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Lucy Scribner Library

Queering and Reimagining YA Literature: Senior Honors Thesis Display by Liza Pennington

Chart documenting the amount of diversity in the YA publishing industry


     This exhibit culminates my year-long American Studies senior thesis on representations of gender and sexuality in YA (young adult) literature. My fall capstone paper, titled “Survival of the Straightest: Reimagining Young Adult Heroines,” focused on the compulsory heteronormativity in two YA bestsellers, The Hunger Games and Divergent.

     This virtual exhibit celebrates contemporary, intersectional queer YA-- the books I wished for as I grew increasingly frustrated by the genre’s hetero scripts. This project asserts the importance of seeing oneself on the page, specifically created for all the young queer girls waiting to see themselves represented in their favorite books. Happy reading! 

--Liza Pennington ‘20

Pennington Senior Capstone Paper

Book cover for Annie on My Mind

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, 1982

     A classic in the queer fiction canon, Annie on my Mind is the timeless story of two New York City high schoolers, Annie and Liza. First published in 1982, the book was banned from many libraries for its lesbian content. With the dedication reading “For all of us,” author Nancy Garden acknowledges the lack of lesbian representation in literature. Her writing fills a historic gap. Annie and Liza’s story is pure, curious, and heartwarming, as they fall for each other over phone calls, letters, and trips to museums. They are in different stages of understanding their sexualities, not focusing on labels but instead focusing on each other.

     The book takes a turn when teachers find out about Annie and Liza’s relationship. Outed unwillingly, they face punishment and public humiliation. Their utopian romance ends here. This representation becomes even more meaningful for the way it shows the prejudice against queer folks that persists in queer literature even decades later. Annie and Liza are thrown out of the closet and forced to face the reality of being lesbian. While their story is one of privilege that spotlights white, middle-class romance, it is an invaluable work of queer fiction that paved the way for the more intersectional texts that follow.

Book cover for Totally Joe

Totally Joe by James Howe, 2005

     Author James Howe describes Totally Joe as “the first book with a 12-year-old who was not only gay but comfortable and happy with who he was.” Published in 2005, his book was the first of its kind, for beyond the typical tribulations faced by middle-schoolers, Joe grapples with what it means to like boys. Despite struggling with bullying at school, Joe never fails to be “totally” himself, a sentiment captured by Howe in the title. Joe comes out to his loved ones, dates his first boyfriend, develops crushes, and is open about all of this with his English teacher. The book itself is written in the format of an acrostic autobiography class assignment.

     Totally Joe was a meaningful contribution to queer YA before it was a genre of its own. It powerfully and honestly describes crushes, coming out, and being out, while many YA books don’t cover all three of these stages. Joe is also just a lovable character, one that Howe wanted readers to imagine as one of their own friends. Howe has created an exceptional, approachable character in Joe. In his own words, “one of the greatest things books can do for us is make us feel less alone and give us the words to understand who we are.”

Interview with James Howe

Book cover for I Am J

I am J by Cris Beam, 2011   

     “J had always felt different. He was (sometimes) sure that people would one day understand who he really was: a boy mistakenly identified as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; he started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible--from his family, from his friends...from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend, J decides he's done hiding: it's time to be who he really is. And this time he's determined not give up, no matter the cost.” -

     Beam’s early contribution to trans fiction highlights the tension between a young trans character and his hyper-traditional Puerto Rican and Jewish parents. One of multiple of Beam’s books spotlighting trans voices, I am J has had a significant impact on welcoming trans content to the queer YA canon. 

Book cover of The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, 2012

     When Cameron loses her parents in a tragic car accident, she is forced to navigate being closeted under the care of her conservative aunt and grandmother. Living in Montana in the 90s, she’s only ever known one or two out lesbians and learns all she knows about being queer from them-- until she’s outed by a friend and sent away to God’s Promise, an isolated conversion program. There, she experiences genuine queer friendship, bonded together with her peers over a mutual disdain for the program. Cameron begrudgingly complies with its rituals in the hopes of someday getting out.

      This book is unique in the way that author Emily M. Danforth first establishes Cameron as an everyday girl, athlete, and friend-- it isn’t until halfway through the book that her queerness takes center stage as her entire life is uprooted. Rather than finding herself in a community that celebrates her for who she is, as is the trend of many queer YA books, Cameron is explicitly punished for who she is. This is an important perspective, and one that Danforth felt was missing. She sought to “reclaim a queer space in history,” adding, “I think I followed the classic advice of writing the novel that I wanted to read, and I had not read a book about a queer girl growing up in a rural place the way that I did.” Strengthened by autobiographical elements, Danforth’s book introduces region and religion as variables that structure the queer experience.


Book cover for Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera, 2016

     Juliet is a groundbreaking character to enter the YA realm. Raised in the Bronx by a Puerto-Rican family, she provides visibility for queer Latinx folks, filling the book with charming moments of Spanglish and culture shock as she travels across the country to Portland for her dream summer internship. While working for her favorite feminist author, Juliet comes to terms with the exclusionary practices of white feminism. She finds community elsewhere, immersing herself in a vibrant, loving queer utopia of people of color. There, Juliet is transformed. She shaves her head, grows from heartbreak, and explores romance on the West Coast all while appreciating her New York roots more each day.

