Books give honest portrayal of growing up
By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY
A summer program for bright kids. Five
engaging teenagers. Shifting relationships. These elements
form the basis of Sara Ryan's forthcoming young adult novel,
Empress of the World. Nothing to surprise
And then there's that love affair between
Not so typical teen fare.
"I wanted to write a story about
characters who have been in my head for a while," says author
Ryan, 29. Among them were "teens who are not straight."
Welcome to the difficult terrain of young
adult hardcover fiction, where editors and authors try to
publish compelling books that hook teen readers without
offending the parents and librarians who buy them.
What defines young, what defines adult
and what defines appropriate in a society in which some
12-year-olds have never seen a PG film and some 12-year-olds
own their own video of the blood-drenched, incest-themed
Young adult used to mean books aimed at
readers between the ages 16 and 21, says Ryan's editor, Sharyn
November, a senior editor at Viking Children's Books/Puffin.
She sees Empress of the World as reaching the 14 plus
crowd and ideally crossing over to the adult market.
Yet on the advance reading copy, it is
marked for kids "Ages 12 up." Praised by Kirkus
Review for introducing "a wonderful new voice," the
novel arrives in stores in August.
Two new young adult novels from major
publishing houses forthrightly address same sex relationships
between teenagers. No longer do gay young adult novels simply
ask, "Am I gay?" Now they explore how to navigate in the
journey for love. There is Ryan's Empress of the World
(Viking, $15) and Alex Sanchez's Rainbow Boys (Simon
& Schuster, $17). Arriving in stores in October, Sanchez's
novel describes three gay boys coming to terms with their
sexual identity. Although not graphic, sex does happen for
these high school seniors.
Sanchez, 44, says that there are no
passages in his book that are more risqué than Judy Blume's
tale of straight first love, Forever, published in
"Boys kiss," points out Sanchez, who
works in human resources.
After 31 years of working with kids,
librarian Pat Scales says that 13-year-olds know about gay
people and that novels that accept sexual differences are
"I would rather have books that help them
understand gay kids than shelter them," says the director of
Library Services at South Carolina's Governor's School for
Arts and Humanities in Greenville and a spokeswoman for the
American Library Association. Contrary to people's fears,
reading books with sympathetic gay characters will not "sway
kids in these directions," she says.
She notes many kids have TVs, VCRs and
computers in their bedrooms. Their parents "have no idea what
their kids are watching. They are losing control when they put
their kids in a room with all those gadgets."
"Libraries need to be about inclusion,
not exclusion," she says.
The difficult area for parents and
librarians is not high school but middle school.
Sexual material disturbs parents because
it brings home the reality to parents that their children are
growing up and away from them, says Roger Sutton, editor in
chief of The Horn Book, which reviews children's
literature. "It always feels like it is too soon to
To those horrified that their children
might read a gay-themed young adult novel, Sutton says, "Thank
God there are libraries where kids can take books out that
their parents don't know about."
"Parents don't know how the content has
changed in books since they were in school," says Richard Ess,
a founder of PABBIS. (Parents Against Bad Books In Schools.
Its Web site, www.pabbis.com, posts excerpts from young adult
novels like Baby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block
and adult novels like Beloved by Toni Morrison, which
the group finds offensive.)
Real diversity, Ess says, means accepting
that many deeply religious parents hold values that are
profoundly at odds with the values presented in these
"We don't have a specific position on gay
or homosexual books. We consider them the same as heterosexual
material," says Ess. His group wants less violence and less
sex in the books available to students in school libraries and
on required reading lists. "Everyone has different values," he
says. "Parents have to decide what is appropriate for their
David Gale, the editorial director of
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, has no problem
with parents not wanting their children to read certain books.
"The problem occurs when they don't want any child to have
access to these books."
Controversy sells adult books, but
controversy is not good for the young adult hardcover market.
"The more adult the topic, the more that limits sales,"
observes Gale, whose company is publishing Rainbow
"This story chose me," says Sanchez. "You
know people talk about an inner child. Well, I have a loud
vocal inner teenager." Writing Rainbow Boys, "brought
back so many feelings from my youth."
One of his characters, Nelson, is openly
gay; students at his high school torment him verbally and
physically. Jason is a closeted jock with a girl friend. And
Kyle pines for Jason.
"It is very hard to grow up feeling
different," says Sanchez, who worked as a counselor with
at-risk and troubled teens for a decade. He would like his
novel to help gay teens be able to say, "I am different, and I
am not willing to hide that."
Teen suicide is an issue. It is estimated
that 30% of teen suicides are committed by gays and bisexuals.
"Imagine a society where every book about heterosexuality is
cautionary. How would that make you feel?" asks November.
Gay themes can inform
Michael Cart, author of the gay
coming-of-age novel, My Father's Scar and a nationally
known expert on young adult fiction, says there is a "crying
need for good stuff."
Although he appreciates "unsparingly
realistic novels," Cart also would like to see novels that
allow gay teens to observe more of a "road map to a viable
existence," one that suggests that being gay does not preclude
community, happiness and connection.
And if more straight teens read
gay-themed young adult fiction, says Cart, they might "think
twice about casually uttering slurs, spreading gossip, hazing
and physical abusing" gay teens.
To parents who think teens are too young
for gay-themed novels, he says "Wake up and smell the coffee!"
He notes that he is being interviewed on the 20th anniversary
of the AIDS virus being reported and that HIV rates of
infection are rising among young men. "There is a conspiracy
of silence. People think my black son or Hispanic son couldn't
be gay." He edited the just released Love & Sex: Ten
Stories of Truth (Simon & Schuster, $18), which
has two gay-themed stories.
"What is the difference between innocence
and ignorance?" asks Christine Jenkins, an associate professor
at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She notes that in the late '60s and early
'70s, there were the same arguments about the growing number
of what are often called "problem novels" in young adult
literature. These books address issues like divorce, class,
alcoholism, eating disorders, racism and depression.
The first "problem novels" starting
appearing in 1967 and include classics like S.E. Hinton's
The Outsiders. One of Jenkins's favorites is Robert
Cormier's The Chocolate War.
Parents often get much more upset about
what their children read than what they watch. "Social
tensions get played out in the world of children's reading,"
Defining young adult novel
Empress of the World and
Rainbow Boys are not the first gay-themed young
adult novels. According to a Library Quarterly article
by Jenkins, there have been approximately 100 published since
1969 and the publication of John Donovan's I'll Get There:
It Better Be Worth the Trip. The first young
adult novel is believed to be Maureen Daly's
Seventeenth Summer, published in 1942.
The defining aspects of a young adult
novel include a teen protagonist, teen issues and usually a
Scales recalls that when she was 13, she
simply read what her father read, which included the earthy
Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck. And, of course, many baby
boomers recall the teen delights of Peyton Place and
The author of Empress of the
World, Ryan hopes that her novel will find readers
among older teens. A librarian in Multnomah County, Ore., she
suggests that parents should talk to their kids about what
they are reading. And what they are thinking.