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Sep 1, 2022 | Arts, Books, Queer Arts

Despite Bans, Queer YA Books Are Still Selling Well

When Phil Stamper was growing up in the early 2000s, he couldn’t go into a Barnes & Noble and find an LGBTQ+ section for young adults.

“There weren’t enough books to fill those shelves,” Stamper, a popular author of contemporary, queer young adult (YA) novels, told The 19th. His latest book, “Small Town Pride, released in May, is deeply rooted in his own lived experience of being gay in a rural community which now, thanks to books like his, might feel less isolating.

“Now, you can go into any bookstore or library in even the smallest and most conservative town, and you will find a section. It’s crazy to go home to rural Ohio, where I was raised, and find my book in any bookstore there.”

But Stamper recognizes that this meteoric rise in popularity, visibility and scope of representation for queer authors and characters in queer YA has also created a backlash, one evident in state governments and school boards across the United States.

“It’s not a coincidence that increases in queer visibility are going to be tied to more legislation against this kind of visibility and more opposition to it as well,” Stamper said.

Book bans and restrictions are going into effect across the country with school districts limiting the access of books with LGBTQ+ subject matter. An April report by the PEN America Foundation found there were 1,586 individual instances of books being removed from shelves between July 2021 and March 2022, and books that have a protagonist of color or LGBTQ+ themes were disproportionately banned.

But at the same time, queer fiction has seen repeated year-over-year increases in sales; sales for LGBTQ+ fiction are already up 39 percent in year-over-year sales. And it is YA titles that are behind this surge.

That dynamic that can be difficult for queer authors who write queer stories. Stamper said it is “really demoralizing and frustrating” to see teens today experiencing what feels like many of the same cultural forces fighting against LGBTQ+ representation that he experienced as a young adult. Looking at the book bans sweeping the country right now, Stamper is reminded of the way he “saw no experiences I could relate to on TV, in movies, in books. If there was a queer character, they were either villains or driven mad by being gay. And then when we finally did get representation, it was mainly through [the 1996 Broadway musical] ‘Rent,’ which includes a lot of queer pain. Those were the only stories I was given as a 17-year-old: To live a queer life meant you were destined for pain.”

Looking at the current political moment, Stamper said it feels like “that’s where we’re trying to go back to in society with this legislation — but one thing we have now that we didn’t have then is visibility, which is exactly what people are trying to stop.”

Of the close to 5 million units of LGBTQ+ books sold in 2021, the biggest absolute gains in this market came from LGBTQ+ YA books, which saw an increase in sales of 1.3 million units from the previous year. Queer YA is more popular than ever — no longer a niche category, but redefining what is mainstream for teen readers. It’s also why it’s no coincidence that these books are now the target of so much hostility from conservative politicians, who are using language like “parents’ rights” to push back against young adults freely expressing their gender identities — and reading habits.

“YA authors write for teens because we care about them and their futures, so there’s a sick irony to these books being banned ‘for the sake of’ those exact same teens we aim to support,” said author Racquel Marie.

The uptick in book banning comes at an expansive moment in the genre. Adam Sass, whose new book “The 99 Boyfriends of Micah Summers” comes out in September, feels that one of the most exciting things about what’s happening in queer YA right now is the scope of stories being told.

“Representation for LGBTQ people is different from other marginalizations — we’re never going to be able to create one thing that speaks to the whole community,” Sass said. “It can be a little tougher to make something that reaches all audiences, but it’s also beautiful because it also means there are so many different types of ways to reach folks. We’re seeing more queer voices than ever before, shining different lights into corners of life that we’ve never seen before. There’s this real sense of discovery.”

Author Sasha Laurens, who describes her new book “Youngblood as a “lesbian vampire boarding school novel,” said that she feels like the momentum around queer YA books is a recent phenomenon.

“Even five years ago, it was difficult to get queer stories published. There was a sense that this was not marketable, that there was not sufficient interest in these kinds of stories — especially with female queer characters.”

