Saturday, 16 July 2016

‘Words were different when they lived inside of you’: Queering Genre in Young Adult Fiction

Hi everyone! This is my undergraduate dissertation. I completed it in my third year of an English BA degree at Durham University in 2016.

I scored 66/100 (a 2:1) in this essay, which I'm pretty pleased with! The grade boundaries were: 50-59 = 2:2, 60-69 = 2:1, and 70-100 (aka amazing) = a 1st. I was a fairly average student during my time at Durham - I didn't go to many lectures, I skipped too many tutorials - so I'm very very happy to have made it out of my degree with a 2:1!

But because of this, I would not recommend that anyone tried to quote from this essay for your own university (or school) essays. I'm not an academic. This isn't an 'amazing' academic essay. In fact, I actually very much dislike academia. Sorry Durham.

Despite this - people who have an interest in queer YA fiction might find this interesting! It's not something I've seen much academic work on before, or even much less serious analysis. It's all very well to review books, but I sort of prefer seeing some actual literary analysis of them!

Anyway... here it is! Sorry in advance for any spelling or grammatical errors. I'm a terrible proof reader. And sorry for all the links that don't work. No, I can't be bothered to go through and fix them. You can find all my footnotes and bibliography at the bottom of the page.

This essay does contain heavy spoilers for Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew, and Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. It contains a few spoilers for other books too - so proceed with caution!

Please also remember that all literary academic critique and analysis is pure subjective opinion.

N.B. (this is repeated in my footnotes) While ‘queer’ can, for some individuals, still be considered a homophobic/transphobic slur, in accordance with academic convention and the widespread reclaiming of the term by LGBTQA+ people, ‘queer’ will be used hereafter to refer to those identifying outside of the cisgender-heterosexual-heteromantic perceived norm.


‘Words were different when they lived inside of you’: Queering Genre in Young Adult Fiction



Part 1: The ‘Coming-Out Novel’: Contemporary Coming-Of-Age

Part 2: ‘Issue Books’: Queer Issues In YA


Part 3: The Heteronormative Problem: Queering Romance


Part 4: ‘Hypothetical Queerness’: Realistic Queer Themes in Fantastical Genres

Part 5: ‘Incidental Queerness’: Uses of Multi-Genre





“Do you think I'm queer, Rob?” I asked.
“I don't care if you're queer,” Robby said. “Queer is just a word. Like orange. I know who you are. There's no one word for that.”

Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith


‘The unfortunate truth,’ wrote a teen writer for, ‘is that most mainstream YA centres around a boy-girl romance with maybe a bit of magic or tragedy or dystopian violence thrown in. That’s it.[1] Young Adult novels that feature queer[2] themes and characters are in the extreme minority to stories with solely cisgender and heterosexual characters; institutionalised queer oppression is mirrored in the literary world. The number of YA novels with queer characters was devastatingly low in the twentieth century and early twenty-first century. Reporting from sales statistics, David W. Brown wrote that ‘3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997. Twelve years later, that figure hit 30,000 titles--an increase of a full order of magnitude. In 2009, total sales exceeded $3 billion.’[3] But a 2006 text on queer YA 1969-2004 notes that ‘in the more than thirty-five years since [1969] nearly 200 young adult novels with gay and lesbian content have appeared in the U.S.’[4] It then claims that many of this two hundred ‘perpetuate stereotypes’[5], or present queer people as ‘unfortunates doomed to either a premature death or a life of despair’[6], or ‘sinister predators’[7]. Compare this to the aforementioned three thousand YA novels published in 1997 alone and the discrimination towards queer stories becomes grossly apparent. The label ‘queer literature’ shuts off potential audiences due to the mix of homophobia/transphobia, institutionalised oppression, and internalised discrimination that is ever-present in contemporary heteronormative society.
‘Young Adult Fiction’, known to most as simply ‘YA’, carries with it a similar level of stigma. ‘Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children,’[8] wrote Ruth Graham in her infamous article in The Slate, ‘Against YA’, which caused widespread outrage among Twitter’s YA community in 2014. Graham is far from alone in her views. YA attracts criticism and scorn from countless academics, reviewers, authors, and readers. Jen Doll, who wrote a column called ‘YA For Grownups’, wrote how she’d ‘heard the behind-the-back jibes as well as the to-my-face criticisms that adult fans of YA are stuck in some sad adolescent existence and, quite possibly, bringing down the collective IQ of our nation by reading below our grade level.’[9] A strange argument from those who criticise, because it cannot be argued that YA, on average, is less intelligent than general adult fiction. YA texts appear in literary canon throughout time; Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Outsiders can all be classified as YA. Thus, it is clear that the stigma towards YA literature arises from generalisations of its label; it is the contemporary category of ‘Young Adult Fiction’, the home of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and internationally famous author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, that is regarded as lesser, as oppose to the content of the novels. In other words, it is YA’s genre label and genre categorisation that is at the heart of the stigma, much like labels of sexuality are for queer fiction.
YA is an example of a case where the concept of genre categorisation is in many ways detrimental to the practice of literary criticism and to the genre itself and comparisons can be drawn between the discrimination shown in this case and other wider, more serious issues of discrimination such as in gender, sexuality, race, age, and class. Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘The Law of Genre’ and Ralph Cohen’s response essay ‘History and Genre’ both draw the similarities between genre and gender, class, age, and other factors of categorization. Derrida wrote that one ‘could just as well equate genos with birth, and birth in turn with the generous force of engenderment or generation-physis, in fact-as with race, familial membership, classificatory genealogy or class, age class (generation), or social class’[10] and Cohen elaborated, writing that ‘The connection of "genre" to "gender" suggests that an early use of the term was based on division or classification.’[11] There is undeniably a correlation between categorisation and discrimination, because categorisation creates a sense of the ‘other’ and the ‘unknown’. It is this fear of difference which is at the heart of all levels of discrimination and is no doubt a strong contributor towards discrimination against queer and YA literature.
What, then, are the benefits of these genre labels? In a 2001 essay, Chris Crowe argues that ‘The label, whether it happens to be “YA” or something else, exists mostly for marketing. Publishers and librarians want to get books for teenagers into the hands of teenagers, so some sort of label is necessary.’[12] This is still true in 2016. But ‘marketing’ is not purely a device for publishers to make money, it is also a tool that helps readers to find the books they want and need. William P. Banks described this experience perfectly when searching as a young adult for books about queer characters, like himself. He wrote,
The card catalogue told me this is where I’d find something about myself, in the shelves of books that I would never have found in the public library in little Louisville, Georgia. The books that rendered your life in print, that reflected your feelings and fears in nuanced and meaningful ways – those texts were found usually on class trips to big cities, and were as often left there because returning with them meant hiding them along with all those parts of yourself you already hid, knowing that family, friends, and community did not value them.[13]
A genre label, in this case, is vital for young queer readers to find texts that will support them and validate their experiences. Banks observes ‘the value of texts as spaces for student-readers to locate themselves, as spaces for these young people to see their lives reflected back to them, but also to see alternative possibilities for richer, happier, fuller lives.’[14] Genre serves as a ‘space’ for queer young readers to find hope, support, representation, and information.
            Aristotle asserted that genre is defined by its thematic content; for
example, his explanation of the difference between comedy and tragedy is ‘Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.’[15] In accordance with this common definition of genre, can ‘queer YA fiction’ truly be considered a genre, if both YA fiction and queer YA fiction are so varied? And if it does not, should it for the sake of queer discourse? The categorisation of ‘queer YA fiction’ has a powerful role in helping queer young adults explore and come to terms with their identities, but it undeniably goes against typical academic assumptions about the nature of genre. In order to decide what role and purpose genre should serve within the contexts of twenty-first century queer YA fiction, this essay will examine the role of queerness in a range of sub-categories within YA fiction, and how queerness alters their styles and themes. It will look at five very different texts that come under the ‘queer YA’ umbrella and explore how genre is employed in each. A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (2012) is an example of a typical contemporary coming-out novel, the most common style of queer YA novel. Kirsten Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (2012) deals with the harsher issues queer young adults face within contemporary society. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) is one of the most widely praised queer YA romance novels in circulation today. Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie (2015) looks at queer themes within a historical and dystopian context. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle (2014) is an example of a multi-genre novel where queer themes are only one small part of a wider scope of concerns. In analysing a range of sub-genres within queer YA, this essay will ascertain how queerness affects genre and vice versa and the role of genre within queer YA fiction.


