My 2 Cents on Five Queer Must-Reads for Young Adults

What’s new, folks? June is here, which means it’s also Pride Month! The publishing industry is continuing to prosper with more and more queer-centric books targeted at young adults. It’s vital to have these books around as enthralling stories that promote inclusion, compassion, and self-love to their growing readers. Here are five picks I recommend.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)

It’s summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas, when Aristotle (or Ari) meets Dante at the public pool and accepts his offer of swimming lessons. The Mexican-American 15-year-old boys hit it off right away despite (or perhaps because of) the two of them being as different as oil and water. The introverted Ari has been struggling to connect with his family ever since his elder brother went to prison for mysterious reasons; the outgoing Dante is tight with his family, which is so affectionate and open that they have a “no secrets” policy. Ari and Dante’s bond is touching to follow as they grow closer, experience the curveballs that life hurls at them, and slowly realize that their friendship is developing into something more. Sáenz (author of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life) puts his lyrical prowess on full display in this novel, fleshing out the dynamic between the boys and making the emotionally inept tendencies of Ari’s family feel realistic rather than forced. The story candidly delves into themes of manhood, toxic masculinity, and the value of growing men getting in touch with their feelings. Plus, the audiobook is read by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the living angel responsible for the songs in HamiltonIn The Heights, and Moana.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera (2018)

Ben is a Puerto Rican New Yorker who is contending with summer school, writing aspirations, and the tension that’s been stirred up between himself and his friends after breaking up with his ex-boyfriend. Arthur is a white Jewish Broadway enthusiast with ADHD who has traveled from Georgia to NYC for a summer internship while his lawyer mom handles a major case. A fateful day sees the two boys having their meet-cute at a post office, but they’re unable to exchange names and numbers before a flash mob proposal splits them apart. Rest assured, though, for they reconnect after a combination of luck and hard searching coming from both sides. But the troubles aren’t over quite yet as they endure awkward do-over dates, personal insecurities, clashing outlooks, and other bumps, all while wondering how big of a role the universe is playing in the limited time they have before Arthur returns to Georgia at the end of summer. The first-person POV alternates between the leads, with Silvera (They Both Die at the End) writing Ben’s chapters and Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) writing Arthur’s. This is why each teenager feels like he has his own distinct voice. At the same time, the novel harmonizes the contrasting writing styles together—a bit of a feat when you consider that Albertalli tells stories that make your heart take leaps of joy and Silvera tells stories that send your heart into lengthy bawl-fests. The engaging leads, the diverse and lovable side players (one of whom identifies as biromantic ace), the clever dialogue, and the nods to pop culture icons like Hamilton and Harry Potter all enhance the book’s grounded and heartfelt view on the up-and-down essence of relationships.

Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron (2020)

Upon turning sixteen, Sophia Grimmins receives an invitation to attend the annual ball hosted by King Manford. In honor of Cinderella, who died two centuries ago, all girls age sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen in the kingdom of Mersailles have no choice but to present themselves at this event in hopes of finding a “Prince Charming.” If they fail to marry themselves off by their third ball at eighteen, they either get forced into slavery or disappear entirely as punishment. The absence of any freedom and the possibility of domestic abuse in marriage leaves it only slightly more preferable of a path. Sophia, who wants to spend her life with her childhood pal and secret girlfriend Erin, ends up bolting from the ball and taking refuge at Cinderella’s mausoleum, where she encounters Constance, a redheaded descendant of Cinderella’s stepsister Gabrielle. The story unfolds from there as they collaborate to unearth secrets that could knock down Manford’s tyrannical reign. Bayron’s debut novel may feel familiar at the outset, but the protagonist being a queer Black girl, the gripping revisionist take on the legend of Cinderella, the endearing relationship that develops between Sophia and Constance, the patriarchy-smashing attitude, and the commentary on internalized misogyny and homophobia all merge together to create a wildly enchanting fractured fairy tale. I also find it interesting that Mersailles is a society that doesn’t overtly involve race. Class and heteronormativity are set up as the defining factors instead, though race could be playing a role in the background. 

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (2020)

Yadriel, a 16-year-old gay trans boy, is part of an East L.A. brujx cemetery community that has dedicated centuries to wielding magic bestowed upon them by Lady Death. The brujos are in charge of freeing spirits into the hereafter, while the brujas are responsible for healing the living. Since Yadriel’s traditional family refuses to accept him as a boy and has barred him from participating in the quince ceremony to become a brujo, he takes it upon himself to perform the sacred ritual and bring his magical abilities to the surface. Right afterwards, though, he intuits that his cousin Miguel, who just went missing, has been murdered. Determined to prove that he’s a brujo through and through, Yadriel attempts to summon his cousin’s spirit. Instead, he conjures up the spirit of Julian, a troublemaking schoolmate who recently underwent his own mysterious death. Thomas (Lost in the Never Woods) pulls you in right at the opening of his #OwnVoices debut with the paranormal worldbuilding and builds up the pace from there as Yadriel investigates what happened to both Julian and Miguel. But it’s the sweet and authentic relationship between Yadriel and Julian that will keep you invested in the emotional narrative. Abounding in trans, gay, and Latinx representation, this book also weaves in themes on the afterlife, connecting with your heritage, the meanings of blood family and found family, and the importance of self-acceptance.

She’s Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard (2021)

When ambitious Latinx photographer Veronica and white high school swimmer Micaela (Mick for short) cross paths at a San Diego party, they connect immediately. The evening ends with Veronica capturing an eerily stunning photo of Mick, who hates being on camera, without her permission right after their first kiss. She proceeds to post that shot on Instagram, which simultaneously launches her into artistic stardom and mucks things up for Mick, including her strained relationship with her negligent model mother. Then Veronica introduces Mick to 20-year-old Nico, a close friend who erects illegal art installations. What initially appears to be harmless political activism ends up spiraling out of control, leaving multiple people dead in its wake and entangling Mick and Veronica ever deeper in the chaos. Heard’s YA debut (she previously published two adult thrillers, Hunting Annabelle and The Kill Club) pulses with a fiery energy that escalates over the course of the twist-filled plot, which gives nods to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Its usage of the first-person perspective for both of the dual protagonists provides the reader with a clear sense of the convincing chemistry, the lopsided power dynamic, and the dark intensity between them. In addition, their relationship brings up questions about the hurt that ensues when people—teenagers particularly—struggle to establish consent and push their partners to the edge to fulfill their own selfish desires.

All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.

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