Tea and Tales: Adventures in Queer YA Fiction

So I’m writing a Young Adult novel with queer characters, which just happens to be a kind of magical realism style fantasy. Really, it’s a romance, in which one of the characters coincidently has some magical powers. And we all know that you have to read to write. Except in recent years, I’ve been pretty terrible at that. I used to be a regular bedtime reader, but I grew out of the habit; probably a good thing for my quantity of sleep; less of a good thing for my writing. As I headed deeper down the rabbit hole of novel writing, I wanted to reignite my own love for novels, and to get a sense for how other people write for a similar audience and deal with related issues. So I made a conscious decision to try to read some more books with things in common with the story I’m trying to write.

So far, I’ve had difficulty finding the fantasy element; sure, there are loads of young adult fantasy books. But they tend to be set in fantasy kingdoms with dragons and sorcerers and familiars. Whereas my book is a story set pretty much in the present day real world, except there’s a tiny little bit of magic going on in that version of the real world. I haven’t yet found anything quite like that to read. What I have discovered is that there is this absolutely blooming, supportive, veraciously reading queer “Bookstagram” community on Instagram, with loads of recommendations about young adult fiction with LGBTQI characters. So I’ve collected something of a reading list. Today I’d like to make some brief comments on the merits of a few of these reads.

The Infinite Noise, by Lauren Shippen

The first, and the title that triggered this whole adventure back into the more regularly reading world, was actually not a read but a listen. I have been a huge Bright Sessions fan since a friend recommended the podcast a good year ago now, and had simply run out of episodes I could listen to on the website. I didn’t want a subscription I’d only use to access this one thing, not normally being much of a podcast person, so I’d sadly come to the end of my Bright Sessions listening experience. For those who don’t know The Bright Sessions, this is a brilliant concept and the only one of the creations I’m about to discuss which does fit the fantasy-in-the-real-world bill. It follows psychologist Dr Bright, who specialises in treating people with unusual abilities, helping them to learn to manage their powers. There are a lot of parallels to the kinds of things brains do in “Real Life” and a gripping story to follow, and at the end of each episode we’re reminded to “stay strange” – a catch phrase I am absolutely on board with. If you’ve never come across The Bright Sessions you should probably just go and have a listen now. You can find the website here: http://www.thebrightsessions.com/ and you can also find these creators on Luminary and Audible.

I have to admit that although I loved all of the Bright Sessions characters I was particularly addicted to the romance between Caleb (an empath who is seeing Dr Bright) and Adam (a boy at Caleb’s school whose emotions stand out from the crowd). These two characters have the kind of slow-growing, feeling-our-way relationship that always grabs me by the soul. Maybe because it’s hard for me to interpret “crush at first sight” kind of romances as realistic as a demi person. My brain is too busy rebelling, going “this wouldn’t happen to me.” I know those kind of stories certainly grab lots of young adult readers, but I always felt a bit “unseen” reading about those kind of romances, and I think I’d like to write stories that people like me can relate to more. Caleb and Adam grow into each other as the story progresses and their connection is built on shared experiences and increasing openness about who each of them really is. In other words, it’s my ideal romance. So when I heard that there was going to be a Caleb and Adam novel, you can imagine my excitement. Only, this novel was only going to be available through the various subscription services. Recently my husband and I made the decision to avoid Amazon as much as possible on ethical grounds, and part of that meant that Lloyd was going to cancel his Audible subscription and get his lectures on a huge array of topics directly from The Great Courses instead. And then I remembered; The Infinite Noise! Lloyd kindly let me use his last Audible credit on the audio book of this Caleb and Adam novel, and I disappeared for about a week into their world, listening late into the night in the dark, listening on headphones while I cleaned my teeth, did dishes, and even whilst trying to do weights and grunting like a pig.

This is a beautiful story, very addictive, and definitely worth hearing in the original Bright Sessions voice actor’s voices, if you’ve listened to The Bright Sessions previously. You can also obtain the story in book form, which might be equally good if you aren’t already used to these character’s voices. I managed to send a copy to the friend who originally introduced me to The Bright Sessions on CD, so for those who still own CD players, and are also in the non-Audible camp, you may be able to do the same. This book reminded me that this is the kind of romance I want to write; not that I could really ever write another kind, but that I need to remember to perfectly describe those critical scenes; the shared experiences, the growth of understanding. Lauren Shippen empathetically depicts what it might be like to be an empath in a way that will have all the Highly Sensitive People out there identifying with Caleb, and Briggon Snow brings the character to life with ease. I highly recommend The Infinite Noise, and I would say this is a comfort drink book; listen or read with whatever drink it is you curl up with on a stormy night under a couch rug.