The fact that a large number of queer individuals choose to come out, or at least realise their feelings, during their teens is undoubtedly the reason why the ‘coming-out novel’ is now the most common style of queer YA novel. It is also the reason why the coming-out novel is one of the most important forms of queer YA novel. ‘These structures,’ remarked Banks when referring to the various styles of coming-out novel, ‘render certain kinds of experiences possible; by viewing characters coming out to both resistant and accepting parents, friends, teachers, young readers can see the possibilities available to them.’[16] A coming-out novel is a novel in which the queer protagonist chooses to come out and reveal their sexuality or gender identity, whether that just be to the reader, or whether that be to other characters within the novel. Most classic and major queer YA novels can be classified as coming-out novels, examples being Alex Sánchez’s novel Rainbow Boys (2001) and Julie Anne Peters’ novel Luna (2004). Due to both its importance and its relevance to queer young adults, the coming-out novel is undeniably the hallmark of the genre.
However, this is not to say that coming-out novels are only accessible and relatable to queer young adults coming to term with their sexualities. ‘A good coming-out novel is about more than just coming out. The best ones weave their coming-out stories into larger dramatic narratives,’[17] wrote Claire Gross in an article on the phenomenon of the coming-out novel. This is a sentiment echoed by Grasshopper Jungle’s narrator, Austin Szerba, who remarks that ‘Good books are about everything.’[18] While the central focus of the coming-out narrative is on a character or characters discovering and accepting their sexualities or genders, the most successful coming-out novels have larger, more universal themes, which links the novels closely to the YA ‘coming-of-age novel’. Like the coming-out novel leads queer YA, the coming-of-age novel leads all YA, examples being YA classic J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the ever-popular The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky, and John Green’s first novel Looking for Alaska (2005). Coming-out novels can usually be placed under the coming-of-age umbrella, and thus coming-out novels are coming-of-age novels but with an extra element of sexuality/gender exploration. ‘Coming-out stories don’t unfold in a vacuum, and nor do teens’ own lives,’ Gross argued. ‘The best books integrate queer teens’ coming-of-age stories into the rich and varied spectrum of human experience.’[19] One only needs to glance at the three epigraphs in A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers to see how the novel’s queer themes expand into the wider human experience. ‘“Question everything.” – Euripides’ is followed by ‘“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates’, and the page concludes with ‘“Know thyself.” – Ancient Greek aphorism’.[20] The three epigraphs, chosen for their relevance to the narrator’s interest in Ancient Greek philosophy, all contradict each other neatly, and together they express the knowledge that the acts of questioning and self-questioning, while clearly relevant to the questioning of one’s sexuality, are intrinsic human traits and are undoubtedly parts of being a young adult and growing up. Ask the Passengers continually links queer themes with coming-of-age themes throughout the story, as do many widely successful queer YA novels, some in more complex ways than others. Andrew Smith’s Winger (2013) keeps the queer themes confined to a sub-plot. Nina Lacour’s Everything Leads to You (2014) has a lesbian romance running alongside a suspenseful mystery. But Ask the Passengers is arguably more masterful in its composition of multiple themes – its use of metaphor and lyricism are emphasised in the narrative – which may be the reason why it is one of the most widely praised YA novels in circulation today.[21]
Ask the Passengers employs a straightforward hindrance-acceptance-emergence plot style that is employed in a huge number of popular queer YA novels, examples being Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal (2015) and Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013). This three-step process is hugely apparent in Ask the Passengers; Astrid’s hindrance is shown through her self-doubt and confusion about her identity, her acceptance is her coming to terms with her feelings for girls and her relationship with her female co-worker Dee, and her emergence is when she is finally able to introduce Dee to her parents as her girlfriend. Though Ask the Passengers masterfully keeps its themes universal and close to YA coming-of-age, it never deprioritises the main issue at hand, which is Astrid’s sexuality. The novel’s opening line is ‘Motion is impossible,’[22] a statement fraught with negativity and hopelessness. But the novel concludes in complete opposition to this initial pessimism. Astrid says, ‘I squeeze Dee’s hand and kiss her on the cheek. I can do that now. I can do whatever I want.’[23] Like any novel, character development is important, but it is especially important in a YA coming-of-age novel, as young adulthood is a period of great personal and emotional change. It is understandably vital in a YA coming-out novel, as the name itself implies that the character must make that personal and emotional change. King presents this change in Astrid in Ask the Passengers through a gradually changing narrative perspective; both the narrative voice and Astrid’s character move from ignorance to acceptance.
But ‘I can do whatever I want’ holds a greater meaning than the knowledge that Astrid can kiss her girlfriend’s cheek whenever she wants to. It serves, like much of the novel, to broader, more universal themes of self-empowerment and courage. Ask the Passengers’ strengths lie in its ability to broaden out a queer issue into themes that resonate with a wide variety of readers. The book successfully links queer themes with wider human experiences through the use of interlude chapters narrated by the passengers in the aeroplanes to whom Astrid sends her love. In the context of Astrid’s story, the chapters often seem random and irrelevant, but they are an important device used by King to link Astrid’s story together with other trials and tribulations faced by all kinds of people, not just gay teenagers in small-town America. The first of these segments appears in the sixth chapter, in which Astrid is questioning her sexuality and her physical relationship with Dee. The segment narrated by ‘Elaine Hubbington’ mirrors and answers the scene Astrid has just narrated to the reader in its thoughts and themes; it dialogises the narrative and expands Astrid’s own discourse into something more universal. Astrid has just questioned herself, asking ‘Am I doing this out of desperation? Is it some weird phase I’m going through? And why, if any of the answers are yet, does it feel so right?’[24] and her scene concludes with her sending ‘love’ to the passengers and asking them, ‘What do I do now?[25] The following scene narrated by Elaine is technically unrelated – Elaine rouses herself to tell her husband that she wants to leave him – but the final lines draw its link to Astrid’s own troubles. Elaine speaks to the sky, just like Astrid does, and tells the reader, ‘The sky says: Stop being so selfish. Everybody deserves a chance at real love. Only once you let him go will you find yours. Do what feels right.’[26] These final lines effectively answer Astrid’s questions, and the fact that Astrid’s question and Elaine’s answer are both in italics implies that Elaine herself is ‘the sky’ and she is speaking down to Astrid. King has drawn a direct line of communication between these two strangers. This expands Astrid’s problems into something much larger and gives the reader an understanding that though her issues are quite specific and personal, the way she must go about solving them – through exploration and questioning – is something that many people face in all sorts of situations. The very title of the novel, ‘Ask the Passengers’, implies that though humans may experience a range of different problems and issues in their lives, this is something that brings them – the ‘passengers’ of life – together in mutual questioning, rather than pulls them apart. Therefore, the ‘love’ that Astrid sends is unrelated to her own romantic/sexual struggles; instead, it is closer to this theme of the mutual struggles of humanity. In the book’s interview with King, she wrote, ‘I also enjoyed the challenge of tying that first scene – the one where Astrid is sending her love – in to the rest of the book. This isn’t romantic or sexual love. This is human love. This is universal.’[27] While neither focusing on nor deprioritising Astrid’s queer narrative, the queer themes are only a small part of these ‘universal’ concerns, which contributes strongly to both the narrative’s realism and its lyrical beauty.
Ask the Passengers is an example of one of the many ways young adult fiction bends genre to show that queerness is not an insular ‘issue’ to be ‘dealt with’; instead, it is simply part of being human. Queer YA literature is named as such for the purposes of publicity; readers who are looking for books with queer characters are able to find them if they are sorted into this category, and young adult readers are able to find books that feature characters of their own age. However, this use of categorisation can also limit readership and limit unbiased critical opinion of the works. Ask the Passengers proves that the coming-out novel, which constantly stands at the forefront of queer YA literature, can be more than just a didactic coming-out narrative. It is more than a book about queerness or young adults. If the stigma around these genres were to be removed, then perhaps novels such as Ask the Passengers would be more commonly critiqued for elements of construction such as their use of complex metaphor, subtlety of language, narrative voice, and character development. Malinda Lo, bestselling author of multiple queer young adult novels and founder of the ‘Diversity in YA’ scheme,[28] wrote an article about the labelling of queer novels, and argued that it is not the labelling of books that needs to change, but perceptions of those labels:
If a book is about a same-sex relationship, I think it’s perfectly fine to call it a lesbian or gay book, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that the book is more than the label applied to it. The label serves a purpose. But don’t let it do more than that. The label is not all there is.[29]
Unlike older and more established genres such as ‘tragedy’, ‘epic’, and ‘comedy’, ‘queer’ and ‘young adult’ create very specific expectations of a novel’s quality and content. But what Ask the Passengers has proven is that these expectations are meaningless, even in the novels that are at the forefront of queer YA and deal with the simplest of queer themes – coming out. Queer YA literature as a genre has progressed greatly since its origins with Alex Sánchez’s Rainbow Boys; no longer does it just refer to novels that, like Rainbow Boys, deal exclusively with themes relating to the queer experience such as coming out or homophobia, but it now can also refer to books in which, like Ask the Passengers, queer stories run alongside explorations of other (often broader) themes. Genre, though necessary, limits open perceptions of novels such as these, and it is no wonder, therefore, that novels such as Ask the Passengers bend, warp, and fight their own genre so strongly.


