Last night I attended an excellent discussion at Free Word, organised by Booktrust, on the paucity of LGBT characters in YA fiction in the UK. It’s an interesting question, but not one I’d seriously thought about before – it’s only when I stopped and tried to come up with, say, half a dozen I’d recommend that the lack became incredibly and sadly obvious. So, this was a very timely and necessary talk. The panel had two fabulous authors on it, Hayley Long and James Dawson, Emily Thomas from Hot Key Books, and Catherine Hennigan, a student at University of York, and was chaired by Alex Strick.
The central issue of the discussion was why it is that children’s and YA books tend not to reflect children and young people in all their many differences. Are authors worried about including characters that are not considered the norm, either through lack of knowledge, fear of getting it wrong or alienating readers? Other questions follow on from this. Is it a problem that when LGBT characters are visible in books they are often ‘issue’ books that focus on the problems of coming out and being gay, portraying generally negative experiences? Also, how can books that do have LGBT characters be identified as such so readers (and I would add booksellers and librarians) can find them, without it necessarily being labelled in a obvious way?
First up, James Dawson talked about his novel Hollow Pike. It is not an ‘issue’ book at all, unless the issue being addressed is witchcraft! It’s about friendship, rather than romantic relationships, that includes queer characters – but, the sexuality of the teenagers is secondary to the story. I love the sound of this, for several reasons, and I have a copy patiently waiting for me to read it. I frequently get frustrated with YA novels that seem to shoehorn a boy/girl romance into an otherwise exciting story. I also want to read, and to be able to recommend stories that show the wide range of people we meet in our lives – for it to be normal and normalised. (I also want to read stories about witches, but that might be slightly off-topic.)
Hayley’s book What’s Up With Jody Barton is an issue book. It deals with someone understanding who they are, and getting the confidence to say so. Hayley didn’t set out to write a gay character, but once the path was set she wrote it in a way that allows her readers to ‘walk in a pair of shoes they were not expecting’. Now, I have read Jody Barton, and it is awesome. I loved it because it’s funny, emotional, surprising and just really excellent. What’s so interesting about it in relation to this debate is that it does tackle an issue, but the reader doesn’t know that until they are actually halfway through the book.
Both these books can be picked up by anyone; they don’t come with a label singling them out, which is a point Catherine eloquently made during the discussion. Young people thinking about their sexuality and looking for representations of their feelings in literature may not want to be checking out the ‘gay book’ from the library. Not that is should be unacceptable to do so, but everyone deserves to have space and privacy, as well as characters to identify with.
It was down to Emily to represent the publisher’s viewpoint on the lack of LGBT YA fiction. There does appear to be a lack of submissions; not enough writers are trying it. There is also the concern about issues overpowering the story. First and foremost the book needs to be a good story. This is definitely my opinion – however worthy a book is, unless the story rocks I’m not going to want to read or recommend it to anyone else.
The time whizzed by ridiculously quickly, and although obviously the world wasn’t put to rights I do think it highlighted some gaps on the YA bookshelves. I think everyone agreed that being able to ‘stumble across’ LGBT characters would be a very good thing. There are not enough books at present that integrate LGBT characters into their narrative. Let’s hope that changes soon.