      This book is about so much more than Juliet’s sexuality. She grows hugely as a person and feminist. Juliet comes out early on in the book-- her story is not one of a closeted girl, but of a girl eager to learn about herself. This was the intended audience for Rivera’s book, as she clarifies in an interview for Remezcla, “I wanted to reach people at the beginning of their journey. I wanted to really show that person who isn’t ready yet, what it’s like to be put into that world.” Juliet is a self proclaimed “baby dyke,” and her story stands out because of this. Her queerness does not exist in a vacuum-- Juliet is determined to learn about and experience queer culture, taking advantage of all the resources Portland has to offer. Juliet is the heroine YA has needed and her story is widely acclaimed for challenging genre standards of whiteness and straightness.


Book cover for If I Was Your Girl

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, 2016

     “Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone. But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won't be able to see past it. Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It's that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?” 

      Russo responds to the careful balance between what she calls “gritty realism” and “soft idealistic escapism in trans fiction” with her book. She not only sought to increase trans visibility in the genre, but also to normalize trans adolescence-- “I just wanted them [readers] to feel like the most elementary cultural messages they receive, these fluffy love stories of (relatively) low stakes coming of age stories… are their dreams too.”

Interview with Meredith Russo

Book cover for Red, White, and Royal Blue

Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, 2019

     Casey McQuiston writes an unexpected love story between two boys from completely different worlds-- The White House and Kensington Palace. Forced to intermingle at various flashy events for the press, Alex, son of the President, and Prince Henry form a deep rivalry. They’re forced to pose as friends for the camera, and it is through this staged friendship that Alex realizes there might be a reason why he constantly teases Henry for his accent or the way he dresses. Despite all odds, Alex finds himself falling for his rival and navigating the murky waters of romance with security guards and curfews. Rather than suffering from an unrequited crush, or a straight one, as many queer characters tend to in YA, Alex finds himself in a real relationship. He and Henry are hilarious, sarcastic, and witty, and their word play is just as captivating as the time they spend sneaking off together.

     With a close gay family friend to look up to, Alex’s coming out certainly isn’t the centerpoint of the book-- Red, White & Royal Blue is moreso focused on navigating a cross-continental, political, mature relationship within Alex and Henry’s otherwise normal teenage lives. Alex’s modern, messy family is another highlight of the book. It redefines the image of the first family, as Alex’s parents are divorced and his Mexican-American mother is President. This is a fun, flirty, read and an important, bestseller contribution to queering YA.

Book cover for Hot Dog Girl

Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan, 2019   

     “Elouise (Lou) Parker is determined to have the absolute best, most impossibly epic summer of her life. There are just a few things standing in her way: She’s landed a job at Magic Castle Playland… as a giant dancing hot dog. Her crush, the dreamy Diving Pirate Nick, already has a girlfriend, who is literally the Princess of the park. But Lou’s never liked anyone, guy or otherwise, this much before, and now she wants a chance at her own happily ever after. Her best friend, Seeley, the carousel operator, who’s always been up for anything, suddenly isn’t when it comes to Lou’s quest to set her up with the perfect girl or Lou’s scheme to get close to Nick. And it turns out that this will be their last summer at Magic Castle Playland – ever – unless she can find a way to stop it from closing. Still, Lou’s absolutely positive she’s just one good plan away from getting this summer back on track.”

     Focusing on intersectionality in her work, Dugan expresses frustration with how “too often, a book can only be about ‘one thing’ when that’s just not the reality of the world.” Her story featuring a “disaster” of a protagonist-- the complicated, struggling Lou, took its time taking off. Dugan recalls agent feedback such as “queer girls don’t sell,” motivating her to challenge the proliferation of white male characters in queer YA.

Interview with Jennifer Dugan

Book cover for The Stars and the Blackness Between

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus, 2019

     “Told in two distinct and irresistible voices, Junauda Petrus’s bold and lyrical debut is the story of two black girls from very different backgrounds finding love and happiness in a world that seems determined to deny them both.

     Trinidad. Sixteen-year-old Audre is despondent, having just found out she’s going to be sent to live in America with her father because her strictly religious mother caught her with her secret girlfriend, the pastor’s daughter. Audre’s grandmother Queenie (a former dancer who drives a white convertible Cadillac and who has a few secrets of her own) tries to reassure her granddaughter that she won’t lose her roots, not even in some place called Minneapolis. “America have dey spirits too, believe me,” she tells Audre.

     Minneapolis. Sixteen-year-old Mabel is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out why she feels the way she feels–about her ex Terrell, about her girl Jada and that moment they had in the woods, and about the vague feeling of illness that’s plagued her all summer. Mabel’s reverie is cut short when her father announces that his best friend and his just-arrived-from-Trinidad daughter are coming for dinner.

     Mabel quickly falls hard for Audre and is determined to take care of her as she tries to navigate an American high school. But their romance takes a turn when test results reveal exactly why Mabel has been feeling low-key sick all summer and suddenly it’s Audre who is caring for Mabel as she faces a deeply uncertain future.”

     Petrus’s story contributes a transnational lens to the genre. Complicating queer YA with a migration narrative, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them reminds readers of queer experiences beyond the U.S. and the cultural and generational differences at play.