Though it has technically been present in literary canon for hundreds of years, Young Adult literature is a newly established genre, and thus there is not enough critical insight to break down YA into standardised sub-genres. Comedy, for example, can be broken down into sub-genres such as satire, farce, comedy of manners, and romantic comedy. But YA, in the eyes of most, remains just that; books that contain young adult characters and deal with young adult themes. Despite this, among the writing and reading communities, ‘types’ of books have been recognised and primitively labelled and could be said to be these missing sub-genres that YA is yet to develop. One of these is, of course, the coming-out novel, but in the whole realm of YA, the coming-out novel is not a common type of novel, as queer YA is still in the huge minority compared to straight YA. A much more apparent sub-genre of YA is what has been popularly termed the ‘issue book’. An ‘issue book’ refers to a book that deals with one or more realistic issues, which could be anything from poverty to mental illness to death to racism, and it treats these issues as the main, usually singular, topic of the novel. While not an official genre, ‘issue book’ is mostly termed as such by contemporary reviewers, bloggers, and authors, and famous examples might include Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson (which deals with rape), Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) by Jay Asher (which deals with suicide), and If I Stay (2009) by Gayle Forman (which deals with death). Laurie Halse Anderson herself, a critically-acclaimed author of a wide range of award-winning ‘issue books’, spoke of the sub-genre in an article, claiming that ‘Some of the most powerful YA books being written today are what I call “resilience literature:” stories about tough issues that teens deal with every day.’[30] ‘Resilience literature’, ‘issue books’, ‘dark YA’; the sub-genre has many names, but the common thematic threads remain consistent. Many YA novels with queer themes similarly come under this ‘issue book’ umbrella, particularly those that look at more serious queer issues such as coming out, homophobia and transphobia, and issues linked to queerness, such as religion, bullying, and homelessness. Recent examples include The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (2012), More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (2015), and the novel which will now be examined as a model of the ‘issue book’ sub-genre, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills.
The issue book category of queer YA should be examined as it typifies queer novels at their cores. While the coming-out narrative is the most common plot progression in a queer YA novel, the issue book is queer YA’s most common thematic style. Most complex queer novels can, in some way, be classified as issue books, for while being queer still presents individuals with trials and tribulations, being queer can still cause issues for those coming to understand their identities. However, there is a difference between queer YA novels that focus in on these issues and pull them to the forefront as the purpose of the novel and those that address these issues but keep the focus of the novel on other things. Those who do the former are the books that can be described solely as an issue book. For example, King in Ask the Passengers deals with homophobia, but her focus remains with the magic-realist images of the passengers and Astrid’s jittery narrative voice. In Beautiful Music, on the other hand, Cronn-Mills keeps her focus on the issue of transphobia consistently throughout the novel, without concern for stylistic literary techniques or more universally applicable themes; it is, therefore, a typical issue book.
Today it’s not locked closets we need to worry about;’ remarked Michael Cart in an essay on queer YA, ‘it’s locked minds – minds that are impervious to alternate points of view and terrified of telling young people the sometimes-thorny truth about the realities of the world.’[31] Cart aptly summarises the need for issue books; for books that educate readers on issues that affect those around is. Kirsten Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a textbook example. The novel’s plot turning points are all in some way related to Gabe being transgender; its climaxes and its falls are all centred around the problems that being transgender can create. The book’s ‘issue’ status is apparent from the very beginning of the novel. The opening chapter features an unsubtle introduction to the content of the novel, with Gabe stating ‘My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right.’[32] Cronn-Mills could not possibly summarise a transgender experience with more simplicity. She makes it apparent that being transgender is Gabe’s narrative direction and is to educate readers about the experience of being transgender. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Cronn-Mills is fully aware of this, and plays on the book’s ‘issue’ status, ironising it through Gabe’s own awareness that him being transgender is an ‘issue’ in many people’s eyes. ‘I also know people think I’m an ISSUE,’ says Gabe, ‘and that gets really old. Any time THOSE SCARY TRANS PEOPLE come up, everybody flips out.’[33] Cronn-Mills has acknowledged that being transgender can cause issues (such as transphobia, violence, fractured relationships, etc.) and that she will address those issues in the novel, but also presents the idea that being transgender should not even be an issue in the first place, and it is an issue in itself that being transgender is seen as an issue. Cronn-Mills does not, however, preach this view. She presents this idea through Gabe’s young, colloquial voice; ‘Honestly world,’ quips Gabe, ‘I don’t care what you think. Stick your issue up your ass.’[34] This keeps the addressing of this issue grounded within the context of the novel and keeps the presentation of the issues away from the preaching of free indirect discourse. While the issues are at the forefront of the story, the story and characters still are still presented with a sense of ease and natural realism, allowing the issues to be interpreted through Gabe’s experiences and actions, rather than through a preaching narrator, giving the novel as a whole a sense of legitimacy and believability; vital traits for a novel with the intention to educate.
From this introductory passage onwards, there is a contrast set in motion between the darker events of the story and Gabe’s lighter, more humorous tone. Dark, shocking events are key characteristics of issue books, as they are representations of the ‘issue’ itself. The novel is haunted by the presence of two violent bullies known only as ‘Jason’ and ‘Scream’, who are the epitome of transphobic violence. Their presence in most of the novel is limited to repeated bigoted threats of violence, such as ‘Now we are going to fuck IT up. Nobody that sick should be allowed to live,’[35] ‘We’re seriously going to fuck with you AND It,’[36] and ‘We’re coming for IT. Know it. Believe it. Feel it. Kill IT.’[37] They hardly stand as characters in themselves, because all the reader sees of them is this repeated, heavily unfeeling violence, but it is this overbearing presence which provides the darkness that a book of this level of seriousness requires. To truly express the severity and importance of the ‘issue’, the novel needs a threat to the protagonist; a cause of the issue, a reason to incite empathy and understanding, and an enemy to overcome in the name of hope and happiness. Gayle Forman, author of bestselling YA novel If I Stay, wrote for TIME magazine about ‘dark YA’, explaining that though ‘books don’t create behaviors’, ‘books can ‘reflect an experience and show a way out of difficult, isolating times.’[38] Cronn-Mills certainly attempts to do this with one difficult, isolating experience of coming out as transgender. The characters of Jason (later revealed to be ‘Paul’) and Scream, representing the ultimate obstacle to acceptance, are the subjects of the climactic scene of the novel, in which they physically attack Gabe, his friends, and his elderly mentor, John, who ends up severely injured and in the hospital. Cronn-Mills keeps the scene suitably graphic so as to maintain the strong element of realism that has played as the backbone of the novel. The scene is gory, with blood and injury described in detail such as ‘Keep the Peace Guy has his foot on Paul’s throat, and there’s blood on his hands and on Paul’s face,’[39] and ‘Just an empty, barely breathing sack of bones.’[40] Though Jason and Scream are arrested, they have still succeeded in doing the damage that is necessary for the ‘issue’ to be seen as holding sufficient seriousness in the eyes of the reader, and through the more positive end to the novel (which sees Gabe and John reunited, healthy, and happy), Gabe has effectively overcome a monumental obstacle in his journey towards self-acceptance and self-belief. Forman remarks on the positive effect of a dark story, explaining that ‘These “dark” books may seem to be about death, about illness, about pain, but really they are about life.’[41] Through exploring the darkest lows of this particular issue, Cronn-Mills has achieved the two important goals of an issue novel; she has shown cisgender readers some of the hardships involved in being transgender and subsequently the importance of support for transgender people, and she has shown transgender readers that even after experiencing some of the worst trials one might face as a result of being transgender, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Though the novel is a work of contemporary realism, it contains intense fluctuations between hope and despair in its narrative, which work together to solidify the novel’s realism while expressing the severity of the issue in question.
David Levithan, one of the most well-known queer YA authors alive today, said that ‘The best queer fiction exists on two levels: For the queer kids, it's that you get to decide your fate from every angle; just because you're gay doesn’t mean you can’t be other things, you can be you. For kids who aren't queer, it makes them question the boxes they put each other in.’[42] These are the two most important elements of the queer issue book. The queerness of Beautiful Music merges with its genre, like Ask the Passengers, and uses the genre as a base on which to build and present a topic of queer discourse. However, unlike Ask the Passengers, its educatory focus keeps it from needing to rely on complex literary devices for it to express its themes and messages to the reader. Instead, Beautiful Music needs only rely on the subject matter of the story itself; the use of a direct, teenage-friendly narrative voice joint with an easily-hateable set of bully characters are quick, straightforward techniques in inciting emotion from the reader. The issue book typifies what all queer novels set out to achieve; information and support for queer young adults and straight young adults alike on queer issues. It is an example of a novel which sticks rigidly to its labels; it is indisputably a ‘young adult’ novel, a ‘queer’ novel, and an ‘issue book’. There is undoubtedly a place within young adult fiction for novels like Beautiful Music; novels which maintain focus on their social issues as oppose to the creative art of writing. It holds total, unrelenting focus on its own queerness, and does not shy from the realistic issues that arise around being queer. The novel’s queerness merges with the genre to create a queer novel, though the techniques through which it does this are no different to novels which explore other social issues. John Green’s novels in particular feature a relatable teen narrative while the issues are presented solely through the plot. The Fault in Our Stars (2012) uses Hazel’s quick-witted, humorous tone in conjunction with plot reveals such as her boyfriend Augustus’ cancer to incite quick reactions from the reader, and Looking for Alaska features an angsty teenage boy in the midst of an existential crises, while the death of the girl he loves serves to provoke the reader’s emotional reaction. The protagonists of ‘issue books’ face an enemy which they must overcome in their storylines and it is the act of overcoming which provides the hope that those facing the issue concerned so desperately need. The format, therefore, is ideal for exploring serious queer issues such as transphobia.


