2017 has already been a great year for new LGBTQIA+ YA novels, and I’d have to guess that at least half the books I’ve read so far have been diverse in terms of sexual orientation and identity. What I’ve discovered from reading so many of these gorgeous books is that they usually fall into one of three categories. They’re either predominantly happy and cute, heart-wrenching and emotional, or a character’s identity isn’t the centre focus. On occasion, they do fall into more than one of these categories. But something I’ve seen a lot of people discussing is whether authors should be writing tragic queer stories, and what that really means.
To the most drastic extent, a ‘tragic queer story’ is one where the a member of the LGBTQIA+ community dies, or is killed. It’s even considered a trope now. Thankfully, I haven’t read many novels that conform to this notion, and I don’t really want to if the person’s identity is a major part in the narrative. Seeing these people have tragic endings isn’t just heartbreaking, but it can be damaging to young queer readers picking up these books. Yes, not all stories should be happy ones, but I think it’s harmful to see yourself represented in a narrative, only to find the character has a tragic ending. I’m not here to read about that.
But does that mean that all the novels with LGBTQIA+ protagonists have to be sunshines and rainbows? I don’t think so. Yes, I adore reading books where a person’s identity or sexual orientation isn’t made a big deal of or where they are able to be who they are unashamedly, but I think it’s important to still have stories where people are struggling to come to terms with who they are, or where others around them are. My experiences as a bisexual young person haven’t all been positive, and we need to see that other people might be struggling with the same things we are. In the end, books help us realise that we aren’t alone, and by erasing all ‘sad’ LGBTQIA+ novels, we could be tilting the scales in the other direction.
I think it’s important to read novels where queer people aren’t accepted by their family or peers at first, because that’s sometimes what happens. These shouldn’t be the only queer narratives we have, but they still need to be represented because seeing people overcome these hardships and seeing their families eventually come to accept who they are can be equally hopeful and powerful. One of the novels with a queer protagonist I related to the most was Our Own Private Universe, because there was a girl who was afraid of what her family would think. While I classify that novel as a predominantly cute and happy one, that element is something that’s still important in YA. To me, seeing we’re not alone in our struggles is equally as important as reading novels where queer characters are 100% accepted from the get-go.
And that’s one of the reasons why I loved reading Release by Patrick Ness. Adam’s story was incredibly powerful. As the gay son of a preacher, he struggles against his family beliefs and questions if he’ll ever be truly accepted. While there’s so much more to his narrative that that and he isn’t defined by that one aspect of his being, I think it’s still relevant to show that there are people like Adam who are going through similar hardships. I loved getting to know him, and I really liked the way the author didn’t shy away from writing the grittier subjects, like heartbreak and sex and complicated relationships. All these elements were written about in such a raw, honest way, and that’s what I loved this novel for.
As I haven’t read many books by Patrick Ness – I’d only read A Monster Calls before picking up this one – I was surprised to find that there was a supernatural / fantasy story being told alongside Adam’s narrative. While it was confusing to understand where these stories intersected at first and it took me a while to get into the novel because of that, I loved how unique this element was and how it offered a deeper, more metaphorical insight into universal struggles. Sometimes this book could be strange and seemingly nonsensical, but I really appreciated it for that. Sometimes things don’t have a clear meaning, but what makes them so powerful is how we choose to interpret them. In that way, Release was unlike any book I’ve ever read.
Ultimately, Release is a poignant and moving story about love and family and the often confusing and isolating world of a young person. If you’re looking for another book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist or a unique narrative with a fantastical side-story, I highly recommend picking up Release.
Release by Patrick Ness
Inspired by Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever, Release is one day in the life of Adam Thorn, 17. It’s a big day. Things go wrong. It’s intense, and all the while, weirdness approaches…
Adam Thorn is having what will turn out to be the most unsettling, difficult day of his life, with relationships fracturing, a harrowing incident at work, and a showdown between this gay teen and his preacher father that changes everything. It’s a day of confrontation, running, sex, love, heartbreak, and maybe, just maybe, hope. He won’t come out of it unchanged. And all the while, lurking at the edges of the story, something extraordinary and unsettling is on a collision course.
What’s your favourite novel featuring a protagonist belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community? What’s your opinion on the ‘tragic queer stories’ trope? Do you think we need these ‘sadder’ elements in some YA novels? Have you read Release yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks to Walker Books Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Check out my other discussions about LGBTQIA+ representation in YA!