Hello, Queer YA: An Introduction to Queer Canadian Young Women’s Fiction

Having started reading Beth Goobie’s young adult novel Hello, Groin this morning (I’m liking it so far—although the title is a bit unfortunate), I decided it was time to do some talking about queer young adult books on this blog.  I have a soft spot for queer YA: I think it’s so incredibly important for queer teens to be able to read books that reflect themselves and for other teens to be able to read about queer teens.  Especially when some young adults aren’t getting the support they need from family or friends (or they’re just afraid they won’t), books are such an essential resource.  Yay for libraries and bookstores that stock queer YA titles!

I was recently visiting Portland, Oregon and made the trip to the epic Powell’s Books downtown, which is the BIGGEST BOOKSTORE I’ve ever been to.  I’m a bit sad it took me until age 27 to make it there.  Anyway, I was really pleased to see that in the young adult section of the store they had these handy rainbow tags underneath queer books!  So rad. One of the best days I had at work at Bolen Books in Victoria was when an awkward teenage girl asked me in a roundabout kind of way for recommendations of LGBTQ young adult books.  I was so excited I spent about 45 minutes with her in the kids section handing her every remotely queer YA book I knew.  I was so honoured that this young woman felt comfortable enough to ask me; I had kind of a faux hawk thing going on back then, so I must have looked dykey enough for her to feel safe talking to me.  But I know a lot of folks wouldn’t feel comfortable doing what she did, so Powell’s has got the right idea marking the queer books for those of us—like me in my teens—who are way too shy to outright ask.

So how does all this talk about queer YA fit in with the Canadian focus of my blog?  I was going to wait to post my compilation of Canadian queer young women’s books until I had had a chance to read more of them, but I thought I might as well put the list out there in the ether of the internet so that anyone looking for queer Canadian YA books might stumble upon it.  Remember, these are only queer/lesbian/bisexual young women’s books (ie, with female protagonists and/or authors), so don’t lament the exclusion of some cool queer Canadian young men’s books (I’ve heard great things about Nova Scotia writer Tom Ryan’s recent book Way to Go, for example).  So, without further ado, here’s my list:

Armstrong, Luanne.  Annie. (2000). Polestar Book Publishers.  This book’s author is a lesbian, but the relationship between the two young women (as far as I’ve gathered) is more an implied rather than an explicit romance.  Still, I like the idea this novel takes on: reimagining the ‘wild west’ from young women’s perspectives.  Books in Canada has this to say: “A young girl with guts and fortitude is the central character in Luanne Armstrong’s Annie. Annie’s very existence shakes up the Old Wild west stereotypes of what men and women ought to be. When Annie and her two brothers are orphaned, she does not get married to the first guy who asks her and live unhappily ever after. This cowgirl saddles her horse, loads her gun, and, accompanied by only her faithful dog, rides off to look for a piece of land she can call her own. She’s tough, handy, independent, and courageous, the sort of down-to-earth person who can’t understand ‘why people feel they should spend a lot of time sitting in a room discussing things like the weather when all they have to do is step outside and take a good look at it.’ Although the first half of the book tends to plod rather than gallop, Armstrong does eventually hit a comfortable stride, and succeeds in bringing a female hero into the Wild West pantheon.”

Coyote, Ivan E. One in Every Crowd. (2012). Arsenal Pulp Press. Although I haven’t actually had time to read Coyote’s most recent offering (shame!), I am going to unabashedly highly recommend this one anyway.  First of all, I know it features a fair number of stories that were published in older collections, so I know they’re awesome, because I’ve read everything by Ivan.  Plus, anything written by her is fantastic, in case you hadn’t figured that out yet already.  Second, Coyote has been doing amazing anti-bullying work with teens and in high schools for years now—using stories as a kind of activism.  Have I mentioned she’s one of my cultural heroes?  I can’t find the source now, but I recall reading an interview where she explained her eventual decision to ‘edit’ the material that’s in this collection, not because she thought teens couldn’t handle the stories in their original forms, but so that teachers, administrators, or parents couldn’t get away with banning the book without having to reveal that homo/transphobia is really the reason they don’t want to allow it.