The effect of queerness upon a novel’s styles and themes is most apparent in queer YA romance novels. While queerness does not particularly change the styles of coming-of-age novels such as Ask the Passengers and issue books such as Beautiful Music – the queerness is complicit with the genre and needs no different of an execution than any other social topic – writing about queer romance, as oppose to heterosexual romance, has a marked and notable effect on the style, narrative, and effect of a YA novel. This is because queerness brings its own set of questions of attraction and self-discovery; questions that are rarely asked in heterosexual romance novels. Heteronormativity lies at the root of the stylistic differences between heterosexual romance novels and queer romance novels. Heteronormativity allows heterosexual attraction to be assumed, accepted, and normalised without comment or explanation, while queer attraction often must be explained in more depth before any romance can follow. In queer YA romance novels, particularly when the protagonist is not openly queer, there is often a period of self-questioning and exploration of the nature of queer attraction before any romance between characters can occur. The romance itself, too, is often presented very differently to typical heterosexual romances. The typical formula for a heterosexual YA romance is a gradual build up of sexual/romantic tension leads towards a romantic confession (physical or verbal). Most popular YA romances follow this plot format; Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss (2010), for example, features a growing sexual/romantic tension between the female protagonist, Anna, and her attractive male friend, Étienne, throughout the novel until they eventually kiss. Anna’s feelings for Étienne are not explored in particular depth; it is simply reiterated many times that Anna finds him physically attractive, and that they get along well as friends; these two things are the only reasons given to the reader to explain Anna’s feelings towards Étienne. Queer romances rarely follow this straightforward formula. Queer romances, due to the extent with which they focus on an exploration of the nature of queer attraction, are usually focused on the feelings of the protagonist, as oppose to a relationship between two individuals. The narrative voice is notably more important and queer romances are often more thematically layered, too. An example of a queer romance in which both the narrative voice and the themes explored are more complex than the average YA romance is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s critically acclaimed 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
The thematic exploration of recognising attraction is something that is rarely present in heterosexual romance. There is rarely any need for the protagonist to work out ‘what’ their feelings are because heteronormativity dictates that it is normal to feel attracted to someone of the opposite gender and thus characters and readers alike will assume that attraction is present at the slightest hint of romantic/sexual tension between two characters. In Aristotle and Dante, Sáenz places particular emphasis on this theme and explores it through his use of literary minimalism. Aristotle and Dante’s narrative voice and literary style is an artistic representation of protagonist Ari’s personal confusion about his feelings towards Dante and whether his feelings are that of friendship or of romantic love. It is both a visual and lingual mirror of the emotional turmoil that Ari experiences in the course of the novel’s events. Sáenz employs a Hemingway-esque sparseness of description accompanied by a minimalistic, dialogue-heavy narrative, which can be most clearly seen in the final chapters of the novel. Chapter fifteen of the final section, for example, contains only five lines.
‘What do you love, Ari? What do you really love?’
‘I love the desert. God, I love the desert.’
‘It’s so lonely.’
‘Is it?’
Dante didn’t understand. I was unknowable.[43]
Much of the novel is executed in this minimal style; honest emotion is held behind vague, abstract imagery and expressed largely through sudden existential aphorisms. This conversation is presented with no context of setting, giving it intangibility, as if the conversation were happening outside of the characters’ reality. This is how Sáenz captures the essence of human emotion; by removing an outer context – the heteronormative context – through this minimal narrative, the reader can only focus on the emotion being expressed. ‘What do you love’ is an example of how simply Sáenz presents these emotions. Through simple questions and statements such as these, emotions are presented in their most basic and purest form, which is the cause of their intensity. The image of ‘the desert’ is equated easily with Ari’s own loneliness; though Ari has not stated that he is lonely, the image of the desert expresses this feeling and this in turn implies that Ari feels lonely. Sáenz’s refusal to express these emotions clearly creates Ari’s confused narrative, as nearly summarised in the chapter’s final line, ‘I was unknowable.’ Ari is unknowable to himself because he cannot verbally explain his feelings to himself nor the reader. Ari’s emotions are only communicable to the reader through Sáenz’s impressionistic expression of them in these images and vague statements and it is this which makes them so powerful. The narrative accepts that some feelings are so deep and complex that they cannot accurately be explained nor described in a novel; they can only be shown through action, implied through imagery, and left for the reader to interpret and imagine. This is Sáenz’s complex and masterful examination of the nature of attraction; an examination that is completely absent from all major heterosexual YA romances, because characters and readers are much more likely to recognise heterosexual attraction without explanation. In an interview with National Public Radio, Sáenz said that ‘Some boys just know they're gay. I don't know how that happens. And I think other boys don't know, and then they start discovering that. And that's the book.’[44] Sáenz’s aim in Aristotle and Dante is to address this vague confusion and feeling of ‘not knowing’ that is so relevant to and present in queer teenagers by stripping the issue at hand back to the core emotions involved.
‘The problem for the writer who is writing a narrative that includes LGBT people is that most readers exist in a heteronormative world,’ wrote Malinda Lo in a blog post about heteronormativity. ‘They expect most characters to be straight.’[45] Until heteronormativity ends, queer romance will always create a different literary effect to heterosexual, because queer romance brings with it questions of identity and social justice. One of the effects commonly seen in queer romantic fiction is that of the ‘forbidden romance’. The ‘forbidden romance’ trope, stemming from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is an overused but undeniably well-received trope in YA fiction; it usually appears in paranormal romance such as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (the relationship between the paranormal being and the human being forbidden) or in dystopian fiction such as Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series (in which there is usually a social barrier between the two lovers). While in heterosexual fiction such as these the ‘forbidden romance’ is constructed artificially by the author, in queer romance, it occurs naturally due to the heteronormative and homophobic perception that queer romances are, in some form, ‘forbidden’ under the fabricated laws of common society. Even if the queer romance in the novel does not have any element of ‘forbidden romance’ – i.e. if neither of the lovers are secretly queer – because heteronormativity still exists in the world of the reader, the forbidden romance effect still occurs. While this is undeniably a negative trait of queer fiction from a social justice perspective – queer romances should be treated and read exactly the same as heterosexual romances – it does give queer narratives a significant element of intrigue. Queer romances have much stronger emotional appeal to readers than heterosexual romances due to the preconceived hardships that surround being queer. Sáenz, like most queer YA authors, does not deliberately manipulate this ‘forbidden’ element of queer romance for the sake of broadening his readership, yet it still arises naturally due to readers’ perceptions of queerness and due to the realism with which Sáenz executes the story. Sáenz addresses the subtle yet heavy influence of heteronormativity in the final scene of the novel, in which Ari finally confesses to Dante, and it is Ari’s realisation of this influence and his overcoming of it that creates its revelatory tone. The chapter contains a paragraph of honest inner monologue, which is a great contrast to the minimalistic style of the rest of the novel:
This was what was wrong with me. All this time I had been trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart. All of the answers had always been so close and yet I had always fought them without even knowing it.[46]
The passage reads like a summary of Ari’s complete character progression throughout the novel. While the passage is unromantic and unembellished, the contrast of honesty with Ari’s usual use of imagery and metaphor to express emotion creates a deeply moving moment of understanding between the reader and Ari. The intensity of the realisation that the ‘forbidden’ has finally become ‘unforbidden’ in Ari’s mind – that his heteronormative barrier has been conquered – is a great relief to the reader and a moving and satisfying end to the novel. The ‘getting together’ scene between Ari and Dante is far more than a resolution of sexual tension – because the relationship is queer, this element of realisation adds to the intensity, and is likely to encourage a more intense emotional response from the reader.
            Romance in young adult fiction, and indeed all fiction, is greatly altered by queer themes, and will continue to be so as long as the world remains in its heteronormative state. Queerness is still regarded as an ‘other’, a ‘not normal’, and an ‘unknown’, and while it is treated as something strange and incomparable to heterosexuality, queer romance will be received and interpreted by readers differently to heterosexual romance. Aristotle and Dante is a strong example of two of the most obvious ways romance is altered by its queer themes; the need to explore attraction means that the focus remains on the singular protagonist’s narrative and character development and the ‘forbidden’ nature to the central relationship creates additional excitement and intensity. However, as queer representation, queer rights, and social equality grow in strength, these effects will undoubtedly diminish. In an ideal utopian world of total equality in which queer individuals and same-sex couples are treated exactly the same as heterosexual people and couples and heteronormativity is non-existent, such effects would not be created by queer themes. Many books with queer characters already seek to simulate this lack of effect. For example, Rainbow Rowell’s 2016 novel Carry On tells a romance between two teenage boys without any exploration, negativity, or confusion about issues of sexuality and same-sex attraction. Books like this are the next step towards the label ‘queer’ being abolished altogether. The word ‘queer’ lexically connotes a state of ‘not normal’, and once heteronormativity is abolished, the term ‘queer’ will lose its meaning. Queer romances will one day just be romances, no matter the genders of its lovers.


