Monday, 4 March 2013

Young Adult Fiction: Coming out of the Closet

I have at last got time to reflect on a great panel discussion Booktrust hosted ten days ago on the representation of LGBT characters in YA fiction. The panel consisted of authors James Dawson and Hayley Long, Emily Thomas of Hot Key Books, and Catherine Hennigan, a graduate of the Stonewall Young Talent Programme. Alex Strick chaired. They were unanimous that LGBT characters are essential in teenage fiction, for gay and straight teenagers and those who are exploring their sexuality. Hennigan movingly described her problems in her teens in finding books in the school and public library that helped her. The few books with LGBT characters she came across were mostly very stereotyped. They focused on negative issues like homophobia, bullying and suicide. The characters were defined only in relation to their sexuality. As a gay teenager, Dawson would have loved to have read about gay teenagers just being normal. Thomas said even now too many books with LGBT characters that come to publishers are issue-led and stereotyped. All agreed sexuality in YA fiction should be an aspect of the story, not the main focus.

Both authors described their books as having universal themes, rather than being issue-led: how as a teenager you decide who and how to be. When Dawson was writing Hollow Pike it did not occur to him not to have LGBT characters, but he was concerned his publisher would object. They did not. Then he worried that school librarians would not buy it. (Other panel members too expressed this concern. I wish I’d had the chance to say most school librarians would love to stock more good LGBT-related fiction.) As it turned out, schools that objected did so because of the witchcraft theme, not the sexuality issues. Teenagers have been very positive in their response. Long has also received lots of praise for What’s Up With Jody Barton? She had not specifically planned to write about a gay character, but had been determined to challenge her readers. Hence the pink cover, to appeal to her usual readership, even though this means teenage boys who would potentially benefit from it are unlikely to read it.

Hennigan raised an interesting point: novels with LGBT characters are crucial, but the internet and social media mean they are no longer the prime sources of information for teenagers about LGBT issues.

Booktrust has produced a useful list of teenage fiction titles with LGBT characters.