Dunnion, Kristyn. Big, Big Sky. (2008). Red Deer Press. I haven’t read this book by Toronto author Kristyn Dunnion either, but I have read a collection of short stories for adults by her (reviewed here) and I thought it was quite remarkable.  I particularly felt that Dunnion did an amazing job capturing the voices of young marginalized folks, so I bet her YA novels are spot on.  Here’s the blurb for this fantasy with a queer girl protagonist: “Rustle is a young Scout in an elite, tight-knit Warrior group of five female mutants. They’ve been modified and trained to be ruthless, obedient Assassins —though for what exact purpose they couldn’t tell you. Now the group is falling apart. Roku mysteriously disappears. Rustle has failed to prove her killing skills in a crucial test of courage and is hiding a terrible secret from the others. Loo, a blood thirsty Hunter who is always ready for action, is Rustle’s private yen. Solomon, the Healer of their unit, is a steady hand, but not even her powers can save them. Not when Shona, the Leader, is a pawn for the autocratic powers that be. Not when they discover they’re breaking the original commandment: until she may Decline, Deform, Disobey. So when their unit is transported to Living Lab on an extermination order, they know it’s time to make a run for it, or else be permanently Deplugged. It takes tremendous wit and energy, but eventually they escape to the outside of the great mountain where they’ve been raised —and here, for the first time, they behold the big, big sky of the real world. In this totally unfamiliar environment, they must learn to survive, and Rustle must face the reality of her true identity and the consequences of her love for Loo.”

Dunnion, Kristyn. Mosh Pit. (2004). Red Deer Press. I love the sound of this novel: punk, urban, and queer.  Here’s how Dunnion describes it on her website: “A raw look at punk, young love and the sometimes cloudy road to adulthood. Mosh Pit, a compelling story of rebel girls in the modern city, stars Simone—torn between her loyalty to her rebellious heart-throb Cherry and her feelings for Carol, streetwise and distant enough to be alluring. This edgy young adult novel takes Simone through the modern equivalent of Hades—where drugs, drink and sexual ambiguity make for uncertain footing, physically, morally and emotionally. It’s a dark world where Simone gradually gains a sense of who she is and, more importantly, who she can be.”  I’m assuming the ‘modern city’ is Toronto, since that’s where Dunnion is based.

Goobie, Beth. Hello, Groin. (2006). Orca Book Publishers. Saskatoon-based writer Beth Goobie is well-known for her fiction for young adults, and for having eccentric ideas about the human psyche (I would take this as a recommendation rather than a criticism, personally).  I’ve just begun reading Hello, Groin and I have a feeling I am going to love it—despite the fact that I think the title is kind of awful. Oh well.  The inside jacket says this about the book: “When Dylan Kowolski agrees to create a display for her high school library, she has no idea of the trouble it’s going to cause–for the school principal, her family, her boyfriend Cam and his jock friends, and her best friend Jocelyn. And for Dylan herself. If only her English class had been studying a normal, run-of-the-mill, mundane book like Lord of the Flies instead of Foxfire things wouldn’t have gotten so twisted. Then the world wouldn’t have gone into such a massive funk. And then Dylan wouldn’t have had to face her deepest fear and the way she was letting it run her life.  Hello, Groin presents a compelling, realistic and refreshing look at teen sexuality and one girl’s struggle to make the difficult choices that face her.”  It sounds great, although I’m a bit frustrated that the blurb doesn’t actually mark the book as queer! Erg. But that’s for another post.  Watch for a review of this book soon (in the meantime, check out this great one from Quill & Quire).

Goto, Hiromi. Half World. (2009). Penguin. Queer Vancouver-based writer Hiromi Goto’s graphic novel (illustrated by Jillian Tamaki) has gotten rave reviews in a number of places; the only criticism I can find is that most readers wanted it to be longer!  The book’s protagonist’s best friend is an elderly lesbian (I’m not sure at this point if the protagonist or other characters are queer, and frankly I don’t really want to spoil it for myself).  The book sounds amazing: “Melanie Tamaki is an outsider.  Unpopular and impoverished, she is the only child of a loving but neglectful mother. She barely copes with surviving school and life. But everything changes on the day she returns home to find her mother is missing, lured back to Half World by a vile creature calling himself Mr. Glueskin. Soon Melanie embarks on an epic and darkly fantastical journey to Half World to save her mother. What she does not yet realize is that the state of the universe is at stake…. Award-winning author Hiromi Goto’s novel is an adventurous, genre-bending fantasy of shape-shifting characters, tortured half lives, and redemption.”  It’s also exciting that this book’s protagonist is a young woman of colour! Yay.