The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart by R. Zamora Linmark

I actually read this book a while ago when it came up as an option on my virtual book club’s reading list but didn’t get chosen by the group. There were things I found delightful about this book, and things I found a bit strange, that somehow didn’t flow or fit. The teens in this book have an Oscar Wilde book club, and the main character Ken Z decides to go out “bunburying;” a concept out of The Importance of Being Earnest where a person takes on an alter ego out in public, pretending to be someone different, and essentially explores the world as this other person. In doing so Ken Z meets Ran, and they have a great time together for a short while, before Ken Z’s heart gets broken.

So first of all, this is a story about meeting someone whilst not being yourself, falling in love in a matter of days and then being heartbroken when that person goes away again. A transient connection; an interesting concept but one that is hard for me to grasp. I did rather love the way that Ken Z talks to an imaginary-friend version of Oscar Wilde about all his concerns and feelings, applies concepts from books to his life and writes haikus for his friends. Ken Z is a fellow writer; he uses writing things down in various forms as a way to process emotions and manage his life. I think the book is probably using a parallel for a real location, perhaps North and South Korea, in its depiction of North and South Kristol and the issues that arise from Ran being from the North. I don’t know enough about the social context of this to properly comprehend that aspect of the book, and it isn’t something that is depicted in much detail, so it can be a bit perplexing to an uneducated reader. It’s definitely an intriguing aspect of the book, but I think it could have benefitted from a bit more scene-setting so that it’s easier for your average reader to comprehend why Ran can just vanish back into North Kristol and Ken Z can’t then contact him or find him again. Even if no comparison to a real world place is intended, the backdrop against which the story is set needs to be described a bit more, I think, for readers to really understand. So the lesson for me: Don’t assume your reader knows about certain social settings; always give them just enough information that they can follow why things are the way they are even if they know nothing about the context to begin with, or, if you are including a veiled metaphor for something social or political, and you don’t want to go into it too deeply, don’t rely on it as a premise for why something later happens in the story.

Ken Z has some very cool LGBTQI representing friends who are in the Oscar Wilde book club with him. I wasn’t sure whether the extent to which he hides his experiences with Ran from them is realistic for a teenager. I mean, teens are renowned for secret-keeping, but when I was a teenager and something that felt big for me was going on, the first thing I wanted to do was share the secret with a close friend. The voices of the characters also come across as slightly too grown-up for teenagers in some parts and then very messenger-text-speak in others. I think that’s probably a result of the struggle to balance a literary theme and characters who love words and writing with the fact that they are still young people, and it reminded me that my own teen characters need to sound like teens, even when they’re saying something very wise or having a poignant moment.

What I did love about Ken Z and Ran’s short-lived relationship was the little details they connected over, like objects in Ken Z’s room or a particular song that they listened to and began to play with the words of. For me, this took their romance from being something I couldn’t understand very well to being something genuinely moving, and Ken Z’s heartbreak from just a dramatic teenage moment to something understandable and palpably sad.

Overall, not a book for everyone, but a book which might connect really strongly with some people. Read with a tea that takes you out of your comfort zone – try something new – go bunburying.

Who I Was With Her by Nita Tyndall

Honest response: This book was too sad for me. I like a book to make me feel things, but I think I’m usually looking for more ups and downs, and not something that is consistently sad all the way through. It also felt a bit like reading a fairy tale or fable that had the lesson “don’t be ‘not out’ about anything or these awful things might happen to you too,” although I’m certain that this was not the writer’s intention at all. The ending is not as sad as the rest of the story, but it isn’t exactly happy either. It’s just a “let’s see what the future holds.” That felt a little bit anticlimactic for me after the drama of the rest of it. I think I wasn’t the biggest fan of a whole plot revolving around Corinne’s orientation and coming out, or lack thereof. I wanted her to get to know some of the other characters more in a real, understanding-what-made-them-tick kind of way. I think I would have liked to see more of her interacting with Maggie’s brother and it would have felt satisfying if they were able to form a lasting friendship and bond over their loss. The same with Maggie’s ex-girlfriend Elissa. The actual interactions with Elissa were somewhat confronting to me, I think; the bond between Corinne and this character feels sort of sudden and illusory. Which is probably good writing; like the character’s connection is based on a ghost, but I typically struggled with how quickly this connection moves and how temporary it is. I wanted to see more of Corinne at home, perhaps to know more about who she was before Maggie, therefore showing how the relationship had changed her. Which again, is a good lesson for my own writing; the characters need to be more than their romance and how that turns out; they were someone before it started, and that person is still in there. And their identity as people needs to be more than their orientation; they are people with interests and style and tastes and stories in their lives that are unrelated to the romance, or interact in interesting ways with it.

What I did enjoy in this book was the central setting of cross country running as the place where Corinne had met Maggie and had most of her interaction with her peers. I know well the feeling of using running or training of some kind as a way to let out intense emotions, and I thought this was really effectively depicted in this book. It even caused me to enjoy my runs more while I was reading the novel, and to remember what it felt like to actually race. I also really liked and connected with the use of Maggie’s hair scrunchie as a symbol of her and of how running, for Corinne, was really all about Maggie all along.

