I live in an unusual world where most of my conversations on a daily basis are either about good sex or bad sex. It is a strange thing being a rape victim activist/author of a book about sexual violence and also a romance editor. But to me, these things are compatible. They have an overlapping theme: how can we integrate intimacy, sexuality, and positive experiences into our culture so that both men and women feel empowered to make good choices with regards to sex.So when the Sexual Violence in YA Lit Project team started talking, conversations naturally flowed from “how is sexual violence represented in young adult literature” into “how is positive sex or sexuality represented in YA”. Which began a conversation about what teens know, what they don’t know, and the importance of books in helping them see their own sexual agency in the best possible light. Whatever choice they want to make about it.And we started a list of books that have positive representations of sex. Below is my list, but please go check out the lists of Karen Jensen, Carrie Mesrobian, and Trish Doller. (SPOILERS AHEAD)The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I wanted this book to be first on my list because I think it has an amazing scene of respect for the main character’s emotional landscape and inability to consent. Charlie pulls back from sex with Sam and is listened to and honored for his choice. Charlie is a sexual trauma survivor and he’s not ready to be in that place with Sam even though touch feels good. I was pretty much sobbing when Sam said, “It’s okay that you’re not ready” and then helped him get dressed. This. Yes. Perfect.How to Love by Katie Cotugno: This is a beautifully written “consent” scene in which Sawyer asks “are you sure?” twice, and Reena is solid about her yes. But more than that is the part of this adorable scene where he promises to go slow. And in that promise you understand something important about these two, which is that not only do they both want to be there, but there is no “let’s get it over with” backdrop to this conversation. It’s a scene where it’s made clear they both want a positive experience from it.Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma: I wanted to include this book because the author puts the reader in a uncomfortable place of witnessing the growing sexual attraction between a brother and a sister, understanding their shared trauma and how they got to that place, and drawing us into an incredibly intimate sex scene between the two of them that is equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking. It is incredibly difficult to write sex scenes that are not at all sexy but are still emotionally devastating. Suzuma does it beautifully.If I Stay by Gayle Forman: So the “play me” scene where Adam teaches Mia how to be comfortable with him intimately by having her hands on him like she’d play the cello and then he plays her like he would the guitar, well, holy hell, it’s beautiful and sexy and perfect because it has this shared understanding of something they’re both passionate about (music) and how they can use it to get past the awkwardness of Mia’s first time. And it takes the reader through all the emotions of first time sex and awkwardness and honesty and yes, this scene is one of my favorites I’ve ever read.The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry: This book has an absolutely beautiful scene with a one-armed guy back from combat having sex with his girlfriend for the first time and it’s so perfect and awkward and sexy. And it starts with him saying this, “The second you say pause, we pause or we stop”. And then he says, “I’ve never done this with one arm. I mean, I might need some help.” And then I just about died of cuteness and all the awesome sexiness in this scene. And gosh, Jolene does awkward in the best way and makes it way more awkward for him (who has had sex before) than for his girlfriend (who has not) because she is the instigator of the whole thing and he’s the one who keeps wanting to make sure that she’s sure because he likes her and doesn’t want to screw things up. PERFECTION.And now, I’m going to add one more that was originally pubbed as a YA and has since been re-categorized as an NA. I want to include it because it involves gay characters and it also involves something that is important to include in the discussion: “good sex” that happens even though it is a bad idea for both characters.Hushed by Kelly York: I loved this book because it’s what I call the gay Dexter book. Serial killer, high stakes drama, a girl who has gone off the edge and the guy who has pretty much followed her there, and then in the midst of it all is this other guy named Evan. And I love the shower scene between Archer and Evan in this book because it comes amidst drama and all sorts of questions but it’s so natural for these two guys. And the way it’s written is sexy but also frantic and you are deep into Archer’s emotional landscape and you understand how much he is craving solace and you also in the back of your head understand that this is not a good idea for either of them, and I think there’s something really important about seeing good sex done for the wrong reasons. Because that happens too, and the raw honesty of it is really important to add to this conversation.
I’d rather teen girls reading nothing but terribly written fanfics about their favorite OTPs that express healthy and emotionally-sound romantic relationships than “great literature” that teaches them they are prizes to be won or creatures to be controlled or destroyed.
Okay I love this because I’m reading the visual metaphor as a highly literary novel dressed to the nines that is still totally okay with gushing about a crush in lingo of the modern day.
I like that.