Goto, Hiromi. Darkest Light. (out in February 2013). Penguin. Luckily for those readers who wanted more of the world and characters of Half World, Darkest Light is its sequelThis book picks up the story 16 years later and follows a different, male protagonist, along with his lesbian friend and talking cat (what a rad sounding trio!).  Here’s what Quill & Quire has to say: “Darkest Light picks up the story 16 years later. The baby that was Glueskin is now a brooding, pale-skinned teenager named Gee, who has no knowledge of the three realms. After he discovers the truth, he is compelled to return to Half World, along with an unhappy lesbian friend and a talking cat. Once there, his former nature threatens to return, and the story becomes a meditation on free will, fate, and the nature of morality: if people are destined to keep returning to Half World to relive moments of utter horror no matter how good or bad they are as Flesh, why not just stay there and rule as cannibalistic monsters?”  See the rest of the review here.  I may wait to read Half World until the sequel is released, so I don’t have to wait in agony to find out what happens!

Lieberman, Leane. Gravity. (2008). Orca Book Publishers. The premise for this novel about a Jewish girl growing up and coming out in Toronto in the 80s sounds excellent.  Unfortunately there’s quite a lot of negative reviews around the internet, in particular criticizing Lieberman for not understanding a) queerness or b) Orthodox Judaism.  The Lambda site does have a positive review, though, as does the Queer YA blog.  Here’s the synopsis: “Ellie Gold is an orthodox Jewish teenager living in Toronto in the late eighties. Ellie has no doubts about her strict religious upbringing until she falls in love with another girl at her grandmother’s cottage. Aware that homosexuality clashes with Jewish observance, Ellie feels forced to either alter her sexuality or leave her community. Meanwhile, Ellie’s mother, Chana, becomes convinced she has a messianic role to play, and her sister, Neshama, chafes against the restrictions of her faith. Ellie is afraid there is no way to be both gay and Jewish, but her mother and sister offer alternative concepts of God that help Ellie find a place for herself as a queer Jew.”

Murray, Jill. Rhythm and Blues. (2010). Doubleday Canada.  Like Gravity, this book does have some negative reviews, but also some positive ones (Daisy Porter over at Queer YA blog writes that “Murray really nails the voice here, and the plot is anything but trite”).  Here’s the official scoop: “The follow-up to Jill Murray’s acclaimed Break on Through, Rhythm and Blues is a thoughtful and glittery young adult novel about a teenage girl’s quest—for fame, love and self-identity.  Many of the things in Alya’s life have been unexpected: She never anticipated receiving a full scholarship to the private school she attends; she never thought she would end up as a member of Hydra Force, the hottest breakdance crew around, or that she would be ‘discovered’ and asked to be part of a cool new girl group called EnChantay . . . But that’s what happens to her, and overnight, Alya’s life completely changes. She moves to Montreal and begins voice lessons, practicing choreography with her bandmates, and shooting a video for EnChantay’s first single. Yet, of all the unexpected things in her life, Alya is most surprised when she finds herself questioning the person she is, and feeling things that she never imagined feeling . . . all for one of her friends.”

Rainfield, Cheryl. Scars. (2010). Westside Books. Queer Toronto author Cherly Rainfield’s novel seems really heavy: it’s about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who self-harms.  These are important topics, though, and I suspect the novel does them justice.  The novel was a Governor General’s award finalist the year it came out.  It sounds really promising: “Kendra, fifteen, hasn’t felt safe since she began to recall devastating memories of childhood sexual abuse, especially because she still can’t remember the most important detail– her abuser’s identity. Frightened, Kendra believes someone is always watching and following her, leaving menacing messages only she understands. If she lets her guard down even for a minute, it could cost Kendra her life. To relieve the pressure, Kendra cuts; aside from her brilliantly expressive artwork, it’s her only way of coping. Since her own mother is too self-absorbed to hear her cries for help, Kendra finds support in others instead: from her therapist and her art teacher, from Sandy, the close family friend who encourages her artwork, and from Meghan, the classmate who’s becoming a friend and maybe more. But the truth about Kendra’s abuse is just waiting to explode, with startling unforeseen consequences. Scars is the unforgettable story of one girl’s frightening path to the truth.”