Coming-out novels, issue novels, and romance novels can be set in any time period or any place, but they are usually reserved for contemporary realism due to the realistic nature of their themes. But queer themes can be explored in more fantastical genres. Indeed, queer characters and themes appear throughout YA fiction; for example, both Cassandra Clare’s urban fantasy series The Mortal Instruments and Michael Grant’s fantasy-sci-fi Gone series feature multiple queer characters in their large casts of characters. However, while these series feature queer characters, they do not examine queer issues in detail. Among fantasy, science fiction, dystopian fiction, and other fantastical genres, a more particular sub-genre of queer novels emerges: novels which examine queer issues in hypothetical scenarios through the use of fantastical genre. These novels employ ‘hypothetical queerness’ to explore being queer in an imaginary context, such as a fictional time or place in which queer rights are in a different state to how they are in the real world. In doing so, these novels aim to provoke questions about real world queer themes by comparing hypothetical queerness to realistic queerness and showing either how bad or how great queer rights could be. This sub-genre is most apparent in dystopian fiction. YA dystopian fiction is one of the most recent and successful trends in the YA market; Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent are two of the most widely known and financially successful YA series ever. YA dystopian fiction allows authors to explore social, ethical, and political questions through a usually action-heavy storyline and highly relatable characters. The Hunger Games, for example, provokes questions of totalitarianism and dictatorship, corrupt governmental powers, war, and poverty, while employing a gripping YA ‘chosen-one’ plot. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses explores racism through a world in which black people are the majority and white people are the minority and it is white people who suffer from institutionalised racism. These novels differ slightly to ‘issue books’ because they do not tackle particular issues in a highly realistic real-world context; instead, they use fictionalised social contexts to run a model in which a particular issue can be explored without the boundaries of realism. Queer issues, like racism, dictatorship, and all other issues of social justice, can be more freely explored using this mechanism.
Keith Rice described the common thread that runs through young adult dystopian fiction as ‘a resourceful and determined yet marginalized adolescent struggling to find a voice and put right the failings of the adults who have doomed the world.’[47] YA dystopia is the perfect frame for a story about queer themes because it always includes this element of marginalisation and can intensify a realistic issue to a greater extreme than is realistic, which is a quick and easy way to incite a reader to care about a social issue. This is one of the most prominent elements of Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie, which explores queerness and other social/political issues in the hypothetical scenario in which Germany won the second world war and England are living under the Nazi regime. While the political themes are very much at the forefront of the novel – revolution, totalitarianism, and systematic oppression being just a few – the queer themes are kept repressed through the use of an unreliable narrator. The Big Lie’s protagonist Jessika is an example of the Naïf, a term coined by William Riggan,[48] meaning she is an unreliable narrator whose narrative is unrepresentative of reality due to her shadowed point of view. In Jessika’s case, she is unreliable because she does not understand that queerness exists and therefore does not recognize her own queerness because in this dystopia, queer people are so repressed that most people are not even aware that they exist. Mayhew has shown the oppression against queer people through more than just descriptions of physical oppression; she uses this repressed narrative voice to show how the oppression has seeped into the minds of the people living in that dystopian world. Despite Jessika kissing both Clementine and GG, she still, for a large part of the novel at least, does not even acknowledge her attraction to girls. When asked by Clementine why she kissed her, Jessika responds ‘I don’t know,’[49] and a later scene between Clementine and Jessika somewhat mirrors this early conversation, when Clementine tells Jessika ‘But at least I know what I am,’[50] and Jessika responds, to the scepticism of the reader, ‘I know what I am, thank you very much!’[51] This level of repression of narrative suggests an extreme psychological repression in which her desires, though still emerging through her actions and her descriptions of those actions to the reader, are completely unknown to her. Jessika’s state of unknowing is more intense and frustrating than Sáenz’s Ari, because it is caused by more violent and obviously immoral social factors, whereas the heteronormativity faced by Ari is much less implicitly evil. However, it is clear that this unknowing intentionally mirrors that of a more personal unknowing such as Ari’s, which is the more common form of unknowing in young adults who are questioning their sexuality. Jessika’s repressed narration is one example of how Mayhew exaggerates already existent realistic queer issues through a dystopian context in order to make the reader more immediately angry about them.
In an essay in response to Freud’s work on ‘the return of the repressed’, Susan Stanford Friedman explored how narrative can be used as a more psychological, Freudian representation of unconscious desires:
Literary narratives are neither dreams nor symptoms. But as indirect fictionalizations, they often share with these articulations of the unconscious the linguistic mechanisms of production that Freud associated with the grammar of the dreamwork and the psychodynamics of repression and desire, governed by the “censor”, that mysterious personification of the force that forbids.[52]
The ‘articulations of the unconscious’, in Jessika’s case, is her queer expression, and the ‘censor’ is indeed ‘mysterious’, because in The Big Lie is is essentially invisible. Jessika’s unknowing has little cause bar the mysterious governmental powers that have enforced such extreme censorship. However, Mayhew uses this repression of narrative not only to show Jessika’s personal repression of her queerness, but also the repression she projects outwards onto her perceptions of other characters, and, in turn, the repression that those characters face themselves. Mayhew uses this technique for all of the secondary characters, using Jessika’s repressed narrative to show how the systematic oppression and fascism affect her and those around her, but the repression of queerness is most apparent in Jessika’s ice skating teacher, Ingrid. Ingrid is subtly implied to be queer through the use of imagery and subtext. Mayhew hints multiple times of Ingrid’s queer experiences. In her first appearance, Ingrid says, ‘It is a wonderful thing, to be in love,’[53] but Jessika immediately remarks that ‘Her voice sounded like the absolute opposite of wonderful – suicidal, even.’[54] The reader is not given a reason for this reaction; they are simply left to wonder. Due to the scene having been about love and being in love and due to Jessika’s plot arc relating to love being about her queerness, it is easy for the reader to assume that Ingrid’s reaction here is related to queer repression. This assumption is further solidified later in the novel when Jessika asks Ingrid about ‘Paragraph 175’. When Ingrid explains that it is a law against male homosexuality, Ingrid’s reaction is layered with subtext. Jessika remarks that she ‘saw the sadness in Ingrid’s expression. But was it for the men? The law? For the things I didn’t know?’[55] ‘The things I didn’t know’ contains an essence of free indirect discourse, as Jessika, who is a largely ignorant and blinded character, would have little reason to comment that Ingrid is concealing a secret from her. Mayhew here is interjecting to suggest to the reader that Ingrid has a personal connection to Paragraph 175, which can only be that she is affected by it because she is queer herself. Mayhew’s implication here is supported by Ingrid’s successive comment about triple axels. She says, ‘The feeling when it’s yours. I can’t imagine… Well, I can. I mean, I came close but… I wish I had… I wish I’d grabbed that joy with the both of my hands, do you know what I mean? Joy in whatever form it comes to you.’[56] The use of disjointed dialogue and ellipses, a great contrast to Ingrid’s usual authoritative tone, suggests that she is speaking of something far more emotionally affecting than a triple axel jump; it implies that she is talking of her past queer experiences. While Jessika does not suspect that Ingrid is queer, the mere inclusion of subtextual moments such as these in Jessika’s narrative implies that they mean something more than what Jessika interprets from them. Their meaning is very clear to the reader, and Jessika’s blindness towards these meanings shows the intensity of both Jessika and Ingrid’s repression and it is this intensity which incites anger from the reader towards these issues.
            The use of these hypothetical scenarios of queer rights simultaneously engages with realistic themes while executing a fantastical plot which is passionate and exciting enough to inspire both intrigue and anger in the reader. The exploration of queer themes in fantastical genres such as dystopian fiction does not significantly alter the genre; instead, it harnesses it and uses it as a flexible base to shape and exaggerate already existent issues for the sake of heightened emotional reaction from the reader. Repressed narrative is particularly effective in the case of queer issues because it mirrors the realistic repression that one might see in contemporary realistic novels in which characters repress their sexualities for less fantastical reasons. It is clear, too, that this narrative style is not confined to Mayhew’s writing; Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon (2012), another novel which explores a hypothetical Nazi England, contains an obviously queer character but his queerness is never commented on, as if the protagonist, Standish, does not even recognise it. Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not takes this idea of repression to a science-fiction extreme, in which the protagonist, Aaron, goes through a memory-alteration procedure in an attempt to forget his queerness. Repression, even in genres other than realism, is at the heart of queer issues, and fantastical genres can easily be manipulated to heighten this to an extreme. Rice ended his article about dystopian fiction with an explanation as to why it is particularly captivating to young adults:
The heroes of YA dystopian fiction are the ideal surrogate for the reader - confused and conflicted protagonists who are nonetheless valuable and resourceful fighting to be heard against the din of an overbearing adult society that not only doesn't understand them but has pushed the world beyond the brink and failed to pick up the pieces.[57]
Queer people face repression from the heteronormative and homophobic/transphobic society around them, young people face repression from this ‘overbearing adult society’, and dystopian fiction has been defined by its exploration of repression since its origins with Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984. It is no wonder, therefore, that some of the most extreme examples of queer repression in young adult literature appear in dystopian fiction; dystopian fiction is designed specifically to make readers angry enough to care.


