06/28/2001 - Updated 11:59 AM ET

Books give honest portrayal of growing up gay

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 parents.

And then there's that love affair between two girls.

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 Gladiator?

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 1975.

"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 important.

"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 parents."

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,, 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 books.

"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 kids."

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 Boys.

"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," she notes.

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 first-person narrator.

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 Godfather.

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.