Stevens, R.J. Becoming Bobbie. (2003). Kensington.  Again, this novel has both negative and positive reviews, so I guess I’ll just have to give it a read myself to see what’s what.  The criticisms I’ve found tend to centre on the writing style.  I do like that it follows an explicitly tomboy lesbian protagonist, though.  And, as the title suggests, it’s a coming-of-age tale, and I can’t really get enough of those.  The blurb sounds hopeful: “Growing up as a bona fide tomboy in the shadow of her fashionable, ladylike mother, Bobbie lives for three things: cars, music, and time with her uncomplicated, mechanic dad. She doesn’t need much in the way of friends. Her best girlfriends are on the radio–women with names like Aretha, Janis, and Diana. And she loves the cool logic of working on engines–the simple joy of finding the part that doesn’t work, of fixing what’s broken. But what’s broken beneath the shiny fade of her family is something beyond Bobbie’s control, a shattering secret that tears her family apart and sends Bobbie into a spiral of anger and defiance that she finds echoed only in the electric pain of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Stevenson, Robin. Inferno. (2009). Orca Book Publishers. This novel looks especially cool, especially in that it introduces classical mythology to teens.  I love the idea of high school as the real inferno.  The lesbian protagonist has even taken to calling herself Dante, although her mother still insists on calling her Emily. The simple synopsis is this: “Dante thinks high school is an earthly version of hell. She hates her new home in the suburbs, her best friend has moved away, her homeroom teacher mocks her and her mother is making her attend a social skills group for teenage girls. When a stranger shows up at school and hands Dante a flyer that reads: Woof, woof. You are not a dog. Why are you going to obedience school?, Dante thinks she’s found a soul mate. Someone who understands. Someone else who wants to make real changes in the world. But there are all kinds of ways of bringing about change…and some are more dangerous than others.”  Doesn’t that sound great? I feel like I want to read this in conjunction with American author Eileen Myles’s poetic novel, also called Inferno.

Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. Skim. (2008). Groundwood Books.  I have read this one, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It’s both beautifully told and illustrated.  Queer Torontonian author Mariko Tamaki has really set the bar high here, for queer fiction, YA fiction, and Canadian fiction.  Outsider Kimberly Keiko Cameron–Skim is her nickname–is a queer Asian-Canadian teen whose school is in turmoil because a popular boy has committed suicide amidst rumours that he was gay.  At the same time, Skim has fallen for her free-spirited (female) teacher.   The crush actually results in a kiss between her and the illusive and beautiful Ms. Archer.  The kiss and its repercussions, however, lead Skim down a pretty dark path of depression, although the book is never without humour, even if it’s the dark variety.  This novel deals with all the complexities of high school—suicide, depression, love, sexuality, isolation—in such a completely raw and authentic voice.  The illustrations are just as poignant as the narrative.  Read this book!  I’m planning to re-read it soon so I can post a review.

Tamaki, Mariko. (You) Set Me on Fire. (2012). Penguin.  I wrote earlier in the fall about this book, which alas! I have yet to read still.  Here is my enthusiasm from September: I’m especially excited about Mariko Tamaki’s (You) Set Me on Fire, a novel about a woman’s first year of university. Quill and Quire summarizes the opening of the novel like this: “after one failed romance with her sexually confused friend Anne, and two unfortunate accidents involving fire, 17-year-old Allison Lee is looking forward to a new start.” That’s right, there’s fire both in a literal and a figurative sense. Heart be still! Of course, Allison’s post-secondary ‘new start’ is going to be anything but a smooth ride: she’s going to have to deal with her queer sexuality and that irresistible someone who just about takes over her life. From what else I’ve read by Tamaki, she is deadly good at nailing an authentic young person’s voice, and it looks like this novel is, if anything, even better than what she’s done before. It’s being marketed as a young adult novel, which I find quite interesting since it takes up that precise year when you’re supposed to suddenly stop being a teenager and ‘grow up.’

Has anyone else read any of these novels?  I’m super curious to know more about the ones I haven’t read yet.  Which ones would you recommend I dive into first?  Any additions I should make to this list?

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic, Hiromi Goto, Ivan E. Coyote, Jewish, Kristyn Dunnion, Lesbian, Mariko Tamaki, Montreal, Queer, Toronto, Trans Masculine, Young Adult and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Hello, Queer YA: An Introduction to Queer Canadian Young Women’s Fiction

  1. Pingback: Link Round Up: Nov 6-20 « The Lesbrary

  2. Lindy says:

    Nice list! I love queer YA too and I’ve read 8 of these. You can find my reviews at Lindy Reads and Reviews.

  3. M-E Girard says:

    I am so late finding this website, so I’m going backwards reading your blog entries. But, I just read about a book named CRUSH by Canadian author Carrie Mac. Haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list.

    This is a great website. I’m a Canadian writer and I write queer YA (female protagonists). Maybe one day I’ll be mentioned on your site. Ha! 😛

    • Glad to hear from a new reader! Thanks for the tip on Crush. I think I actually read that book quite a while ago. I’ll add it to my to-read list. If you have review copies of any of your writing, feel free to let me know via email (casey@uvic.ca). I’m always up for reviewing new authors!

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