Queerness, as explored thus far in this essay, can affect all genres of young adult fiction in a vast variety of ways. However, it is important to note and explore the notion that queerness, sometimes, does not affect genre at all, and that despite this, the inclusion of queerness in a novel still promotes equality, respect, support, and representation for queer individuals. ‘Incidental queerness’ is a notion much talked about by young adult bloggers and reviewers and refers to the inclusion of queer characters and themes but their queerness affecting neither their character nor the plot of the novel. This is an effective way to promote queer equality through fiction because it achieves a normality to the queer narrative; it suggests that being queer is no more unusual than being heterosexual and there is no reason for queer people to be treated differently in any context. There are a variety of methods through which authors use incidental queerness to achieve this sense of total equality. Queer characters may appear and their queerness may have very little effect upon the novel; examples of this include Patrick Ness’s science-fiction novel More Than This (2013), in which the protagonist is a gay male but the primary plot strand remains an action-based thriller within a science fiction world. Similarly, queer characters’ character development may focus around something other than their queerness; in Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the male protagonist’s male best friend is implied to be in love with the protagonist, yet his story arc remains with the revolution of dystopian Nazi England. Alternatively, queerness is simply not commented on and/or explained in any detail, in accordance with the assumption that because queerness is normal, it does not need to be explained, such as in Patrick Ness’s science fiction Chaos Walking series, in which the protagonist’s adoptive carers, two men, are implied to be in a relationship. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle employs a little of all of these methods of incidental queerness in the questioning (though implied to be bisexual) protagonist Austin and his gay male best friend and eventual lover Robby, and in doing so, proposes that queerness is normal.
Upon its publication in 2014, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle was marketed as being a multi-genre book (on its blurb it is described as ‘genre-bending’[58]), but what caught the YA community’s attention was that it was about a queer young person who was something other than straight or gay. The Goodreads blurb reads, ‘Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He's stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann.’ Despite this, the book has very little focus on sexuality as an ‘issue’ and nor does it explore the complexities of sexuality beyond humorous assertions of attraction. Smith employs a quirky, light-hearted humour in the narrative voice of the protagonist, Austin and sustains this tone throughout, perhaps in order to mirror the slight ridiculousness of the primary plot strand, which is that of giant, mutated grasshoppers taking over the world. This humour and lack of seriousness achieves a normality to Austin’s queerness; he does not experience nor deal with self-criticism or harmful angst relating to his sexuality. Smith describes Austin’s feelings of attraction as ‘horniness’, which somewhat trivialises it, though to positive effect; ‘horniness’ gives the impression of it being a very normal side-effect of being a teenager, instead of the cause of a great deal of emotional pain as it is in Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante. One early chapter, for example, begins as such:
Shannon kissed me on the lips at the door of her new old house.
She kissed Robby on the lips, too.
Shann always kissed Robby on the mouth after she kissed me.
It made me horny.[59]
Smith’s humour is typified by this straightforward delivery; short sentences and paragraphs, facts, and unfussy vocabulary. It is a level of honesty and factuality that is the polar opposite of Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante and Mayhew’s The Big Lie, whose narratives are defined by their repression and concealment. Even in less humorous moments, the straightforwardness of Austin’s tone remains consistent. Austin states his feelings in a factual way in an attempt to interpret them:
Robby Brees was my best friend. He taught me how to dance. We smoked cigarettes. He kissed me. To be honest, I kissed him back. Robby was homosexual. I didn’t know if I was anything.[60]
This treatment of Austin’s queerness is stylistically ‘matter-of-fact’ and implies that Austin does not particularly see it as a ‘big deal’, which, in turn, incites the same reaction to it from the reader. This serves to equalise Austin’s attraction to boys to his attraction to girls and express the idea that queerness is really no different, and should not be treated to differently, to heterosexuality. This is a much discussed and praised technique used by authors writing about queer characters in young adult fiction; Juno Dawson, a leading queer UKYA author and advocate for queer rights and representation, spoke of this technique in an article for Book Trust:
What we need to see are powerful characters who just happen to be queer. Why couldn’t Katniss have been in a bisexual love triangle with Peeta and ‘Gail’ and still fought for her life in The Hunger Games? Would Twilight have lacked ‘bite’ if Bella had been attracted to Alice Cullen? In both my novels, young queer characters get caught up in murder mysteries. Their sexuality is no more relevant than their hair colour. Which is how it should be, because for millions of young people in schools, being LGBT isn’t ‘an issue’, it’s simply a fact.[61]
Smith’s writing of Austin matches up with Dawson’s analysis of the factual nature of sexuality. Factuality implies normality, and Andrew Smith makes sure to employ this factuality in both Austin’s narrative, his tone, and in the progression of Austin and Robby’s relationship.
Smith does not, however, diverge entirely from the vagueness employed by Mayhew and Sáenz. Smith furthers the normality of queerness in Grasshopper Jungle through its thematic treatment of labels. Smith preaches an idea of the meaningless of labels through both the vagueness with which certain definitions are treated, such as Austin’s sexuality, and through the disenchantment with which others are treated, such as Robby’s sexuality. Robby is described as ‘homosexual’ or ‘queer’, both of which sound overly academic for the vocabulary of a contemporary teenage boy (who would much more likely use the term ‘gay’), but this is not how his sexuality is introduced; instead, Smith reveals Robby’s homosexuality by the inclusion of a brief scene of homophobia. Austin remarks, ‘The other part – the faggot part – well, let’s just say Robby got picked on.’[62] The use of a derogatory slur as the first mention of Robby’s sexuality implies that Austin himself does not, at this point, quite know how to bring up with the reader that Robby is gay. Throughout the novel, Smith switches between ‘homosexual’ and ‘queer’ and sometimes not labelling it at all in Austin’s narrative. When discussing his homophobic school teachings, Austin describes how ‘when [his pastor] said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.’[63] It is a ridiculous, humorous image, intended to suggest the ridiculousness of the idea that the ‘homosexual’ can reveal everything about an individual. Smith uses this motif of label confusion not, like Mayhew and Sáenz, to express repression, but instead it expresses a detachment from the need to define oneself altogether. This detachment, in turn, suggests that Austin simply does not care enough to think about it, and further suggests that the reader should not care about the labelling of Robby’s sexuality. Robby’s queerness is therefore implied to be fairly unimportant to the novel’s events and should be unimportant to the reader. Austin’s sexuality is treated with a similar element of meaninglessness, though rather than a rapidly changing use of labels like Robby’s sexuality, Smith simply refrains from using them altogether. Austin says, ‘But I don’t know if I’m really queer. Just some people think so.’[64] In the pivotal kiss scene between Austin and Robby, the focus is very much on the tension and emotion between the two boys, rather than any questioning of sexual identity. After Robby asks ‘Can I kiss you?’,[65] Austin declines, but then changes his mind without warning, saying, ‘I guess I would kiss you, Robby.’[66] ‘I guess’ suggests that Austin does not care whether they do or do not kiss and ‘I would’ suggests that the kiss is hypothetical and not really about to happen but could happen at any point in the future. Austin’s narrative tone is that of blasé uncaringness, though not unemotional. Austin cares about Robby, which is why he addresses him by name in this important scene, but he does not care about the labels, which is why he Smith refrains from commenting on them. The technical queerness of both characters appears like a footnote; hurried, confused mentions by Austin in a blasé, jokey tone. Dawson argued that ‘we need more [incidental queerness] if same-sex couples are to become truly the norm’,[67] and it is certainly true that Smith’s Austin and Robby are stepping closer to the ideal world in which sexuality is known to be fluid and labels contain no stigmas.
Queerness does not need to be part of a complex, multi-genre story for it to be incidental. YA writers of many genres are now making efforts to include queer characters in their novels, even if the book does not deal explicitly with queer themes. Maggie Stiefvater’s popular The Raven Cycle series features a gay character, though his sexuality is only vaguely hinted at in the three books and has no effect on the plot. Frances, the protagonist of Alice Oseman’s 2016 novel Radio Silence, is bisexual, though the novel features no romance nor any exploration of her sexuality. Even famous YouTuber Zoella included a gay character in her ghostwritten 2014 debut YA novel, Girl Online. In this sense, genre is almost irrelevant to the queerness of these novels and vice versa. This is not to say that incidental queerness preaches the message that sexuality is not important. Robin Talley and Lucas J. W. Johnson, for example, completely disagree with Dawson and in a joint blog post argue that ‘People don’t just “happen” to be anything. And there’s a certain dismissive tone to the “just happens to be” phrase that I think is generally not intended. Just “happening” to be LGBT is not the same thing as just happening to have green eyes.’[68] One commenter on the post remarked that incidental queerness ‘is the queer version of colorblindness, when white liberals will say someone just happens to be Black or what-have you.’[69] However, in the case of Grasshopper Jungle, Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, and other novels which include examples of ‘incidental queerness’, there is certainly a marked difference between treating queerness like an add-on character trait and acknowledging that queerness is only one part of a whole character. It is the latter which is most apparent in the texts aforementioned and it is this which is most beneficial to queer and questioning teenagers. The normality with which Grasshopper Jungle treats its queer characters is something which can be replicated across any genre through the use of narrative voice and tone. Mutual exclusivity of queerness and genre is achievable to all and though it may not be an effective technique when writing in detail about queer themes, it is an effective tool in the argument that queerness does not define one’s personality.


