For Paste’s list of Young Adult must-reads for Pride Month, I’m excited to introduce a new guest writer: Caleb Roehrig. We’ve talked about his amazing, inclusive YA thrillers on the site a couple times, like when we declared Last Seen Leaving the best YA read of 2016 and unveiled the cover for his second book, White Rabbit. So I’m happy to have him writing this list with me, and not just because we adore so many of the same books.
From retellings of classics like Macbeth and Beauty & the Beast to books that shamelessly (and perfectly) jump genres, there’s a lot to love on this list of our favorite LGBTQ+ Young Adult books.
Eric Smith: One of my absolute favorite books of 2016, Tara Sim’s Timekeeper isn’t just a magical ride through a lushly reimagined Victorian world in which giant clocks literally control time. It’s also a paranormal LGBTQ+ love story.
In Timekeeper, Danny is a teen clock mechanic who is haunted by the fact that he can’t figure out how to repair a clock that froze the town where his dad is currently trapped. And when attacks start happening in neighboring towns, he must figure out a way to save his hometown, as well as the boy he loves—who happens to be a mythical clock spirit.
Steampunk. Fantasy. Paranormal romance. Science fiction. Sim’s Timekeeper is a genre mash like no other, and I promise you you’ll love it.
2. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Caleb Roehrig: The story of a boy falling apart and putting himself back together again while grieving the death of his ex-boyfriend, Adam Silvera’s History is a powerful book. It’s a stirring exploration of love and loyalty, guilt and resentment, jealousy and happiness. The story will stay with you after you’ve finished reading it—which, in a way, is a central theme of the novel: the messy psychological furniture left behind when you lose someone and can’t get closure.
When protagonist Griffin tries to find that closure by reaching out to his ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend, he sets into motion a chain of events that could either free him or undo him. With heart and hope, this book explores the complicated connections of lust and animosity that can be a unique pitfall for gay relationships, and turns an unflinching eye on the destructive process of grief.
Eric: In Jaye Robin Brown’s delightful second novel, readers meet Joanna, a teen girl who is already out of the closet. And that’s a huge fact worth noting here, because she’s suddenly asked to go back into the closet.
After years of being out and proud to her friends and her family, her father whisks her away to Rome, Georgia, a town that’s far more conservative than her hometown of Atlanta. He’s an incredibly popular radio evangelist, and he wants Joanna to hide who she is in the new town. For him.
She does it, agreeing and blending in… until she meets someone, and has to choose between keeping this promise or following her heart.
It’s funny, sweet, inclusive—a delightful rom-com YA novel that addresses something so important: balancing religion and belief with sexuality identity. It’s hard for me to think of any other YA novels that do this, and Brown does it so well.
Caleb: When Jordan Sun, a performing arts student at an East Coast boarding school, gets sick of being constantly passed over for roles in the musical theater department, she sets her sights on joining an elite a cappella group known as the Sharpshooters.
Problem is, the Sharps are an all-male organization, and to get in, Jordan will have to play the role of her life. What could be the premise of a very successful 1980s romantic comedy becomes, in Riley Redgate’s dexterous hands, a moving and gorgeously-written examination of gender norms, institutional sexism, poverty and sexuality. As Jordan resorts to greater and greater lengths to maintain her double life, and her relationships with the other Sharpshooters develop gravity and dimension she never anticipated, she must also question the very foundations of her own identity.
Eric: If Robin Talley writes it, I want to read it. Her inclusive, LGBTQ+ Young Adult novels are some of my favorites, from Lies We Tell Ourselves to her latest, Our Own Private Universe. Really, you could pick any title from her backlist. But my favorite is As I Descended. Why?
Well… it’s a YA Macbeth retelling, full of romance, fantasy and—as necessary in anything that has to do with Macbeth—both death and revenge. We meet Maria and Lily, two teens who will do whatever it takes to score a scholarship and preserve their close relationship. But one classmate is in their way, and they’ll have to take her down in order to get what they want.
