Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Some Must-Read Queer YA Literature

The distinction between a book that is LGBT-positive and a book I would call queer is difficult to draw, but I believe it exists. A great number of books geared towards young readers take a definitively gay-friendly stance, by advocating for gay marriage rights or possibly incorporating a gay or lesbian individual into its collection of secondary characters. Those texts, however, rarely delve into the nuances and wide array of experiences associated with queer or trans adolescence.

I know very little about the politics behind the publishing of young adult literature. However, it does not take an expert to see that “pro-gay” books that hope to circulate to a wide young adult audience usually revolve around assimilationist narratives of LGBT people – almost always suburban, white, and middle-class - who are absolutely “normal” and endearing to a mainstream public in every way other than their sexual orientation.

The truly excellent, valuable, and queer reads for middle school students, in my opinion, push the envelope on this point and attempt to present for adolescent contemplation characters whose sexualities and genders are not – and cannot be – isolated from other aspects of their identities and lives.

This is why every middle school and high school English teacher absolutely must read Jacqueline Woodson’s From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun with his or her classes. The book describes the process of Melanin Sun, an almost-fourteen-year-old boy, after his mother comes out as queer (her own language of self-identification) and, possibly even more shockingly for a biracial boy immersed in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, as being in love with a white woman. Melanin Sun opened up intellectual doors for my classes last year, and students generated a running list of big issues and concepts we came across as I read it aloud to them. It practically creates lessons for teachers. It demands that readers think about the phenomenon of white people entering a predominantly non-white sphere. Several students of mine who live in the currently gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook brought up examples from their lived experiences to contribute to a conversation about the class and racial conflicts that can erupt in gentrifying areas.

Melanin Sun exposes readers to LGBTQ experiences that extend beyond simplistic portrayals of homophobia. Kristin, the partner of Melanin’s mother, illustrates the concept of “chosen family” because her birth family disowned her when she came out as queer. Melanin Sun is perfect for the middle school classroom because it demands critical inquiry into who “owns” identity-related language. Woodson uses words like “queer,” “fag,” and “dyke” in the book to refer to sexuality – the words “gay” and “homosexual” are rarely seen. My students kept a running list of questions that arose as we read, including: What does “queer” mean, and why do Melanin’s mother and Kristin use it? How can Melanin’s mom be a lesbian if she has a kid? Should his mom have told Melanin earlier than she did? When, if ever, should a word like “queer” be used, and by whom? This last question prompted a particularly fascinating full-class conversation about who has the right to invoke what terminology – is it different for an LGBTQ person to call themselves queer than for a straight person to do so? Why or why not? This text opened innumerable analytical doors leading into important conversations relevant to social justice and to students’ lived experiences. Instead of providing an empty, cut-and-dry rhetoric of “gay is okay!”, Woodson pushes and challenges readers to think critically about the complicated ways identities work – something that far too few young adult novels about issues of identity do.

Another novel to share with middle school students is Totally Joe by James Howe. Though the book takes place in what could be described as a quasi-suburbia in upstate New York dominated by middle-class white kids, it maintains a healthy dose of self-consciousness about that fact and avoids relying upon the tired trope of the “tragic faggot” narrative. Howe has created a deeply compelling and realistic character in the narrator Joe, a gay middle schooler experiencing his first relationship with a boy in his class. The book offers a vivid depiction of a character who is complex and inevitably identifiable to middle school students (regardless of their sexualities) coming out in a relatively rural area of the United States. Joe’s characteristics read as queer, but James Howe avoids resorting to dull or problematic stereotypes, which is a tricky balance to navigate in young adult literature. Overall, Totally Joe provides a great readaloud and engaging character study for middle school students.

There is also value in having a book like Carrie Mac’s Crush in the middle school classroom. Crush revolves around a mostly-white and socioeconomically privileged lesbian community in gentrified Park Slope, Brooklyn. The benefit of this book is that it focuses on a young woman’s coming out and thereby addresses issues of female sexuality without any male presence, which is an infrequent trait in young adult literature. It is also an Orca brand book, which means that it is considered by many educators to be more accessible to “lower level” readers than many other texts while containing content mature enough to be relevant to middle schoolers. Crush isn’t an ideal full-class read, as it does not come close to the depth and power of Melanin Sun, but it is good to have around for a book partnership or individual student looking for “low level, high interest” texts.

Queer young adult literature ideally sparks analytical thought about operations of power in society, how identities are read and interpreted, and how meanings are mapped onto identities in various social contexts. Melanin Sun does this the best of any of these texts, to the point that I wish it were required reading in college courses. If you haven’t read it yet, set aside an hour of time and zip through it on the subway. Then, give it to your students, your younger sibling, or a random teenager you bump into. Everyone can benefit from it.

No comments:

Post a Comment