A piece of advice for those who are interested in reading Am I Blue?, an anthology of YA short stories about gay, lesbian, and questioning characters: don’t read it on the bus. I tried several times, and always missed my stop by many blocks without fail. The collection is engrossing to a plan-canceling degree; editor Marion Dane Bauer has put together funny, poignant, compassionate, impassioned stories about teenagers supporting each other, by authors dedicated to both advocacy and entertainment.
I found this book when it was highlighted in the ever-expanding, endlessly inspiring Bitch Lending Library. I was a HUGE Francesca Lia Block fan as a late teen, but am also a massive lover of Young Adult fiction in general. Writing for teens that doesn’t dumb information down, encourages individuality, and assumes that young adults are a thriving, sophisticated literary audience is rare enough that whenever I find it, I feel like I won the lit-lotto. I also, let’s be honest, never tire of LGBTQ-centric stories that don’t over-moralize and do portray accepting characters as the norm instead of the exception.
A few months ago I read Forever, a YA book by Judy Blume that was written in the ’70s and has been ruffling feathers ever since due to its frank, judgment-free presentation of teenage sex, dating, and love. The main character, Katherine, talks about not washing her hair, her friends that don’t shave or wear deodorant, and the nickname she and her boyfriend have for his penis (Ralph, natch) with absolutely zero self-consciousness. (Read an excerpt from Forever here, but beware: I’m not a fan of that edition’s cover. The most ’70s-tastic cover is here.) Blume obviously believes that an effective way to normalize behavior many refuse to accept as normal is to portray it in her books as unapologetically OK. Of course Katherine gets pimples, doesn’t shower daily, has pubic hair, talks to her boyfriend during sex, and believes without hesitation that she is interesting, attractive, and valuable. I’m in my mid-20s, and I for one still appreciate the shit out of that particular brand of supportive irreverence. Which brings me back to Am I Blue?. In the world of this book, of course every story has gay characters, of course there is a safe venue for questioning, discussing, and revealing one’s sexuality, and obviously having an agenda in writing for this book does not mean sacrificing realism or relatability.
Each piece in Am I Blue? offers a distinct take on issues of sexuality affecting teenagers, and none of them feels trite or overstated. The titular story, written by Bruce Coville, grants a questioning teen a “fairy godfather” who understands his dilemma and works to point out allies no matter where anyone lands on the Kinsey Scale. M.E. Kerr’s story “We Might As Well All Be Strangers” is about a young woman finding surprising support (and surprising disapproval) within her family as she comes out. Gregory Maguire’s “The Honorary Shepherds” proves that teenagers are faced with, and are fully capable of handling, a myriad of identity-based dilemmas at the same time, and are not alone as they do so. I have a couple more stories to go before I finish the book, but there hasn’t been a let-down contribution yet.
It is worth pointing out that Am I Blue? focuses on gay and lesbian teens and/or family members only. There is essentially no discussion of trans, bisexual, or queer politics (by name, and depending on your definition of “queer”). As far as I’ve read, none of the characters are living with disabilities. This book was published in 1994, and the discussion has, simply put, expanded since then. The care with which Bauer, and all of the authors published here, present their work and the good they hope to encourage by taking part in this project, though, is palpable and inspiring. There are only going to be more and more authors normalizing queer literature as time goes on, and more and more readers of any age who feel that the books they read are one of hopefully many safe places to explore questions of sexual expression.
If you’re interested in reading Am I Blue and live in the Portland area, stop by the Bitch Library and check it out—just remember my advice about the bus.