By Malinda Lo
Last October, I posted a list of YA books about LGBT characters of color. It’s been tough to find more books, so these additions expand the goal slightly and are about (1) a queer person of color protagonist; (2) a queer protagonist in a romantic relationship with a POC; or (3) a main character dealing with queer POC parents as the central story line.
Please note: Not all of these were published as “young adult” novels; some are technically “adult” novels but are about young queer people of color coming of age. Links go to Barnes & Noble; descriptions are from Worldcat.
The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Sarah Rees Brennan (Margaret K. McElderry Books)
Ten short stories about bisexual, half-Asian warlock Magnus Bane from Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices trilogies.
Angry Management by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow Books)
A collection of short stories featuring characters from earlier books by Chris Crutcher.
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis (Random House Children’s Books)
In alternating chapters, sixteen-year-old twins Ysabel and Justin share their conflicted feelings as they struggle to come to terms with their father’s decision to dress as a woman.
Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole (Bella Books; originally published by HarperTeen)
Laura, a seventeen-year-old Cuban American girl, is thrown out of her house when her mother discovers she is a lesbian, but after trying to change her heart and hide from the truth, Laura finally comes to terms with who she is and learns to love and respect herself.
In a futuristic world ruled by a totalitarian government called the Establishment, Lucian “Lucky” Spark and four other teenagers are recruited for the Trials. They must compete not only for survival but to save the lives of their Incentives, family members whose lives depend on how well they play the game.
For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Peter, the only boy among four siblings born to Chinese immigrants, is convinced he is a girl and must fight the confines of a small town as well as the expectations of his parents to forge his own path into adulthood.
Mariposa Club by Rigoberto Gonzalez (Lethe Press)
Four gay high school boys start a club, and when one of them is targeted in a homophobic incident, the entire school turns to them as a symbol of grief, fear and hope.
Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (Candlewick)
Esme Rockett, also known as MC Ferocious, rocks her suburban Minnesota Christian high school with more than the hip-hop music she makes with best friends Marcy (DJ SheStorm) and Tess (The ConTessa) when she develops feelings for her co-MC, Rowie (MC Rohini).
A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar (Penguin)
Nidali, the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, narrates her story from her childhood in Kuwait, her early teenage years in Egypt (to where she and her family fled the 1990 Iraqi invasion), to her family’s last flight to Texas.
Chulito by Charles Rice-Gonzales (Magnus Books)
Set against a vibrant South Bronx neighborhood and the youth culture of Manhattan, Chulito is a coming-of-age, coming out love story of a sexy Latino man and the colorful characters that populate his block.
Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal (Kensington Books)
Satyal’s lovely coming-of-age debut charts an Indian-American boy’s transformation from mere mortal to Krishnaji, the blue-skinned Hindu deity. Twelve-year-old Kiran Sharma’s a bit of an outcast: he likes ballet and playing with his mother’s makeup. He also reveres his Indian heritage and convinces himself that the reason he’s having trouble fitting in is because he’s actually the 10th reincarnation of Krishnaji. He plans to come out to the world at the 1992 Martin Van Buren Elementary School talent show, and much of the book revels in his comical preparations as he creates his costume, plays the flute and practices his dance moves to a Whitney Houston song. But as the performance approaches, something strange happens: Kiran’s skin begins to turn blue. Satyal writes with a graceful ease, finding new humor in common awkward pre-teen moments and giving readers a delightful and lively young protagonist.
Street Dreams by Tama Wise (Bold Strokes Books)
Tyson Rua has more than his fair share of problems growing up in South Auckland. Working a night job to support his mother and helping bring up his two younger brothers is just the half of it. His best friend Rawiri is falling afoul of a broken home, and now Tyson’s fallen in love at first sight. Only thing is, it’s another guy. Living life on the sidelines of the local hip-hop scene, Tyson finds that to succeed in becoming a local graffiti artist or in getting the man of his dreams, he’s going to have to get a whole lot more involved. And that means more problems, the least of which is the leader of the local rap crew he’s found himself running with. Love, life, and hip-hop never do things by half.
Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster) (America Latina lesbian MC)
When Marisol, a self-confident eighteen-year-old lesbian, moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work and try to write a novel, she falls under the spell of her beautiful but deceitful writing teacher, while also befriending a shy, vulnerable girl from Indiana.
Almost-fourteen-year-old Melanin Sun’s comfortable, quiet life is shattered when his mother reveals she has fallen in love with a woman.
Thanks to Daisy Porter of Queer YA for many suggestions.