Queer teen lit

Two new novels highlight the maturing state of the genre.

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TEEN SPIRITS New books by Lo, left, and Peters, appeal to queer young adults—and plenty of older ones, too.

TEEN SPIRITS New books by Lo, left, and Peters, appeal to queer young adults—and plenty of older ones, too.

Physical abuse and a Cinderella-like romance are the unconventional subjects of two of the latest lesbian-themed novels aimed at young-adult readers. And while the topics of Julie Anne Peters's Rage: A Love Story and Malinda Lo's Ash differ greatly, what they have in common is the ability to transport queer teen readers with stories that go way beyond standard tales of sexual confusion—a refreshing quality that's defining the newest LGBT young-adult books.

Physical abuse and a Cinderella-like romance are the unconventional subjects of two of the latest lesbian-themed novels aimed at young-adult readers. And while the topics of Julie Anne Peters's Rage: A Love Story and Malinda Lo's Ash differ greatly, what they have in common is the ability to transport queer teen readers with stories that go way beyond standard tales of sexual confusion—a refreshing quality that's defining the newest LGBT young-adult books.

"We've already done coming out; the next wave is addressing more interesting areas," says David Gale, editorial director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, publisher of the popular "Rainbow Trilogy" (Rainbow Boys, Rainbow High, Rainbow Road) by Alex Sanchez and many other queer young-adult titles, including the trans-themed Parrotfish, by Ellen Wittlinger. "I think we're seeing more interesting looks at characters who are gay or lesbian," he says. "Plus there are more young-adult books with supporting characters who are gay or lesbian. And that's just a reflection of what's going on in our society."

In Ash, Lo reimagines the "Cinderella" fairy tale as a sapphic one, with the orphaned title character getting swept off her feet by Kaisa, a brave young huntress. The story unfolds slowly, with writing that is lush and dreamy, treating the lesbian story line with utter matter-of-factness.

"I wanted to write the book I'd always wanted to read," says Lo, a former editor at afterellen.com who was partly inspired by the many fairy-tale retellings of British author Robin McKinley. She had never done "Cinderella." "And I've always loved 'Cinderella'—even the Disney version. My dad used to wake me up in the morning by playing the record." When Lo penned the novel, she didn't plan for it to be a young-adult book, but in the end, the spare tale of first love fit squarely in that market, she says.

"It was Julie Anne Peters's books that actually made me look more at the young-adult category," Lo adds. Peters, who started out writing books for younger kids, moved into young-adult territory right at the cusp of its explosion, in 2000, with Define "Normal." "I love how you live your whole life in one day, or even an hour, at that age," she says. "I love the emotional depth of it."

Soon after, her editor suggested that she write a lesbian-themed novel, but Peters—who was out but not "globally out," as she puts it—had reservations about how such a move would affect her career. But when she agreed and penned Keeping You a Secret, she found that gay-themed writing was a perfect fit for her. "This is what they mean when they say writers should write what they know," she says.

Peters bonded with the handful of other young-adult writers tackling gay topics then—Sanchez, David Levithan, Brent Hartinger and Sara Ryan—and they called themselves, she recalls, the QTLC (for Queer Teen Lit Club). She's written five other LGBT books since (a sixth is forthcoming), tackling topics from dealing with broken-up moms to having a female-identified brother, and Rage looks at one of the least explored of all: physical abuse in a teenage lesbian relationship.

"I get a lot of readers who write and say, 'Will you please write my story?' I always say, 'This is your story. You should write about it,' and I usually think that gets me off the hook," she explains. But in this case, the persuasive young girl would not give up. And so, after much soul-searching and research, Peters delved into the heart-poundingly suspenseful story of Johanna, the straight-A high-school senior who falls hard for a sultry classmate, the deeply troubled Reeve. Peters has already gotten a letter from a young fan thanking her, who said that the book "saved my life and my happiness."

Peters says it's the best kind of inspiration—and adds that her LGBT-themed books are her best-selling titles. "I always had this fear that I'd be categorized as this gay writer," she adds. "But it's what I am. And these books reach the kids whom I think need it the most."

Ash (Little, Brown) and Rage: A Love Story (Knopf) are out now. Visit malindalo.com and julieannepeters.com.

Buy Ash on BN.com | Buy it on Amazon.com

Buy Rage: A Love Story on BN.com | Buy it on Amazon.com

Read excerpts from "Rage: A Love Story" and "Ash".

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