As I was unable to make it to the YA Lit Symposium’s Pre-Conference Session: On Beyond Stonewall, I decided to head to a local bookstore Friday night for an intimate and informal discussion about LGBT issues in teen literature. Present were authors Malinda Lo (Ash), Lauren Bjorkman (My Invented Life), Megan Frazer (Secrets of Truth and Beauty), Alexandra Diaz (Of all the Stupid Things) and Kirstin Cronn-Mills (The Sky always hears me and the hills don’t mind), all of whose books feature characters dealing with LGBT issues.
After a generous offering of chocolate-covered cherries from Diaz, the authors began by introducing themselves and their books, then dove into answering audience questions. First up: for what age are your books appropriate?
The authors all agreed that their books are for teen audiences, though Cronn-Mills described her novel as “edgy” (for sexual frankness and language), and therefore felt it was more for older teens, 14/16 and up. Amusingly, Lo mentioned that she’d originally written Ash as a young woman out of her teens, but that her editor suggested she lower her age to hit the YA audience, and while Ash is recommended in the U.S .for ages 12 and up, it was published in the U.K. for ages 8-12. Several authors pointed out that sexual encounters tend to up the recommended age level – for instance, Diaz’s book is often labeled as 14 and up, and contains two sexual encounters, one between a heterosexual couple and another between a same-sex couple.
Also regarding age-appropriateness: Why write for a teen audience? Also, as YA authors, do you face any legal issues/constraints from your publishers or editors for writing of the sexual experiences of teens under eighteen?
The answers to “why write for this age-level” varied: it’s simply a fun age to write (Diaz); the characters are based on people from the author’s teen experience and so had to be teenagers (Cronn-Mills); and technical reasons, such as a character needing to drive, and so had to be at least sixteen (Frazer). On the subject of legal issues, all the authors agreed that while none of them had been told to tone down scenes or to take anything out, if publishers or editors were squeamish, it was probably less about the actual content and more about heading off parent complaints and challenges. Lo pointed out that while it may seem that book challenges are good in that they get a book publicity and make it attractively ‘taboo,’ it’s actually a bad thing, as the controversy might lead to librarians/teachers choosing not to purchase a title in order to avoid the possibility of a challenge.
When asked for their personal favorite LGBTQ books or authors, we in the audience found ourselves nodding along and/or scribbling furiously to keep up with the suggestions. Mentioned: David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy; Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and Levithan (though Cronn-Mills admitted to being a bit troubled by a seemingly stereotypical character); Dramarama by E Lockhart; Julie Anne Peters’ Far From Xanadu and Luna; Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters; The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson; and Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish.
Questions about the authors’ thoughts on the newish Stonewall Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award vs. the LAMBDA awards followed (one author observed that the more awards the better!) and why they thought lesbian characters are so unusual in YA literature. In answer to that last question, Cronn-Mills pointed out the differences between I kissed a girl and I liked it…‘cause boys were watching and I kissed a girl and I liked it…’cause I’m attracted to her and now I don’t know what to do, and other authors suggested that maybe it’s easier for teen girls to relate to having a gay male best friend, rather than falling for one’s best female friend.
As the discussion wrapped up, a writer in the audience asked the authors how they avoided using stereotypes in their writing. Bjorkman spoke of using parts of stereotypes, as did Diaz, while making the characters much more than the stereotypes. Frazer spoke of the fun in turning stereotypes on their heads, while Cronn-Mills drew her characters from real-life persons. Lo cautioned that writers first learn what the stereotypes are, especially with a group one is unfamiliar with, in order to better avoid the stereotypes. Lo’s five-part blog from June of this year, Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes in YA Fiction, is a fantastic resource for those writers!