Coming of age is never simple, but the best books for young adults have long strived to not only entertain but also to ease the transition from child to adult. While classics like Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” put puberty (and religion) front and center in 1970, many of 2019’s best YAs tackle increasingly wide-ranging issues of gender and sexuality, often with other cultural concerns thrown in.
Gender-conscious YA tends to fall into two categories, either fantasy or realism. The fantasy, epitomized by standouts like Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta’s “Once & Future,” envision a world or a future in which fluidity of gender and sexuality are the norm. While none of the current crop completely reimagine gender as thoroughly as Ursula K. LeGuin did in 1969 with “The Left Hand of Darkness,” which featured androgynous characters whose genders literally shifted in various situations, they present a possible future beyond sexism and stigma.
The realism, in novels like Meredith Russo’s “Birthday” and memoirs like Shaun David Hutchinson’s “Brave Face,” chronicles the struggles of LGBTQIA+ teens in a relatable and encouraging way, acknowledging the issues and offering hope. A few, notably Gabby Rivera’s “Juliet Takes a Breath,” reach further, tackling race and class as well in an utterly entertaining intersectional story.
The futuristic fantasy depicted in “Once & Future” is hardly a utopia. In this adventure, a spritely retelling of the legend of King Arthur (think T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”), an evil corporation controls the galaxy. Ari, an undocumented refugee from an outlaw planet, is on the run from their troops when she crash-lands on “Old Earth,” as humanity’s ruined home planet is called. Without realizing the import of her act, she pulls the legendary sword Excalibur from the stone, waking the magician Merlin and identifying herself as the 42nd reincarnation of the great king. But while there’s plenty of opposition to Ari and her quest to unite humanity, a wide variety of gender identities and sexualities — including asexual and nonbinary — are accepted without question. When Ari grabs a “fluid” for a quick embrace to avoid scrutiny from some corporate goons, for example, all she notes is the tongue stud as they kiss.
The rural Tennessee setting of “Birthday” could not be more different. That’s the world of best friends Eric and Morgan, who were born on the same day and both assigned male gender. As the alternating viewpoints of the friends make clear when we meet them on their 13th birthday, theirs is a traditional male-dominant cis binary world, where football is revered and “fag” a mortal slur. The friends have always shared their birthday celebrations, but Morgan is struggling to share more — the transgender identity Morgan herself doesn’t understand. What follows as their intertwined tale revisits these friends on each of their next six birthdays runs the gamut from bullying and self-harm to love and acceptance.
These two books, both eminently readable, share a common dualism: Gender is either a non-issue or it is the issue, more than almost anything else. This is not a complaint. Fantasies like “Once & Future” (or Charlotte Nicole Davis’s somewhat darker “The Good Luck Girls”) offer adventure and fun, as well as a respite from real-world struggles, while the more realistic books (count Jennifer Dugan’s gently funny “Hot Dog Girl” and the graphic novel “Kiss Number 8,” by writer Colleen AF Venable and illustrator Ellen T. Crenshaw, among these) allow young readers to explore the confusion and prejudice they may face. All also feature at least a few sympathetic straight, cis, and binary allies, although many adults are predictably clueless.
A few books have reached beyond these issues. As Juliet, the self-described Puerto Rican “baby dyke” protagonist of “Juliet Takes a Breath,” tries to make her very traditional mother understand that just because she has broken up with her girlfriend doesn’t mean she’s ready for “real” love (with a man), she’s also dealing with a ton of other issues. Away from the Bronx for an internship with a white feminist author, Juliet learns about the intersectionality of racism and sexism, privilege and power, as she confronts some hard truths about her new community. It’s a complex and multilayered story, presented clearly and leavened with both romance and fun.
Together, these new titles offer a range of views, designed to comfort and enlighten. While none present perfect solutions — unless magic is an option — they will let young readers know they’re not alone. Even those not dealing with coming out or bullying — or intergalactic storm troopers — should be able to relate to these protagonists. If, along the way, they can experience a different way of being, whether for themselves or their peers, so much the better.
Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “A Spell of Murder.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.