It’s been a stunning year for queer young-adult novels. In June 2019, I compiled a list of YA books that promised to help shift the way we think about about and understand queerness, especially for young queer people. As we near the end of 2019, it’s a good time for reflection: What books really hit home for queer readers? What books changed the game for queer representation? What books flew under the radar and deserve more accolades? And, lastly, what emerging queer writers do we hope to see more of in 2020?
While this list isn’t entirely comprehensive—after all, we don’t want to repeat the books you’ve seen on previous lists, including this list of books by queer Black writers—these are some of 2019’s queer YA novels that I hold most dear, and plan to reread time and time again.
Rukhsana is having a difficult enough time being openly queer, but when her parents catch her kissing a girl, all her plans go awry and she’s left surrounded by people who can’t understand why she’s so frustrated and drained. I enjoyed that The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali is gently critical of the all-too-common coming-out plotline in which where queer kids are just supposed to come out and the onus is on them if it doesn’t go “right.” Additionally, the book carefully and thoughtfully navigates the space between presenting a young woman of color in a conservative Muslim household struggling to be her openly queer self without stereotyping Muslim families or families of color as a whole.
If you’re in search of an uplifting queer read, this one is definitely not it; this is a very, very, very sad book. But if you’re looking for a thoughtful, gentle look at grief through the eyes of a young lesbian who has lost not one but two people she loves, The Meaning of Birds book will chew you up and spit you out in the best sense of the phrase. Jess is already heartbroken from a loss in her family, a loss that has led her to endless rage, when she meets Vivi, the girl she falls for, changing her life in the process. But then Vivi dies, too, and Jess is left reeling: Why does this keep happening to me? The book is not hopeless, though, and we get to watch as Jess survives, making new queer friends and finding community in the process.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a gorgeous read all around, and, in some ways, offers to young readers what Carmen Maria Machado’s new memoir, In the Dream House, provides adult queers: An important acknowledgment that not all queer relationships are going to be healthy. Laura Dean, Freddy’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, is both a dream girl and a nightmare; she’s charming and a popular girl, but she’s also impossible to keep up with and incredibly toxic. As a graphic novel, the book is both visually beautiful and beautifully written, and I found myself reflecting on Freddy’s emotional journey long after the read.
This year, debut author Mason Deaver changed the game for nonbinary readers everywhere by presenting us with one of the first out nonbinary protagonists in a young-adult novel. I Wish You All The Best is both heartbreaking and funny, realistic and light, and pairs a blossoming romance with well-rounded friendships. Of the book, Deaver told me, “There’s just a complete lack of books about nonbinary characters by nonbinary authors.” Now, hopefully, that’s changing.
There’s a reason that Pet has received so much acclaim this year, including a nomination for the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Not only for the YA set, this read works well for younger readers, middle grade, and older teens. Its protagonist, Jam, is a Black trans girl in a world where there used to be monsters, but aren’t anymore—supposedly. Jam has loving parents who support her, a best friend she cares deeply about, and a thoughtful way of thinking about the world. She’s ever-critical of the world their city has supposedly left behind, and she realizes she was right to be when her mother, an artist, crafts a painting that brings a monster to life. This is really a fit for all ages, as I was sucked into the storyline; it’s like no other book out there.
This is a very, very sweet read. If you prefer books driven by voice and emotion, rather than a complicated plot or action, you’ll adore Redwood and Ponytail. While it looks long at first glance, it’s actually a pretty quick read, as it’s a novel in verse that toggles between the perspectives of its two main characters, Tam and Kate. Kate is a cheerleader, Tam is a jock, and their relationship forces them to reckon not just with their sexual identities, but with what they want from each other. It’s a soft world of cheer squads and lunch trays and asking mom if you can go to the game, and it’s a softening I’m a fan of considering the historically harsh plotlines of queer novels.
Typically I don’t enjoy books that lean heavily on Greek mythology, but Orpheus Girl was stunning enough to shift my perspective. The novel follows Raya, a myth-obsessed teenager, and Sarah, Raya’s best friend, as they fall in love—and are subsequently forced into a conversion-therapy camp. The story shifts as Raya takes on the role of Orpheus to free herself and Sarah from the abuse.