Young adults who are part of gender or sexual minorities may be in need of extra support in school environments. We asked School Library Assistant Cathy-Ellen Paul to help equip school staff to be their champions, including in the reading they provide.
School libraries are the beating heart of a school community.
A library is an environment for learning not only academic, but also life skills. I spend my days working as a Library Assistant; managing administrative, interpersonal, and educational tasks in the beautiful safe space that is the school library. I can’t help but spend this time with a quiet smile on my face as I witness the constant and humbling moments of learning that occur. I love noticing the creative, sharp minds that tuck themselves away in a corner at lunchtime, those who waft a flurry of questions my way each day, and the lessons the staff learn from interacting directly with such earnest and honest minds.
School libraries are often the first places young people come face to face with stories that represent and validate their identities. Librarians have two important roles in supporting young people who are part of gender or sexual minorities. You can put books in their hands that help them understand and celebrate their identities, and you can be a safe adult who goes out of your way to respect them.
There are some small ways to show respect that will make a big positive impact in the lives of young people. Using correct pronouns, for example; not assuming that a person uses she/her because they present as feminine; and choosing to use language that respects and celebrates diverse identities and sexualities, are good things to weave into daily interactions. We live in a time of change, where gender expression is increasingly diverse – the way people look may be entirely different to the gender they identify with. Taking responsibility for educating oneself regardless of background is not a progressive notion anymore. It is to be expected in the time we live in.
Teaching and support staff can harness language to cultivate safe spaces for queer and trans youth. For example, the simple and hugely effective use of ‘students’ when addressing a group, rather than ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ can make a big difference to some students. I encourage you to set strong examples of respect. Ask your students what pronoun they identify with. Ask for their preferred name, regardless of what is recorded in the digital records. These simple gestures will resonate deeply and mean more than you could possibly imagine.
Things are changing when it comes to representation of diversity of gender and sexualities in young adult fiction. Authors aren’t just writing coming out stories anymore. They now present queer, trans, gender diverse, and gender non-conforming characters without any prelude. This takes the weight off a gender or sexual identity being a defining aspect of a character or story arc. After all, our identities shape us as much as we choose, but they don’t define us.
School librarians, you are an important part of the cavalry of social change! You carry the swords of opportunity to invest in literature that will help increase respect and solidify rights in the school environment, which will help change the lives of queer and trans youth. If your book-buying only reflects the gender binary, from picture books through to senior fiction, many students will feel isolated and underrepresented as a result. There will be dozens upon dozens of queer, gender non-conforming, and trans students in your midst hungry for decent literature to take home between their textbooks. You have incredible power here to steer the literary ship away from gender binary-based literature and representation.
Readers, please arm yourselves with the following glossary as we canter through 10 excellent young adult books and their descriptions!
Cis: someone whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
Trans: someone whose sense of personal identity and gender differs from their birth sex.
Gender binary: the classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine.
Gender diverse: an umbrella term, used to describe all those whose gender identity is at odds with their biological sex.
Genderqueer: an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is outside of, not included within, or beyond the binary of female and male.
Queer: an umbrella term, used in this article to describe those who have a sexual identity other than heterosexual.
Ze/zir: gender neutral pronouns, when the person is neither female nor male in gender or doesn’t fit into a gender binary.
Asexual: someone who doesn’t feel sexual attraction to any gender.
Bisexual: someone attracted to the same gender as the person in question, and also other genders.
Pansexual: sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to or dependent upon particular genders or sexual orientations.
Homophobia: prejudice against homosexual/queer people.
Transphobia: prejudice against transgender people.
Transmisogyny: discrimination or prejudice against transgender women; the intersection of transphobia and misogyny.
To misgender: referring to someone by the pronouns or honorifics of a gender that is not theirs.
Here are 10 books that all school libraries would benefit from ordering immediately. I recommend these to all readers to sink their teeth into, because the value of young adult fiction doesn’t decrease once you’re a fully-fledged adult, after all.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon and Schuster)
Ari and Dante’s unexpected friendship and deep care for one another are shown through their awkwardness, tenderness, and silences. These Mexican-American teens come to realise their identities through graceful, philosophical interactions and shared experiences.
