a long way from the same old straight, cis, white narratives that used to dominate the shelves. Representation matters and readers are demanding more diverse books. 

I’ve recently been coordinating and researching a series of posts for the South College Reading Society Instagram, with different facets of LGBTQ+ representation and corresponding book recommendations every week. This is something that links to my own personal reading, as I actively try and seek out more diverse reads. I’ve written about and reviewed a lot of YA books in the past few years and have seen the increase in diversity first-hand. That being said, there is still a long way to go, particularly in terms of intersectional representation. 

Malinda Lo, a fantastic YA author who packs her books full of nuanced and heartfelt representation, ran LGBTQ+ Young Adult novels By the Numbers. Essentially, this meant that she counted up the number of LGBTQ+ YA novels published annually between the years 2011-19. She found that “from 2003 to 13, an average of 15 LGBT YA novels were published by major commercial publishers each year.” When you consider the sheer volume of books published every year, this highlights how readers had to really hunt for scraps of representation within the market. An increase is evident from her post in 2019, which shows how “in 2017, mainstream publishers published 84 LGBTQ YA books” and “in 2018, mainstream publishers published 108 LGBTQ YA books.” This shift is truly empowering to see, but it still indicates the huge amount of work left to do within the genre. 

I would really recommend going through her research in more depth, as it paints a clear picture of how the genre has grown. It particularly highlights the shift in representation. Historically, having an LGBTQ+ side character counted as representation within wider studies. Lo repeatedly challenges this notion, indicating that it should only be books with an LGBTQ+ protagonist that are fully counted as representation. Side characters are inherently marginalised by the narrative, as it is not their story. Instead of these inadequate glimpses from the shadows, LGBTQ+ characters deserve to be in the spotlight. 

This shift is truly empowering to see, but it still indicates the huge amount of work left to do within the genre

LGBTQ+ narratives within YA have definitely adapted and grown with Lo’s hopes. Just browsing through the YA section within Waterstones now, there is an array of genres and stories on display. Seeing wonderful, complex and impactful books like Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, all of Juno Dawson’s work and You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson (to name just a few) succeed is awe-inspiring. The amount of adaptations of LGBTQ+ books on the horizon also indicates greater accessibility to these stories and an increased representation for young people seeing themselves on-page or onscreen. 

Lo concluded her research in 2019, with the statement, “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,” I completely agree with these comments, as LGBTQ+ representation should be as diverse and complex as the community it aims to reflect. We still need more intersectional representation, but the future is hopeful. 

Image: Antonia Green via Wikimedia Commons

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