Youth fiction grows up: for the gifted crop of writers telling stories for and about gay youths, the old cliches are so-o-o over.
Filmmaker Brian Sloan (I Think I Do) remembers asking his publishers if there were words or topics he should avoid in his debut comic young adult novel, A Really Nice Prom Mess (Simon and Schuster, June): "They said no. Teenagers have pretty much heard it all." Unlike the purveyors of the angst-ridden gay pulp fiction of the '50s, his publishers asked only for a happy ending.
Sloan's main character, Cameron Hayes, keeps his sexuality under wraps because his wealthy, A-list boyfriend doesn't want to threaten his standing on the football team. When Cameron goes along with his boyfriend's plan to bring fake dates to prom, gay hell breaks loose. What's prom night without a thwarted drug bust, gay strippers, and a Russian con artist?
On the darker side, Kathe Koja's new novel, Talk, describes a high school student's coming-out against the controversial themes of the school play in which he's starring: torture, imprisonment, and the dangers of truth-telling. Tall, good-looking Kit, who plays off his female costar's sexual attraction to him onstage, comes to realize he's "acting" in more ways than one. Koja says writing for young people heightens her "feeling of responsibility. I aim to tell them the truth the best way I know how, to respect them as readers and as people by being absolutely honest with them."
But honesty can be hard-won. After building a successful career in children's literature, it took Julie Anne Peters a full year to work up the courage to show her editor the lesbian love story she'd written for teens (Keeping You a Secret, 2003), even though the book was her editor's idea. She expected to be blacklisted by librarians. Instead she was inundated with fan mail. Now she's publishing her third gay-themed novel, Far From Xanadu, in which a small-town butch lesbian teen named Mike falls in love with a straight girl.
In a twist on the coming-out genre, "[Mike's] sexuality is both central to her character and incidental to the theme," Peters explains. "It's my belief--perhaps idealistic and naive--that when you grow up in a close-knit community ... your relationships are based on human connections. You are a person before you are a gay person."
Two of YA's biggest success stories are Brent Hartinger, whose newest book is The Order of the Poison Oak, and Alex Sanchez, whose Rainbow series--Rainbow Boys, Rainbow High, and Rainbow Road, due in October--has had huge crossover popularity. Tackling such issues as sexual harassment, homophobia, and HIV, Sanchez's novels "also tell universal stories of friendship, love, coming of age, and being true to yourself," he says. "That combination of gay teen--specific and universal themes allows readers of any age or sexual orientation a window into both others and themselves." Demand from even younger readers prompted him to write So Hard to Say, which pits a questioning middle-school boy against the timeless forces of Spin the Bottle.
Censorship and backlash do exist, but this chilly political climate may be the best time possible for books that speak passionately about the need to be true to oneself, Koja says: "Fear is in the air now, and the antidotes to fear are action and love." Sanchez points out that "most school librarians are awesome free-speech champions. They know gay kids because we so often hide out in the safety of libraries."
And what about that old standby of coming-out fiction, shame? "The sense I get from kids today is that there's still a struggle to get through, but the issues of shame don't exist as strongly as they used to," says Sloan. "Not after Will & Grace, Queer Eye, Queer as Folk. I wanted the book to reflect their experiences rather than my own. Otherwise it would be like reading a history book."
Marler writes for the New York Observer and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.