But as things start to spiral out of control (in proper Macbeth fashion), they have to figure out if all this darkness is worth getting into the spotlight and winning the prize. It’s a frightening story, exploring the depths we will sink to in order to get what we want.
Caleb: A Beauty and the Beast-inspired tale in which the Beast is a hairy boy named Dylan who hates his body and Beauty is a transgender girl named Jamie who is maybe the first to look beyond Dylan’s exterior, Beast is a simultaneously gut-wrenching and uplifting novel about love and the power of self-acceptance.
Brie Spangler’s writing is captivating, her characters fully-rendered, and she pulls no punches when she illustrates the insidious natures of self-loathing, peer pressure and transphobia. There are ugly truths on display in this story, but a lot of beautiful ones, too, as two teenagers struggle to trust their hearts and confront prejudice, and to see each other for who they really are. You’ll think about this book long after you put it down.
Eric: I’ll likely bring up this book a few more times this year, but first, let’s talk about that title. Can we all agree that Sarah Prager’s nonfiction YA debut has the best title of the year? End of story.
In the very first LGBTQ history book for teenagers, readers learn about 23 influential figures in history, including Frida Kahlo, Alan Turing, Harvey Milk and George Takei. It’s funny, heartbreaking, insightful and just so important. There needs to be more nonfiction like this on bookshelves for young people, and I’m thrilled to see Prager’s book breaking out.
And to top it all off, the book has lovely illustrations of the people discussed inside. Zoe More O’Ferrall’s drawings are as delightful as Prager’s writing, which I hope we’ll see more of in the future.
Caleb: Resolving to rid herself of her magical gifts, Alex Mortiz, the middle daughter in a family of powerful New York brujas, performs a ritual that backfires. With her family now trapped in Los Lagos—a dangerous and fantastic underworld realm—Alex has to embrace the abilities she tried to reject in order to mount a rescue.
She is aided in her quest by bad-boy brujo Nova, who offers her help when she needs it most, and Rishi, a girl who refuses to leave her side when the chips are really down. Attracted to both of them, Alex eventually develops a sweet romance, even as she fights literal demons. (Fear not, though, love-triangle haters, because it is not like that.) Resourceful and courageous, Alex bristles with determination to save the family she loves, and her hair-raising battles with mythical creatures will leave readers breathless. But it’s the very human relationships at the core of Labyrinth Lost that make it such a satisfying read.
Eric: I will gush about this book at any given opportunity, as it’s one of my favorite LGBTQ+ Young Adult novels of all time. In Hero, we meet Thom Creed, a teenager living in a world of superheroes. There’s even a league of superheroes—complete with a Superman-type figure—and then there’s his father. A former Batman-esque man with no powers, Thom’s father is all smarts and raw strength. As he aged and fell by the wayside of his superpowered peers, however, he grew jaded, cynical and bitter. He hates superheroes, and there’s no way his son is going to grow up idolizing them like the rest of the world.
Here’s the thing though: Thom discovers he has superpowers. And he’s gay. How do you save the world, when it feels like your own world is falling apart? Hero’s answer to that question is imaginative and thrilling, and there’s nothing quite like it out there.
Caleb: Agoraphobic Solomon has not left the house in three years, following a massive panic attack at school, and his classmate, Lisa, has never forgotten him. Looking to get into an elite college psychology program, Lisa decides she’s going to “cure” Sol—whether he likes it or not—and use the experience as a springboard to her dreams. Insinuating herself into his life, all goes well for Lisa…at first. But then she introduces Sol to her warm-hearted boyfriend Clark, and things begin to get messy.
Solomon’s sense of humor, and the frankness with which he confronts both his mental illness and his growing crush on Clark, make him a unique and irresistible narrator. And Lisa, whose guilt grows as her connection with Sol becomes unexpectedly real, begins to see the selfishness of her motivations and the potential disaster if they’re ever revealed. These elements add an emotional complexity to this affecting story about the power of trust, love and friendship.
It looks like 2017 is turning out to be a fantastic year for LGBTQ+ Young Adult books. Keep an eye out for titles like The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (out later this month), They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (September), 27 Hours by Tristina Wright (October) and Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore (October).