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On YA literature with LGBTQ characters

Suzanne Sutherland, editorial assistant at Groundwood Books
Suzanne Sutherland, editorial assistant at Groundwood Books, and author of When We Were Good, published by Three O’Clock Press. You can follow her on Twitter @sutherlandsuz, and read her blog.

In September of 2011, my mom was nervous.

“I was listening to Q,” she said, “you know, with Jian Ghomeshi?”
“Uh huh?”
“And he said that no one buys YA with gay characters.”
“Oh, really.”
“He’s says it’s very hard to get published.”

I then proceeded to totally interrupt her story (about co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith being asked by a major literary agent to ‘straighten out’ a gay character in their post-apocalyptic novel, Stranger) to spout off a list of exceptional young-adult literature with LGBTQ characters. A list that started with Groundwood’s own Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.

My mom was concerned because I had just sent my first novel off to a publisher for consideration. The book was (and is) called When We Were Good and was (and is) about two girls falling in love, among other things.

The coming-out speech I gave my parents was unlike most.

“I’m not gay,” I told them, “but my book is.”

Though they were, and always have been, unconditionally supportive of my work and of me, my mom was worried that I would be asked to change my story—that maybe they’d tell me to turn my leading lady, Katherine, into a Kurt or a Kenny.

But so many of the novels I read as a teenager, during that formative time when books hit harder than they ever will again (if you’re lucky), reflected the lives of the people around me who identified as LGBTQ. Ariel Schrag’s autobiographical high school comics (particularly Potential) shocked and amazed me with their gutting honesty, and local Toronto authors like Mariko Tamaki (with her first novel, Cover Me) and Debra Anderson (Code White) inspired me to write more stories about our city.

So, as it happened, my mom worried for nothing.

When We Were Good book coverWhen We Were Good found a perfect publisher in Sumach, and as I worked with my editor, Sarah Wayne, to bring the manuscript to its finished state, I noticed that there seemed to be more and more new works of LGBTQ-themed YA.

In addition to Groundwood’s own excellent contributions to the field—shout-outs to Paul Yee’s Money Boy, Tamara Bach’s Girl From Mars and Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy, which was particularly trailblazing when it was published in 1990—there is a wealth of fantastic queer YA being published right now.

Happily, Brown and Smith’s co-authored novel, Stranger, eventually found a home with Penguin’s imprint Viking in 2012, and is due out in 2014, reportedly with its gay characters intact.

And my own novel, When We Were Good, was released in May, appropriately feted with a launch at the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookshop, Glad Day.

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