In their exploration of queer young adult fiction, Cart and Jenkins asserted that there are three distinct categories of queer YA. There are stories of ‘Homosexual Visibility,’ ‘in which a character who has not previously been considered gay/lesbian comes out either voluntarily or involuntarily’. There are stories of ‘Gay Assimilation,’ which ‘include people who “just happen to be gay” in the same way that someone “just happens” to be left-handed or have red hair”’. And there are stories of ‘Queer Consciousness/Community,’ which ‘show GLBTQ characters in the context of their communities of GLBTQ people and their families of choice.’[70] Though Cart and Jenkins wrote this in 2006, these categories can be somewhat acquainted with the varying effects of queerness upon contemporary YA fiction that this essay has explored. ‘Homosexual Visibility’ undoubtedly correlates to coming-out novels and the most obvious queer narrative, such as Ask the Passengers. ‘Gay Assimilation’ correlates to stories that feature incidental queerness, such as Grasshopper Jungle. However, in today’s queer YA, these three categories tend to cross over, no doubt because they, like classic genre descriptors, describe content over style. If queer YA were to be divided into categories in consideration of the texts explored in this essay, one might place them into two distinct queerness effects; ‘queer alteration’ and ‘queer addition’. ‘Queer alteration’ signifies the effect of queerness in texts in which queerness alters the plot and character development and has a strong place in the novel. ‘Queer addition’ signifies the effect of queerness in texts in which queerness and the plot are somewhat mutually exclusive; the queerness is simply added in and is not a big element of plot nor character.
Novels that employ queer alteration are the novels in which queerness has a marked effect on genre and in novels that employ queer addition, queerness has no effect on genre. However, when there is such an effect, the queer effect on the novel greatly varies depending on the genre of the novel, the narrative voice and the writer’s style, and the plot development of the novel. The queer effect might be the simple inclusion of queer social issues, as in Beautiful Music. The queer effect might be additional themes to be explored, as in Aristotle and Dante. The queer effect might be a repressed narrative voice, as in The Big Lie. The queer effect might be merely a small element of a more complex symbolic narrative, as in Ask the Passengers. Or, as in Grasshopper Jungle, there may be no queer effect at all. What is clear from this is that genre can be queered in an infinite number of ways. Queerness cannot be a genre in of itself because it is a tool used by writers, in conjunction with an adjoining genre, to raise questions within queer discourse. ‘Queerness’ itself is not a genre at all; it is simply one element of a novel that, as thematic content, is layered on top of a classic genre base such as romance, comedy, crime, biography, or any other thematic category of literature. There is far too much variety within queer fiction for ‘queer’ to be used in the same way that ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’ are, for example.
What, then, is the benefit of use of using ‘queer YA fiction’ as a label of genre categorisation when it does not stylistically conform to typical perceptions of genre? The answer lies in the wider social aspects of queer fiction and the positive effect queer YA fiction has upon readers of all genders and sexualities; it is the queer discourse that queer YA fiction has to offer which makes its categorisation so vital to readers and authors alike. It should also be remembered that genre, still, is a very vague term and the true meaning of genre is much debated. Genre labels can be applied liberally if and when they are needed by readers, publishers, authors, and academics. Queer discourse is the discussion of queer issues in order to promote support, representation, rights, and equality for queer and questioning people, and queer YA literature has become a vital part of this because it provides hope, representation, and information. Dawson concluded her article on the problems of sexuality by asserting that ‘the sexuality of the reader is irrelevant. All young people, regardless of their sexuality, share a planet with millions of LGBT people, and fiction is about exploring and empathising with multiple points of view.’[71] Queerness only proves its diversity through the variety of stylistic techniques with which authors present it. The five texts analysed present a range of approaches through which authors can choose to engage with this queer discourse and generate questions and conversation about the need for support for queer teenagers. If labelling the novels ‘queer’ and giving it a genre of its own allows a greater readership to engage with this discourse, then queerness and genre should be allowed to intermingle. This, by far, outweighs the detrimental effects of genre categorisation; though segregating queerness into its own category might make it an easier target for discrimination, it also pulls it into the limelight and preaches the message that queerness is not something that one should hide.



