Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Two LGBT short story collections for youth you should probably read.

Awhile ago, I mentioned in a post here that what I really want to be doing with my life is working with books. You might have missed this since it was nonchalantly squeezed into a longer post, but here I am to repeat it. Since I'm at somewhat of a weird life stage at the moment, figuring out what I want my life to actually mean has been forefront in my brain and I know books need to be a part of it.

Specifically, books for youth/talking about books with youth is what I want to be doing. I've settled on using the term "books for youth" at least on this blog, because while this is actually a huge and varied category, I feel like saying "kids' books" is almost demeaning for the quality of most of these books, and "young adult lit" seems to evoke nothing but poorly written, sexy books about vampires and/or blonde twins at Sweet Valley High. That said, I try to not be snobby about books, because if a teenage girl wants to spend every night reading about sexy vampires, MORE POWER TO HER. She is a girl who loves reading, and no matter what she's reading about, I love her for it. 

But I feel the term "youth" evokes more positive feelings of exuberance and strength than the unfortunately negative emotions "children" and "teen" often conjure (immaturity, silly in their abundance of emotions, etc). So I'm going with youth.

I've developed a three-pronged strategy for things I can do right now to help me toward my ultimate goal of being a youth librarian somehow someway (in addition to the things I'm already doing, like still volunteering at and accumulating way too many books from Title Wave):
  1. Start volunteering with Books2U, a really remarkable program started by former educators through the amazing Multnomah County Library that brings high-interest reading materials to low-income schools, mainly in East Portland and beyond. (Relatedly, people in Portland, you should probably read this excellent article about East Portland from the Willamette Weekly from a couple weeks back.) I feel like every single thing about this program is so important and good. I went in to talk with the director of the program the other day and left with two bags FULL OF BOOKS to start reading for future booktalking. It felt like Christmas!
  2. Take part in all three mock youth-award conferences put on by various library associations this winter: the Mock Newbery (for excellence in children's books), the Mock Printz (young adults), and the Mock Caldecott (picture books). I participated in the Mock Printz last year (which I don't think has an official OLA website, and appears to be reserved for people in-the-know, which I am not, but luckily I know one person who actually is in-the-know--thanks, Danielle! It also interestingly seems to be the only one that's free?) but I was a lazy participant and only read like three of the books on the list. This year I am committing myself to reading all of the books on all of the lists! I am already stressed out!
  3. Write more about books on here.
I'm excited about the contrast of #1 and #2 because #1 will get me better acquainted with books that kids actually like and that can be really important for varying reading abilities and interests, whereas #2 will make me aware of the most current high-quality books that, like, youth librarians like. (Speaking of awards and youth lit though, this is some serious shady balls, National Book Award.)

And I want to write more about them because 1) I need practice doing it, and 2) I feel like the world needs to know about how awesome books for youth in fact are right now. And not just because some shady authors think you can make more money doing it (I hated these authors so much after the first three paragraphs that I couldn't read the rest of the interview), and not because of the somewhat confusing upcoming Diablo Cody movie that I keep hearing is about a young adult author but doesn't seem to have anything to do with writing. But, because most of these books are really good.

And in fact, I think a whole lot of the world does know this. But a portion of the rest of the world, a portion that may be the most important--people who work with youth, coupled with people who work with books--still don't really know, and it's too bad.

While I love books for youth as a general whole, I also have a specific interest in books for LGBT youth, as I've mentioned here before. Since I honestly believe they can, you know, save lives, and stuff. So enough with my chit chat, GEEZ. This may honestly be one of my longest always-overly-long intros ever. But here we go. Here are two books of short stories for LGBT youth, one written over 15 years ago, and one that came out in 2009.

Am I Blue? came out in 1995 and was groundbreaking in that it was the first short story anthology for LGBT youth. Like, ever. There had been the rare youth LGBT book published prior to it (Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden, about lesbian teenagers, came out in 1982), but this was the first book that addressed the true breadth of issues that these youth might deal with.

I read a tattered used copy of it years ago, and the story the sticks most in my mind is the title story, by Bruce Coville. It features a fabulous, campy fairy godfather, who is like A REAL FAIRY IF YOU KNOW WHATIMEAN. Having such flamboyant characters in gay books/movies/TV can be a bit of a contentious issue, with some people claiming it solidifies a stereotype. But in my view, if you're a queen, you should be proud that you're a queen, and as a gay person even if you're NOT a queen, you should still feel proud that there ARE queens in your community. Because seriously, they are hella fun people, and everyone else should be jealous. Gay art needs to express all portraits of who we are, from the flamboyant to the straight laced.

So back to the point--there is this FABULOUS godfather, who floats down to Earth to help out a teen who's dealing with his own confusing questioning as well as some good old fashioned gay-bashing. Oh, and that fairy godfather? Died in a gaybashing. So there's something you didn't see in Will & Grace. Now, I love what this fairy godfather does for this boy so much I have to explain it, even if it might be a little spoiler-ish. To comfort the dear young boy, the godfather makes gaydar literal: he allows him to see everyone in the world in their true shades of gayness by coloring everyone blue according to their varying levels of gayness. Some aren't blue at all, sure. Some are (shockingly, to the boy) as bright "as a blueberry," and then others have just a hint of blue, some varying shade in between.

