Simon James Green, author of YA novels Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, shares his thoughts on the importance of LGBTQ+ YA fiction and how it can have a positive impact on younger voices.
I was finishing a book signing after a school event, and this boy (he was about fourteen), and his best friend came up to me. I’ve found the kids who need to talk always wait until last, when everyone else has drifted off. This boy had so much sadness in his eyes – it was heartbreaking. He didn’t say much, so his friend spoke for him: he’d recently come out to his parents, and they weren’t being at all supportive. “Please just tell him it won’t always be like this,” his friend implored me.
I was talking to one of the teachers about it afterwards. “They connect with you because you talk so much from your own experience,” she told me. “It’s so good for the kids who are struggling with their sexuality, school or just life to hear from someone who has been through it and come out the other end, smiling.”
All young people need role models. They need to see people who are just like them succeeding, leading, and living fulfilling lives. They need to know there really is light at the end of the tunnel, even if they’re currently going through hell. And LGBTQ+ kids, seeing LGBTQ+ authors telling LGBTQ+ stories is a particularly powerful thing. These are people who are just like them telling stories from their direct experience. There’s an authenticity to these novels that you just cannot replicate. And it’s important for LGBTQ+ teens to know their lives and their stories are valued and valid – and that they should be proud of them.
The own voices argument can be a contentious issue in the writing community, with some authors resenting the notion that they shouldn’t write outside of their experience. I think writers certainly can, although that doesn’t mean they always should. LGBTQ+ teens need to see themselves in YA books, but those books also need to be realistic, nurturing, and provide an accurate reflection of what their lives are like. They deserve the level of subtlety, nuance and realism that own voices books provide. Unfiltered. The real deal. They need authors who can actually say to them, “I get it, because I’ve lived it”. Non-own voices authors can valuably contribute to that conversation, but it’s very important that writers who are actually from the LGBTQ+ community get heard – and that has sometimes felt hard.
For years, queer authors were turned away (and they still are today). They were told gay stories didn’t sell, or there was only space for one book about a gay teen that year, and it was already gone. You cannot ignore the effect of what turning a group of people away time and time again does. Eventually, those people stop coming. They do other things. And younger generations from the same community see they are unwelcome, so don’t try either, assuming people like them don’t write books, because they don’t see anyone like them doing it. It takes time for that sort of legacy to die out. LGBTQ+ authors want to tell their stories, but in YA, we’ve only really just got a foot on the ladder.
It takes time to build a readership and hone your craft, so it’s really important that publishers, schools, and influencers get behind these books. They need to be pushed, celebrated and given every chance to succeed, because it’s vital they get into the hands of the teenagers who need them most.
Happily, change is afoot. Next year Stripes are publishing a whole anthology of LGBTQ+ YA, all by own voices authors and illustrators, and my own publishers, Scholastic UK, have been fantastic at supporting my books. Meanwhile, we are starting to see own voices authors getting more attention – but we have to keep shouting about it. Gay teens deserve (and need) their heroes too. And when LGBTQ+ authors have been excluded from the party for so long, I think it’s right that those stories get celebrated – loudly.
Simon James Green is the author of YA novels Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, published by Scholastic.