Cronn-Mills, Kirsten, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (Minnesota: Flux, 2012)
King, A. S., Ask the Passengers (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
Mayhew, Julie, The Big Lie (London: Hot Key Books, 2015)
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster BYFR, 2012)
Smith, Andrew, Grasshopper Jungle (London: Electric Monkey, 2014)


Anderson, Laurie Halse, ‘Top 13 YA Books for Talking to Teens About Tough Stuff’, Huffpost Books (9 January 2016), <> [accessed 1 March 2016].
Aristotle, Poetics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961).
Banks, William P., ‘Literacy, Sexuality, and the Value(s) of Queer Young Adult Literatures’, The English Journal 98.4 (2009), 33-36.
Brown, David W., ‘How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age’, The Atlantic (1 August 2011) <> [accessed 5 February 2016].
Cart, Michael and Christine A. Jenkins, The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004 (Scarecrow Press, 2006).
-       ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Literature: The Controversies Continue’, Young Adult Literature: from Romance to Realism (Chicago: American Library Association, 2010)­.
Cate, Shannon LC, ‘“Just Happening to be Gay” Dismisses a Depth of Character’, Gay YA (7 August 2011), <> [accessed 17 March 2016].
Cohen, Ralph, ‘History and Genre’, New Literary History 17.2 (1986), 203-218.
Crowe, Chris, ‘Young Adult Literature: The Problem with YA Literature’, The English Journal 90.3 (2001), 146–150.
Daniels, Cindy Lou, ‘Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies’, The Alan Review (2006), 78-82.
Dawson, Juno (then James Dawson), ‘Sexuality has to stop being a “problem”’, Book Trust (31 July 2013), <> [accessed 16 March 2016].
Derrida, Jacques, ‘The Law of Genre’, Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980), 55-81.
Doll, Jen, ‘The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean’, Vulture (6 October 2013) <> [accessed 5 February 2016].
-       A New Way for Gay Characters in Y.A.’, The Wire (28 March 2013), <> [accessed 7 March 2016].
Forman, Gayle, ‘Teens Crave Young Adult Books on Really Dark Topics (and That’s OK)’, TIME (5 February 2015), <> [accessed 5 March 2016].
Friedman, Susan Stanford, The Return of the Repressed in Women's Narrative’, The Journal of Narrative Technique 19.1 (1989), 141–156.
Georgie, ‘Minor Queer Characters in YA’, Gay YA (5 September 2014), <> [accessed 17 March 2016].
Graham, Ruth, ‘Against YA’, The Slate (5 June 2014) <> [accessed 5 February 2016].
Gross Claire, ‘What Makes a Good YA Coming-Out Novel?’, The Horn Book (26 March 2013) , <> [accessed 8 February 2016].
Johnson, Lucas J. W. and Robin Talley, ‘“Just Happening to be Gay” Dismisses a Depth of Character’, Gay YA (7 August 2011), <> [accessed 17 March 2016].
Lo, Malinda, ‘On labels: for books and for people’, (10 April 2013), <> [accessed 28 February 2016].
-       ‘Heteronormativity, fantasy, and Bitterblue – Part 1’, (28 November 2012), <> [accessed 11 March 2016].
Rice, Keith, ‘Apocalypse 2.0: On the Appeal of Young Adult Dystopias’, Signature (9 September 2015), [accessed 15 March 2016].
Riggan, William, Pícaros, Madmen, Naīfs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-person Narrator (University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire, ‘Discovering Sexuality Through Teen Lit’, NPR (20 February 2013), <> [accessed 11 March 2016].

[1] Georgie, ‘Minor Queer Characters in YA’, Gay YA (5 September 2014), <> [accessed 17 March 2016].
[2] While ‘queer’ can, for some individuals, still be considered a homophobic/transphobic slur, in accordance with academic convention and the widespread reclaiming of the term by queer people, ‘queer’ will be used hereafter to refer to those identifying outside of the cisgender-heterosexual-heteromantic perceived norm.
[3] David W. Brown, ‘How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age’, The Atlantic (1 August 2011) <> [accessed 5 February 2016].
[4] Michael Cart and Christine A. Jenkins, The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004 (Scarecrow Press, 2006), p. xv.
[5] Cart and Jenkins, p. xvi.
[6] Cart and Jenkins, p. xvi.
[7] Cart and Jenkins, p. xvi.
[8] Ruth Graham, ‘Against YA’, The Slate (5 June 2014) <> [accessed 5 February 2016].
[9] Jen Doll, ‘The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean’, Vulture (6 October 2013) <> [accessed 5 February 2016].
[10] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980), 55-81, p. 61.
[11] Ralph Cohen, ‘History and Genre’, New Literary History 17.2 (1986), 203-218, p. 203.
[12] Chris Crowe, ‘Young Adult Literature: The Problem with YA Literature’, The English Journal 90.3 (2001), 146–150, p. 146.
[13] William P. Banks, ‘Literacy, Sexuality, and the Value(s) of Queer Young Adult Literatures’, The English Journal 98.4 (2009), 33-36, p. 33.
[14] Banks, p. 33.
[15] Aristotle, Poetics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), p. 52.
[16] Banks, p. 33.
[17] Claire Gross, ‘What Makes a Good YA Coming-Out Novel?’, The Horn Book (26 March 2013) , <> [accessed 8 February 2016].
[18] Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle (London: Electric Monkey, 2014), p. 336.
[19] Gross.
[20] A. S. King, Ask the Passengers (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012).
[21] Ask the Passengers won the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction, as well as various other awards, appraisals, and nominations.
[22] King, p. 3.
[23] King, p. 293.
[24] King, p. 38.
[25] King, p. 39.
[26] King, p. 40.
[27] King, p. 298.
[28] ‘Diversity in YA’ ( is a major blog campaigning for more diversity of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and disability in young adult fiction. It was founded in 2011.
[29] Malinda Lo, ‘On labels: for books and for people’, (10 April 2013), <> [accessed 28 February 2016].
[30] Laurie Halse Anderson, ‘Top 13 YA Books for Talking to Teens About Tough Stuff’, Huffpost Books (9 January 2016), <> [accessed 1 March 2016].
[31] Michael Cart, ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Literature: The Controversies Continue’, Young Adult Literature: from Romance to Realism (Chicago: American Library Association, 2010), p. 162.
[32] Kirsten Cronn-Mills, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (Minnesota: Flux, 2012), p. 8.
[33] Cronn-Mills, p. 8.
[34] Cronn-Mills, p. 8.
[35] Cronn-Mills, p. 141.
[36] Cronn-Mills, p. 169.
[37] Cronn-Mills, p. 174.

[38] Gayle Forman, ‘Teens Crave Young Adult Books on Really Dark Topics (and That’s OK)’, TIME (5 February 2015), <> [accessed 5 March 2016].

[39] Cronn-Mills, p. 228.
[40] Cronn-Mills, p. 229.
[41] Forman.

[42] Jen Doll, ‘A New Way for Gay Characters in Y.A.’, The Wire (28 March 2013), <> [accessed 7 March 2016].

[43] Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster BYFR, 2012), p. 337.
[44] Benjamin Alire Sáenz, ‘Discovering Sexuality Through Teen Lit’, NPR (20 February 2013), <> [accessed 11 March 2016].
[45] Malinda Lo, ‘Heteronormativity, fantasy, and Bitterblue – Part 1’, (28 November 2012), <> [accessed 11 March 2016].
[46] Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante, p. 358.
[47] Keith Rice, ‘Apocalypse 2.0: On the Appeal of Young Adult Dystopias’, Signature (9 September 2015), [accessed 15 March 2016].
[48] William Riggan, Pícaros, Madmen, Naīfs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-person Narrator (University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).
[49] Julie Mayhew, The Big Lie (London: Hot Key Books, 2015), p. 21.
[50] Mayhew, p. 94.
[51] Mayhew, p. 94.
[52] Susan Stanford Friedman, The Return of the Repressed in Women's Narrative’, The Journal of Narrative Technique 19.1 (1989), 141–156, p. 141.
[53] Mayhew, p. 27.
[54] Mayhew, p. 27.
[55] Mayhew, p. 117.
[56] Mayhew, p. 117.
[57] Rice.
[58] Smith, blurb.
[59] Smith, p. 23.
[60] Smith, p. 71.
[61] Juno Dawson (then James Dawson), ‘Sexuality has to stop being a “problem”’, Book Trust (31 July 2013), <> [accessed 16 March 2016].
[62] Smith, p. 14.
[63] Smith, p. 35.
[64] Smith, p. 41.
[65] Smith. p. 46.
[66] Smith, p. 46.
[67] Dawson.
[68] Lucas J. W. Johnson and Robin Talley, ‘“Just Happening to be Gay” Dismisses a Depth of Character’, Gay YA (7 August 2011), <> [accessed 17 March 2016].
[69] Shannon LC Cate, ‘“Just Happening to be Gay” Dismisses a Depth of Character’, Gay YA (7 August 2011), <> [accessed 17 March 2016].
[70] Cart and Jenkins, p. xx.
[71] Dawson.

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