Laurens said she is often asked why she thinks it is so important to include LGBTQ+ characters in science-fiction and fantasy books. “It’s a question that feels really old-fashioned to me,” Laurens said. “It’s clearly because LGBTQ people exist, so to not include them would be a strange and deliberate choice to be making. I think older people say, ‘Why would you deliberately decide to talk about queer issues,’ but as a queer person, I didn’t deliberately decide that — that’s just life.”

Reading work by fellow queer YA authors right now is a showcase of unmatched creativity, said Ryan La Sala, author of new novel “The Honeys,” a horror novel with a genderfluid protagonist set at an elite summer camp. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever read,” he said of the current LGBTQ+ YA marketplace.

But as book bans ramp up — which can have ripple effects beyond disappearing from libraries — authors, educators, librarians and publishers have to get creative to make sure readers can find these books right now and safely read them.

“This is both a time of tremendous opportunity and also a time of fear that morphs into anger,” said Sierra Elmore, whose latest novel “Death by Society” comes out in September.

As a queer, Black author, Elmore said that she worries about her book ending up on a banned list. Books with queer characters of color and books written by queer authors of color are facing a disproportionate amount of censorship. Even greater than this immediate fear, though, is the concern that each new ban means “that our books are not in the hands of teens who need them the most.”

As a self-published author, Elmore is optimistic, though, inspired by the creativity that her fellow authors in the independent YA space are taking to ensure that readers find their books. She said many peers donate their books to school libraries to help build their collection of queer YA. Authors are also choosing “discrete” covers for their books to ensure these donations are received.

“It’s a tricky tightrope — you want books that are out and proud,” Elmore said. “But you also want books with more discrete covers that aren’t so obviously LGBTQ+ so that when you bring the book home, parents won’t ask as many questions if they are less than LGBTQ+-friendly themselves.”

Sass echoed this sentiment. His first YA novel, “Surrender Your Sons,” was about teen boys sent to a conversion therapy camp and when thinking about the cover, he told his publisher that he wanted the book cover “to not be queer on the shelf.”

“I wanted no visible gayness on the cover, so if a kid was closeted or even if they were out but not in a place where they were safe — it is nerve wracking when you’re young and not out, or just out and holding something up that says ‘gay!’ all over the cover.’”

Sass said he thinks it’s important that authors and publishers keep this in mind when considering book covers. His new YA novel has the word ‘gay’ in the title, and has a cover that is purple and covered in hearts. “It’s a gay book cover and it’s important to have visibility, but it’s also important to have access to books where queerness is not visible.”

Amanda DeWitt sees all sides of this as both an author in this space and a public librarian living in Florida. Her debut YA novel “Aces Wild: A Heist” is out in September and focuses on asexual characters and aromantic identities. The fact that a book like hers — with multiple asexual characters in it — is exciting. As a librarian at a public library, DeWitt said there are huge opportunities for librarians to spend time reviewing their collections, identifying what kinds of gaps exist in them, and seeing “where new books can bolster the collection to make sure we have these books available to teens as they are banned from school libraries.”

“Especially as it gets harder and harder to put books in the hands of kids, it makes each book in this space more important,” DeWitt said. “School librarians are putting their jobs on the line right now, but it’s so heartening that people realize how important this is and that it is worth defending.”

La Sala said that what readers, regardless of their own identities, can learn from the current crop of queer protagonists is that “there is so much power to be found in knowing who you are and knowing that you deserve to live. You deserve to have your own story told.”

Telling stories, Marie said, is an important act of creative expression and personal affirmation, but also a political statement. “Art is political and always has been, so my hope is that people and publishers can continue rallying behind queer authors whose works are being targeted, especially those who are trans and/or not white, and thus the most targeted,” Marie said. “Fighting the censorship of media that validates queer and trans youths’ existence is integral to protecting current and future generations of our community.”

And despite the onslaught of legislation and policies that are specifically aimed at queer youth, what Stamper feels is particularly notable about the current moment is that this creative expression continues, out loud.

“We’re still telling our stories and our experiences — stories of joy and pain — and you are seeing those different experiences on the shelf,” Stamper said. “As much as you can try to ban books, it doesn’t stop those books from existing, which is pretty incredible.”

This story was originally published by The 19th.