- Representing the Rainbow in Young Adult Literature: LGBTQ+ Content since 1969 by Christine A. Jenkins and Michael Cart
Perhaps the first thing to say about Christine A. Jenkins and Michael Cart’s Representing the Rainbow is that I am sincerely grateful that this book exists. As the authors note on the first page of their introduction, “Although statistics measuring the number of YA titles published each year are fugitive, we estimate the average number to be roughly two thousand per year, a number significantly larger than the yearly average of twenty titles with LGBTQ+ content” (xi; orig. emphasis). Yet the total number of such books has not only steadily added up over the decades since 1969 (the year of publication of John Donovan’s groundbreaking I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip.), but it has also increased in frequency and quality. Jenkins and Cart trace the rise in publication of young adult books with LGBTQ+ content and comment critically on how such books represent sexualities and genders that are not heteronormative.
The social, cultural, and even political experiences of young people with regard to issues of sexuality and gender have shifted considerably since 1969, which was also the year of the Stonewall Riots, a major uprising of queer people against repression, harassment, and police violence. Jenkins and Cart track those historical changes as roughly parallel to the evolution in representation of LGBTQ+ characters and content—an evolution in publishing that mirrors the push-pull and simultaneously progressive and retrograde developments in the social acceptance of queer people. As such, the authors note that a “number of the early titles . . . perpetuate stereotypes by characterizing homosexuals as lost souls doomed to either premature death or the solitary life of exile at the margins of society,” but they also acknowledge significant positive changes in such representation. At the same time, they bemoan the fact that “YA literature, like other media for teens, still does not represent the full range and diversity of the lived experiences of young adults in the twenty-first century” (xii). [End Page 109]
Indeed, what’s perhaps most useful in Jenkins and Cart’s categorization and analysis of hundreds of such books is their recognition that representation of LGBTQ+ content isn’t proceeding on a linear path toward greater acceptance; rather, representations in different books differ in intention, intensity, and affect at the same time. As such, the authors’ model broadly categorizes novels published between 1969 and 2016 into three groups: books presenting homosexual visibility, books that portray assimilation of gay characters into larger social groups or units, and books that attempt to represent queer consciousness and community (xiv). We might take three books published since 2010 as examples. Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda offers homosexual visibility with its “sanguine” view of coming out and a sweet boy-boy romance; Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth speaks more to gay assimilation with its focus on a friendship between a straight boy and a lesbian; and David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing is more a novel of queer consciousness and community as it features a range of queer characters grappling with different dramas and, most notably, a gay “chorus” of men who have died from AIDS and who guide the narration, offering a poignant historical frame for the contemporary action. One might disagree with such categorizations, and I often found myself either perplexed by or actively arguing against some of the characterizations of the books that Jenkins and Cart discuss. But the value of their approach is apparent in two ways: first, in its documentation of how LGBTQ+ content appears in various forms and degrees in contemporary adolescent fiction; and second, in its provocation of discussion and debate.
For instance, Jenkins and Cart write eloquently about Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and subsequent volumes in her Dangerous Angels series, noting how Block’s work in general offers “a vision of the transformative power of love. Indeed, a number of teens and adults...