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Young Adult Literature  
 
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Gay and lesbian young adult literature--books targeted at readers aged twelve and up--ranges widely in sensitivity, topic, quality, and political and social insight. The field includes works as various as John Donovan's pioneering and intelligent I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, (1969), Larry Hulse's Just the Right Amount of Wrong (1982), and Ron Koertge's extremely optimistic and affirming The Arizona Kid (1988).

The market for children's and young adult literature has expanded greatly in the last twenty-five years, and now a proliferation of materials is available to gay and lesbian adolescents, including comic books with gay characters and after-school television specials focused on gay issues.

Sponsor Message.

Since 1969, more than seventy young adult fiction titles featuring gay or lesbian themes or characters have appeared, more than half of them since 1985.

Although the focus and tone of this fiction have changed over these twenty-five years, the field continues to be dominated by male characters and white, middle-class settings. African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, and Hispanic authors and characters are dramatically under-represented.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this literature is shaped by and reinforces the dominant social values and prejudices of American society. Homosexuality is too often simply a plot device or "problem" to be overcome; only rarely does it occasion penetrating social criticism.

In 1976, Frances Hanckel and John Cunningham asked in the Wilson Library Bulletin, "Can Young Gays Find Happiness in YA Books?" At that time, a distinctive literary genre defined as young adult lesbian and gay fiction barely existed.

From 1969 to 1976, only five novels were published with gay and lesbian themes: Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, Isabelle Holland's The Man without a Face (1970), Sandra Scoppettone's Trying Hard to Hear You (1974), Rosa Guy's Ruby (1976), and Mary W. Sullivan's What's This About, Pete? (1976).

The Persistence of Stereotypes

In their review article, Hanckel and Cunningham noted that, apart from filling a gap, most of these titles offered little accuracy or reassurance for straight and gay young readers. The situation has since improved somewhat, but as a field, young adult gay and lesbian literature remains enmeshed in stereotypes.

In 1983, Jan Goodman summarized several assumptions that, in spite of the best intentions of the authors of young adult gay and lesbian literature, marred this fiction.

The Threat of Physical Danger and Death

For example, the assumption that being a lesbian or a gay man is physically dangerous and sometimes life-threatening pervades these books. More than half of the lesbian and gay protagonists in young adult literature meet with physical harm or tragedy.

Even in a work like Scoppettone's Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978), which features two lesbian characters who enjoy mutual solace in their relationship, a horrifying subplot undermines the positive message, though it also effectively exposes the violence that often accompanies bigotry: After a disturbed male classmate sees the two women kissing, the lesbian protagonist is raped.

In one of the most disturbing novels of the genre, Hulse's Just the Right Amount of Wrong, fear of the consequences of being exposed as homosexual is strong enough to motivate murder. Set in Farleigh, Kentucky, the local sheriff, Nate Lemur, kills Mr. Wilkes, the new bachelor high school principal, to protect the secret of their relationship.

Before the murder, the central character, Jerry Blankenship, and some friends observe Wilkes and Lemur at Wilkes's house. Although the boys never speak of their discovery, untrue rumors begin to spread that Wilkes is sexually interested in young boys.

Thus, an adult gay character in a position of responsibility and respect is first compromised by untrue allegations and is ultimately destroyed by homophobia, as embodied in the person of the sheriff.

Aidan Chambers's Dance On My Grave (1982) ends in a fatal automobile accident, and Paul, a protagonist in Frank Mosca's All-American Boys (1983), is badly beaten by male classmates in a particularly violent fag-bashing story line.

The tendency for physical harm and death to come to gay and lesbian characters appears to have subsided somewhat in the past several years.

Of the eleven novels in this genre published in the early 1990s, including Penny Raife Durant's When Heroes Die (1992), Diana Wieler's Bad Boy (1992), Rik Isensee's We're Not Alone (1992), and Liza Ketchum Murrow's Twelve Days in August (1993), none of the primary or secondary lesbian and gay characters face the horrible fates that befell characters in earlier works.

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