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A Triumphant Shout: Great LGBTQIAP2S+ Graphic Novels

Suzan Alteri is the Librarian for the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Fresno State University which has the largest collection of LGBTQIAP2S+ children’s and young adult books in the U.S. She grew up in a privileged, white suburban household in the Metro Detroit area and spent most of her life in Michigan before living in Florida and now California. Suzan brings her perspective as an asexual radical feminist to her work on the Rise: A Feminist Booklist committee and regularly studies and works to decolonize her collection and teaching style, but also realizes this is a lifelong pursuit. She has worked in libraries and children’s literature special collections for more than 14 years.

As an white, suburban, asexual Gen X-er who grew up with many questions about my sexual and gender identities, I always wished there were books out there that would help explain why I wasn’t interested in boys, found kissing to be rather unpleasant, and certainly wasn’t looking to have sex of any kind. I wanted to know that there were other people out there who were also questioning gender and sexuality norms, but most middle grade and young adult titles were about how to deal with boys and losing your virginity in heterosexual contexts. Books didn’t talk about women like me who weren’t interested in sex at all and very little was said if you fancied someone from the same gender. What information was out there tended to revolve around the AIDS crisis, which society viewed as largely a white, and gay male disease, and educating teens and kids that you couldn’t get AIDS from touching. 

The beginnings of LGBTQIAP2S+ comics and graphic novels occurred in the 1970s, but most of these were produced for an adult audience and not widely available as most mainstream comic creators and publishers refused to include overt queer content. If it wasn’t there for adults, it certainly wasn’t available for kids and teens. While adult LGBTQIAP2S+ graphic novels have been steadily growing since the popularity of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), graphic novels featuring LGBTQIAP2S+ themes and characters for children and young adults took longer to appear. When young adult books were published, they featured mostly privileged white characters.

In and Out of the Closet

Fortunately, the past three years has seen a significant uptick in the number of diverse LGBTQIAP2S+ themed graphic novels for kids and young adults. In an article for YA Hotline, Nicole Marcoux and Ridley Thomas note that “The overlap of LGBTQ+ content with graphic novels and comics is a rich subject area and the availability of materials grows more robust and representative over time.” Increasing diverse racial and cultural representation of LGBTQIAP2S characters in graphic novels has been a main focal point of the past five years. 

Published In 2020, The Magic Fish and Flamer, two semi-autobiographical and highly anticipated graphic novels, dealt with issues of homophobia, culture, and the stress of being in the closet. In The Magic Fish, author and artist Trung Le Nguyen, zooms in on a particular time in his childhood when he was thinking of coming out to his parents and friends. While celebrating Vietnamese culture, Tiến struggles with finding the right words to tell his parents he is gay. Using the language of fairy tales - Western and Eastern - Tiến is able to find acceptance from his mother. 

On the other end of the spectrum is Mike Curato’s Flamer which explores a very different experience with coming out. Flamer is about a biracial (Filipino and white) teen at his last week of Boy Scout camp. Aiden, who is mercilessly teased and bullied about being effeminate, struggles to come to terms with his feelings for the boy he shares a tent with and battles homophobia at camp, home, and in his religion - at one point imagining suicide. Aiden doesn’t so much find acceptance but rather the realization that being LGBTQIAP2S+ won’t be easy. Both books illustrate the diversity of closeting/coming out experiences in relatable, authentic narratives that explore empowerment and resilience. Curato notes in an interview with PEN America that he wrote the book “because I want to help young people who are in the vulnerable place that I was in when I was their age.” And that he “didn’t have a book like this to validate who I am” when he was young.

Intersectional LGBTQIAP2S+ Relationships In Fantastical Worlds

As the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres have grown in popularity for middle grade and young adult audiences, we’ve seen creators use these stories to explore LGBTQIAP2S+ themes as well. Three standout graphic novels use supernatural and speculative fiction elements to explore themes of family, self-acceptance, and transformation. Two of them also overtly highlight intersectional same-gender relationships, with characters of color and disabled characters taking center stage.

Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens (2021) celebrates African American familial culture while using Artie’s ability to transform into a werewolf as a mechanism for exploring the bonds of family and being oneself. Artie’s budding relationship with Maya, another werewolf and daughter of one of her mom’s oldest friends, is a small part of the story but it is universalized as just another aspect of finding out who you are as an adolescent. Being LGBTQIAP2S+ is simply normal.

Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky (2022) is the story of Preet and Valissa, two lesbians, who must journey away from each other to learn that the accepted traditions of the mainstream are okay to break with. Everyone in their village has magic except for Valissa, but when the town is threatened by a strange mist, Valissa must venture inside while Preet stays behind and ends up breaking one of the village’s sacred laws. Each woman's journey of self discovery and transformation teaches them that stories are powerful tools, but rather than treating them as intractable we should learn from them and each other to change for the better. 

Mooncakes by creative trio Wendy Xu, Suzanne Walker, and Joamette Gil (2019) looks at the relationship between Nova Huang, a bisexual Asian teen who is a skilled witch and Tam Lang, who is brown-skinned, hard of hearing, and a werewolf. Nova lives with her aunts who are also in a lesbian relationship and witches. The two older women serve as a model for Nova and Tam and illustrate that one’s found family is just as important as one’s biological family. As Nova and Tam confront an evil force they explore their relationship in a welcoming, loving environment.

Each of these books exemplifies the Diverse BookFinder’s Any Child thematic category and demonstrates the power of this kind of narrative, where marginalized identities are an accepted and welcomed aspect of a teen’s life rather than being the focus of the story.

Trans and Nonbinary Characters Break Out Into the Mainstream

Also breaking into the mainstream kids and teen book market are graphic novels featuring trans and nonbinary characters. In Galaxy: The Prettiest Star from Jadzia Axelrod and Jess Taylor (2022), the protagonist Taylor is initially presented as a white teen boy but in reality is an extraterrestrial named Galaxy Crowned who presents as feminine. She is forced to hide her identity until she meets Katherine, a young Black woman who shows Taylor that she can be her true self without endangering society. For creator Jadzia Axelrod, Taylor/Galaxy Crowned is both metaphorically trans and actually trans, which she explains on a podcast with Transqat. Galaxy is a powerful example of Diverse BookFinder’s Cross Group narrative about trans identity and the strength of self-acceptance.

Blue Delliquanti’s Across a Field of Starlight (2022) not only dismantles gender norms and identities during an intergalactic war, but posits a new society of self-love, abundance, and peace. Fassen, a joint protagonist, is in the resistance fight and Lu is a research scientist in a utopian commune that depends on secrecy.  Both are nonbinary, while Fassen’s friend Sergeant Bda Gr Sertig sports a beard and unibrow and uses she/her pronouns. Sertig and Fassen struggle with the expectations of being a soldier both in terms of gender and violence, while Lu represents what could be. Some readers have described Fassen and Lu’s relationship as queerplatonic or asexual, but however you interpret it, Across a Field of Starlight illustrates the spectrums of gender and sexuality. In discussing her book with Multiversity Comics, Delliquanti said she received no push back from Random House Graphic in having two main characters who are nonbinary.

As diverse LGBTQIAP2S+ child and young adult narratives continue to find acceptance in mainstream publishing, these stories will continue to break boundaries and explore the many facets of gender, sexuality, and love.

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