If you don’t mind sad stories then this might be a book for you. Bring sweet chai and a blanket.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

This is another book about a transient connection, but surprisingly, this one I found absolutely beautiful. The characters meet in the post office and feel they have a connection, but before they can really learn who each other are, or exchange any contact details, they are separated by someone else’s dramatic marriage proposal involving a full marching band (It’s New York). The story is about the lengths they go to to find one another again, and the infinite “do-overs” they allow themselves when their dates don’t go to plan, even though one of them is leaving at the end of the summer holidays.

The book is full of wonderful side characters; brilliant best friends, convincing parents, fellow interns and weird and wonderful strangers. Both main characters have a sense of humour and say some of those wonderful witty things in their narration that we all think but would never say out loud. So my lesson: Side characters matter, and so do those relatable asides. The voices were very convincingly teenage ones, and yet unique, not generic. Occasionally, because the narration alternates between the two protagonists, and there are some similarities in their concerns and their voices, I lost track of which character was telling the story. So there’s a lesson there too; make sure characters are distinct from each other in the way that they think and speak.

Although these characters connect over a chance meeting, their relationship develops with comical stumbles and constant learning about one another, multiple attempts to get it right, and a constant need to revise, forgive, think it over. I think it’s very true to what developing relationships are really like. The ending is a little sad depending on your view, but it carries a nice message, and makes it clear how much both characters have grown and how much they have gained from their time together. I would describe this book as a sweet, heart-warming and hope-giving story, and recommend it as a relatively funny and comforting read for rainy days with an Earl Grey.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

After What If It’s Us I couldn’t help looking up both the authors and adding some of their other work to my to-be-read list, starting with Becky Albertalli. The queer characters in this story are supporting characters but nonetheless have a key role in the life of the protagonist Molly. This is a book that deals with all kinds of discrimination issues but does so gently and against a backdrop of comfortable local neighbourhood companionship and diversity. It’s a story about Molly trying to be less inhibited and forge a romantic relationship for herself, but it’s also really about the fear of drifting apart from close family and friends as you do find romance; that constant uncertainty about what your family interactions and best friend interactions are going to look like once you’re dating, and into the future if you decide to make your future home with that romantic partner.

Molly has a twin, Cassie, and as both of them find their first serious partners, they have to negotiate how their sibling relationship will change. I loved Molly’s craft activities and wedding planning, and the comfortable-yet-awkward open discussions between the siblings, their friends, and their family. I enjoyed Molly’s sometimes amusingly frank inner dialogues and the sweetness of her eventual romance. There are definitely aspects of Molly’s character that I find harder to relate to, but there are some really lovely scenes that got me back into her shoes again. And the wedding décor that Molly creates fulfils my past rustic wedding planner, needs-to-get-off-Pinterest fantasies. A fun read that will make you think without making you too sad, and a fine one to enjoy with a good regular English breakfast cuppa or refreshing peppermint.

So in summary…

I’ve enjoyed this foray back into regular reading a lot, and have learnt a lot from these books about what I do and don’t want my novel to be like in terms of the romantic elements and the character’s voices. I know there is still loads out there to read, and will continue to explore any recommendations I come across.

If you know of a book where a hint of fantasy makes its way into a “Real World” setting, I’d love to read more that fits that particular niche too, so please do send recommendations my way!

Something that struck me about this first collection of Young Adult romance books was that every single one of these stories was written in first person, and the use of alternating narration by the two parties involved in a romance was a very common way to convey the events. I’m not sure what to make of this, really. Do people imagine that young adult and teenage readers relate better to characters who are speaking to them in the first person? Does that make it easier for the reader to imagine themselves in the character’s place? Personally, I sometimes experience the opposite effect, where I might start imagining myself clearly in the character’s shoes, but as soon as they talk about an opinion or experience that is really opposite to mine, or that I really find hard to imagine or relate to, having to read it as though I am them makes it harder to carry on feeling that sense of kinship. Perhaps this is different for other people? I’d love to know what you think. I don’t think that I want to change my novel to write it in the first person. Sometimes I think having a third person narrator gives more scope for those situations where you want to hint at something without revealing it completely, and my book is full of that. But it’s definitely something to think about.

These books also stuck pretty closely to their central romance plot, and tended not to have much in the way of subplots that intertwine and interact with the main story. I think this is something that will differ in the fantasy genre, and I imagine that I will have to strike a happy medium between the two styles.

My overall favourites here were definitely The Infinite Noise and What If It’s Us, and I will be on the lookout for more by those authors. I hope you’re reading something good, and that you’re keeping an eye on indie authors out there whose work might take a little longer to find, but is definitely worth it.

Wishing you all Tea, Love, and Creativity,

Sarah.

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