The Blue Lawn by William Taylor (Alyson Books)
(Queer relationship, gender stereotypes)
A romantic bond forms between fifteen-year-old David and the new kid Theo. This novel is a story of strong physical attraction between two young men, who have to navigate the environment of masculine stereotypes and gender roles in the world of rugby. David’s indecision makes for a vulnerable and bittersweet connection between the two.
Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee (Simon and Schuster)
(Asexuality, queer relationship)
Tash and her best friend Jack have co-created a very popular web series adaptation of Anna Karenina, and she has formed a new crush on a fellow video creator, as well as coming out as asexual. Tash is spinning a lot of plates, so to speak. It is so refreshing to focus on an underrepresented side of the sexuality spectrum and Ormsbee weaves all of these aspects together with respect and alacrity.
Dreadnought by April Daniels (Diversion)
Danny Tozer witnesses the death of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero, right after he bequeaths Danny with his powers. Danny can fly, and also now has the body she’s always felt she should have been born with. However her father doesn’t respect her transformation. Danny is thrust into the role of saviour as she fights to stop a cyborg on the loose, and navigates a classic coming-of-age superhero tale that confronts transmisogyny and sexism.
Dare Truth or Promise, by Paula Boock (Penguin Random House)
(Queer relationship, homophobia)
Louie is the child of a middle-class Catholic family, and plans to be a lawyer when she grows up. Willa lives with her widowed mother in a mid-city pub. She is also learning to navigate being gay. These adolescent schoolgirls from Dunedin meet and fall passionately in love, something that doesn’t sit well with their conservative families. The adrenaline-filled dynamic between the students is reminiscent of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, but without the matricide, of course.
When We Wake, by Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin)
Teenagers deserve fresh discussions of feminism for a new generation, authors dedicated to inclusivity and believing in the open minds of young people. When We Wake is set in a futuristic Australia that feels very familiar. Tensions are raised to boiling point in a setting controlled by strict borders and the harsh climate change. The protagonist of this tale is Tegan, a young woman working through enormous personal and political change. We get to witness her triumphs and losses, her confusion towards her sexuality and personal power.
Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart (Delacorte Press)
(Transgender, bipolar disorder)
Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. However Lily appears androgynous and often gets misgendered as a boy, especially because she is still in eighth grade. Lily becomes friends with Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert, who is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from his hometown in New Jersey to a new school. The fact that he is hiding from a painful secret makes this worse. Lily and Dunkin’s friendship changes both of their lives in unexpected ways.
Our Own Private Universe, by Robin Talley (HarperCollins)
(Bisexuality, queer relationship, pansexuality, safe sex)
Aki is eager to lead an exciting life, and is tired of feeling like her identity is compromised by hypotheticals. She embarks on a trip to Mexico with her best friend Lori, their church youth group and Aki’s minister father. Aki becomes aware of her bisexuality when she finds herself attracted to Christa, and begins a relationship with her, though Christa isn’t out about her pansexuality. Alongside exploring both of the girls’ feelings and what it means to fall in love, Talley delves into the importance of safe sex, a topic not widely discussed in young adult fiction.
Lumberjanes (Graphic Novel series), by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooke A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson (Boom! Box)
(Gender stereotypes, gender fludity)
Graphic novels are highly effective for helping raise a student’s reading age level, while presenting exciting storylines, fascinating character dynamics, and gorgeous artwork. The five teens in Lumberjanes are part of a ‘camp for hardcore lady-types’ and embark on charming fantasy adventures, each revealing different superhero-esque skills while working together as a water-tight team to defeat various obstacles and villains.
Roving Pack, by Sassafras Lowrey (Lulu Press)
(Homeless youth, pronoun usage, genderqueer)
Click is a trans kid who mixes among the homeless queer youth of Portland, Oregon, and ze struggles not only with being genderqueer in a world that tries to force people into binaries but also with finding zir place in the transgender community. The complexities of the young and queer homeless is a demographic that isn’t widely explored in LGBT+ rhetoric so being able to follow Click as ze attempts to connect and intimacy with others amidst the chaos is a fresh and important perspective.
Cathy-Ellen Paul has worked and volunteered in the local book and literary industry for 5 years. She currently works as a Library Assistant and educator, devoted to fighting for increased gender and sexuality education in schools. She writes creative non fiction here. She moonlights as a freelance event manager, and has a penchant for writing short poetry, acting in local theatre, and spending afternoons reading novels in the sunshine with Olive the cat. Image credit: Sarah Fordham.