The reason I love this story so much is that it almost perfectly captures what my own view on sexuality is. When I try to articulate my thoughts on things, I'm always just tempted to say, "Well, have you read this short story Am I Blue?"

While I don't remember the rest of the stories in as great detail, what I do remember is the amazing variety of them all: stories about coming out, but also stories about being straight but having gay parents, a gay sibling. Stories about not knowing exactly what you are. Historical stories, science fiction stories. Stories about school, stories about different cultures, stories about disease, happy and sad stories.

Those who are against separating gay fiction as being "gay fiction" instead of just "fiction" would roll their eyes at this. Yeah, of course there's a lot of variety because there's a lot of variety in life. Gays are just people and of course there are a lot of different stories to tell, as there would be in any short story collection. But I think many of these stories are so specifically important for specifically gay circumstances that they ARE important to put into a gay anthology. Are they important to put into just a regular ol' anthology too? Of course. But if there's one or two gay stories inside of a hundred other straight stories, how are kids realistically supposed to find them? We do need our own books, sometimes.

Also, this is going to sound crazy I know, but some people in the media continue to relate homosexuality and queerness with one thing and one thing only: sex. So displaying the breadth and depth of issues around it all, explaining how big and wide this identity can be beyond what happens under the sheets, is in fact important, especially for kids who are trying to figure it all out. So it's an "issue" book. So what.

There have blessedly been many queer short story anthologies for youth since Am I Blue? but this one was one of the most notable in recent years. There are a lot of the same authors that carry over from Am I Blue? to How Beautiful the Ordinary, put together by the really awesome Michael Cart (his introduction is perfect): Francesca Lia Block, Jacqueline Woodson, William Sleator, Gregory Maguire (the Wicked guy). But the places some of these stories go really shows how far we've come in 15 years. 

Mainly, I mean the somewhat graphic yet eloquently told story of First Time by Julie Anne Peters. Right, so remember how I just mentioned sex isn't everything? Well, sex is still important, and this story made me go, "Geez, whoa!" and have to fan myself a little. And then I thought, "Well, this'll make the censors march in." And then I thought, "Holy crap, how awesome is it that this lesbian sex scene exists for teens to read about? Like, not just in some bad fan fiction they can find online (not that I'm necessarily knocking that either) but in a well-written, well put-together short story collection?" This shit is important.

There were some stories in this collection I wasn't as head-over-heels for, but there were some real standouts that made me love it: mainly the opening and closing stories. The opening story by David Levithan is in my opinion the best thing he's written yet. In A Word from the Nearly Distant Past, I have to spoil it a little because it is so cool: it is a little confusing figuring out what's happening at first, and then I understood. It's the voices of ghosts of men who died from AIDS in the 80's imploring (from heaven) the gays who are still alive how happy they should be, and how happy they are too as they've watched how things are changing. Like, whoa. I actually don't think I just explained that well at all, but it's powerful.

Gregory Maguire's piece, The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H. is the last in the book and by far the longest story and it drew me in completely. In fact I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a short story more. It deals with Faroukh, an Iranian-American boy who's taking a college credit music course at a small college in New Hampshire, and his fierce infatuation with that Jordan Catalano-esque aloof beautiful boy in class who everyone's infatuated with, Blaise d'Anjou (I know, what a name, right?). There were many things that drew me in about this story: 1) It's such a good and classic summer fling type of story, always full of so much longing and life, 2) It made me feel like I was in college, a feeling I always enjoy, and 3) It made me feel like I was in New England, another feeling I always enjoy. And the electricity between these young men--yowza.

However, the whole time I was inwardly groaning a little, because it's all narrated by an older Faroukh as a flashback type of deal. And it's like, I'm loving this all so much but it's so obviously leading up to it being a "that one summer I was gay, that was so fun before I grew up" cliche nostalgia gay story line. And I didn't want to meet Faroukh or Blaise's wives or know about their straight depressed adult lives or have one of them die or something else. But then--I was so happy. And I was actually surprised. And I won't spoil it completely, but I'll tell you, the ending is good.

One of my other favorite things about story collections these days is that there has to be at least one or two comics/graphic elements included. There are two included in this one, and I absolutely love love loved Ariel Schrag's Dyke March, which pretty much is self-explanatory--it tells the story of one girl's night during the dyke march in San Francisco--because it was just so simply perfect. It was refreshing to see in a collection like this because it was just real, and funny, and good.

Other queer lit books for youth I've talked about before:
Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher [BRIAN KATCHER COMMENTED ON THIS (and I'm pretty sure it was legit) AND IT WAS THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY BLOG LIFE]
Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers
Freak Show by James St. James

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