There’s a trope about coming out in LGBTQ+ young adult fiction. And there’s another trope about falling in love. Pick up a queer story with a teen protagonist, and I would understand if you expected certain things. Kissing. Maybe sex, depending on your idea of what makes something a YA book versus a book for adults. A story that centers on the big gay reveal to Mom/Dad/Coach.
I get where that came from. The whole concept of queer young adult stories told in a positive light, that genre being a thing at all, that is still fresh and wonderful. Queer literature in general is relatively young as a category, and it’s no surprise that the first few generations of stories had a lot to do with falling in love and coming out. After all, that’s what makes us different. It’s who we are and who we love. And the dangers that can strike when we tell the world the good news. That makes for pretty huge drama, and no matter how enlightened your family or your hometown, the day you come out is always going to be a pretty huge day.
But some of the best queer YA books, lately, have not been love stories. They haven’t even been coming out stories. The audience is ready for that now; they have been for some time. There’s no closet factor in these non-romances, no miserable gay teens who can’t show themselves in all their splendor for fear of violence or being misunderstood by the people they have to live with. It’s just…kids. Kids who already came out before the book started. Some of them have sweethearts. Some are single. Some are fixated on that special diving champion or choir girl, or just on losing their virginity, but some are fixated on their mother’s immigration status or the app they’re creating or any one of a million different real-life things.
In other words, they’re real kids.
In Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, the central relationship is between two friends, a gay boy and a straight boy. There’s a mention of sex, but not between those two. The story explores the range of complex emotion in a teenage best-friendship. That’s what it’s about. And I love it for that. Andrew Demcak’s beautiful Ghost Songsis similar: the main character is gay, but that’s a given. His story is about bullying, and a deep friendship, and an alcoholic parent, and just plain growing up as a sensitive kid. It’s not a romance. It doesn’t need to be.
I knew when I started writing The Songbird Thief that there was no love story. Or -- there was, but not a romantic one. It’s the story of Lee, a fifteen-year-old girl from rural Marin County who runs away to San Francisco to be near her grownup friend, Sonja. Lee has a crush on Sonja, but it’s not reciprocal. Sonja is like a mother to Lee. Girls Lee’s age come along who could be love interests, and there’s a flirtatious moment or two, but Lee is busy looking for a job and trying to find her real father. Lee’s life is complicated by magic, and her singing voice makes people do things like unconsciously walk into traffic. She’s distracted. She’s a girl who happens to be gay, whose story has nothing to do with kissing.
Being different can be dangerous, and discovery can be deadly.
High school freshman James Kerr is finding out he’s not quite like his classmates. Around the time he realizes he’s attracted to his best friend, Paul Schmitz, James starts channeling a dead writer’s poetry and also discovers he has an ability to manipulate energy-a super power. Before James can figure out why this is happening to him, tragedy strikes in the form of Paul’s abusive father, and James is sent to a government-run school, The Paragon Academy, which specializes in juvenile paranormal research. There, he meets Lumen, the daughter of a famous Korean actress. Lumen’s psychic ability might be the key to helping James understand both his poems and his own power.
I was in a really bad mood when I picked up a copy of A Little Bit Langston, having had an especially horrendous week of insomnia. But I picked it up anyway, really just out of habit, hoping to kill some time before the end of the day. Before I knew it, I had finished half the book. If you can overcome one of my insomnia induced zombie states, you are an especially engaging author.
A Little Bit Langston is not at all what I expected. It follows a young teen, James Kerr, as he tries to come to terms with a highly strange occurrence. He is assigned to write a poem for class, and unwittingly, he writes a beautiful poem that just happens to resemble the work of the famous poet, Langston Hughes. The mystery is instantly gripping, as James tries to figure out what exactly happened. Is he somehow channeling a long dead, poet? His teacher naturally thinks he plagiarized it, and poor James doesn’t know what to do. His quirky mother finally intervenes and decides to enroll him in a unique school, Paragon Academy, where they work with “special” kids. And that’s where the strangeness intensifies. Now cut off from his mother and friends, James discovers that this school is not what it professes to be, and he must learn to tap his strange power, as well as rely upon some equally gifted teens, to solve the institution’s very odd secret.
Demcak’s strength as a writer comes through in the eminently likable characters he creates. James himself is a beautiful, if confused soul. And I loved his interactions with his new friend, Lumen, a Korean girl already familiar with much of Paragon Academy’s strange secret, due to her own unique ability. And finally James has a love interest in his best friend Paul, who himself gets caught up in Paragon’s bizarre past.
This was a great, quick read, and lots of fun — exactly what I needed during a long hot summer day and a week of insomnia. I enjoyed following James as he first discovers his strange powers, and then learns their true origins. X-files fans will especially enjoy the ride. Those steeped in UFO lore will get a bit more out of this, as Demcak makes references to famous cases throughout. And if nothing else, the book gives you the most poetic euphemism for “gay” that I’ve ever seen, a phrase captured in the book’s beautiful title. I know the author has already penned a sequel to A Little Bit Langston, called Alpha Wave. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it to be published.