Monday, 20 May 2013

Representing sexual diversity in YA - David Levithan, Malorie Blackman, same sex marriage and a long way to go

Tomorrow, the debate on marriage equality in the UK moves to the House of Lords. It's been an agonising wait for many, and given the coverage it's getting and the politicians who are coming right out (no pun intended) and saying that they don't see a need for marriage equality, I imagine (and fear) that those people might find themselves waiting a while longer.

Quite obviously, given the amount of time I spend talking about John Green here, this is not a blog on politics. But it is a blog about fiction for teens, and here's where culture and politics are mixing in a way that you hope can only mean better things for the next generation of adults.

A favourite author of mine, David Leviathan, has a new book coming out in August (hurry up, August!) called Two Boys Kissing. The cover looks something like this:




Two Boys Kissing is the story of Harry and Craig, two 17 year-old boys determined to break the Guinness World Record for the longest ever kiss. All 32 hours of it, to be more precise. And it's well timed, too, being published a decade after Boy Meets Boy, David's debut.

Many YA writers, when asked about the issues, sex and violence they put in their books, argue that books are an important and safe way for children and teens to explore the world. I completely agree, but I also think that books are an important reflection of the world, and that when books fail to represent significant parts of our culture, children and teens are being failed. Of course, that doesn't only go for sexual inequality - it goes for all sorts of diversity issues, and the growing representation of LGBTQ teens is only one way in which diversity in books is increasing.

A while back, I read a great article on Atlantic Wire, written by Jen Doll. In it, Levithan says:

"Every now and then there's a moment when people are grumbling and saying publishers are still scared [of books featuring LGBT characters], but from my point of view that’s 100 percent false. I have not had any experience of people not wanting to share these voices and stories. Any perceived resistance is from people who aren't plugged in, whose ideas of what the publishing marketplace is are 10 or 20 years out of date."

I feel there's a bit of a dichotomy here. Whilst I do read quite a number of American books featuring LGBTQ characters, I would say that although the numbers of similar characters in UK books are increasing, they aren't increasing very much.

One memorable British book I read recently, though, is Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry, in which the main character's brother is gay, and suffering at the hands of other (school)boys for it. It's a beautifully written book, and the culmination of that particular storyline is in equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful. I read another, simply stunning book a few weeks ago that I'm dying to talk more about here but, alas, it would give the entire plot away. (Sorry. But not really. It was an awesome read.)



Doing a bit of research for this post, I found a piece on the Guardian website from a couple of years ago. It's reporting some news from the States - two authors who were advised to 'straighten out' their gay main characters in order to be published. I can't imagine that this is something that happens very often these days, but the article was of particular interest, because of a mention of Malorie Blackman in the same article:

"Although Blackman experienced only positive reactions from her agent, publisher and readers at her inclusion of a gay younger brother in her novel Boys Don't Cry, she said that, when she was starting out as a writer 20 years ago, she was asked to make a black character white."
She goes on to say (very succinctly!):
"Are we still not over this nonsense?" 


Now, I haven't written this blog because of personal experience. This is not a case of somebody getting up on a soap box to shout about something because they feel it is unfair to them personally. But nevertheless this is something that I feel passionate about.

I look at people very dear to my heart, and I think: when you grow up, I want you to be able to choose. I want you to feel free to love whomever you love, and to be able to celebrate that in the same way as anybody else.

And quite honestly, the more diversity of all kinds is represented in literature for teens, the better off we'll all be.



16 comments:

  1. Fabulous post Jo and reiterates what I found when doing the research for my PhD. The representation of LGBTQ was not the focus of my research and so I have no answers but do still wonder why there is a lack of them.

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    1. Thanks Vanessa! It is strange that it isn't more widespread. I don't deliberately hunt out books with LGBTQ characters, so I'm certain that there are MANY more books around than I know of, but still.

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  2. This is a heartfelt, well-written and worthwhile post, Jo. Well said. Perhaps some of the problem is the lack of confidence in writers - maybe many don't feel equipped to write those roles? I will put my hand up to say I would be very nervous of writing a black character - I even hesitated over the word black being uncertain what was the 'correct' term nowadays.
    Cracking post, though. [Who is John Green?]

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    1. That's very sweet of you, thank you. I did get to thinking whilst writing this about where the delay comes from, and I am tempted to say that you might be right - I wonder how many writers feel comfortable writing these characters?

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    2. OMG did KM Lockwood just ask 'Who is John Green'?

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    3. She did - you're right! I forgot to reply to that bit! Go read The Fault in Our Stars!

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  3. Excellent post, Jo. And well said!
    Like you, I've been reading a fair amount of US YA fiction - and the sense I constantly get is that there's a lot more real "real life" in them than there is in UK YA fiction. That's not to say UK YA isn't dealing with real life - but it's dealing with different aspects and dealing with it differently, and somehow, more "safely" and I find that problematic. What appeals about the US YA fiction is that there just seems to be more honesty and more openness - not just to diversity, but to a range of life stuff.
    What I find interesting to note is that here in SA we've always seen mostly UK YA on our bookshelves - now, however, there is mostly US YA.

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    1. Ooh, that's interesting, Nicky. I've definitely noticed a lot more contemporary realism on British bookshop shelves than I ever have before. Though perhaps that's just because I'm searching it out...

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  4. Nicely judged post Jo. I agree-UK publishing is behind in positive LGBT representation–it seems you still have to seek out these books rather than LGBT characters being represented as part of normal life. Which of course they are–certainly in my kids' lives.
    Racially diverse characters are easier to find thanks to wonderful writers like Malorie but you only have to look around at any children's writing or publishing event to see that in the main it is not a terribly representative world, being mainly white, female, middle aged and middle class. I am not knocking anyone as I am three out of four of these things myself! However it would be wonderful to have some more diverse voices-more exciting stories for one thing!

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  5. JO, great post. I read a lot of Japanese Manga, and they all seem to have LGBTQ characters that just happen to be LGBTQ and it has nothing to do with the main story-line.

    it seems odd, there there isn't more LGBTQ characters in uk literature, and personally I can see no reason why there shouldn't be.

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  6. Great post. Have you read Pantomime by Laura Lam? That's an excellent book that is very big on sexual diversity!

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    1. I have actually - you have accidentally stumbled upon the very book I was trying not to mention!! Pantomime is one of my favourite reads of the last year - but it's hard to recommend without giving too much away. So - go read it, everyone!

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    2. Just wanted to add to the list - Desire Lines by Jack Gantos and Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig (which is middle grade really but truly wonderful)

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  7. Ooh, I must look for Pantomime - you have me intrigued! Great post Jo.

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    1. Yes, do - it really is a beautiful book!

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