LGBTQ+ YA is a particular passion of mine, and it’s been thrilling to see it develop at incredible speed over the past decade. In the time between the release of my first one in 2015—Under the Lights—to my next, Cool for the Summer, which releases on May 11th, the amount of representation had increased exponentially in every area.
While there’s still room to grow, this list comprises all different orientations and gender identities, and is far more racially diverse than a list we would’ve seen just a few years ago. Whether you’re looking for a pansexual lead in contemporary or a gay trans lead in paranormal or a lesbian lead in historical, there’s something here for you!
The Weight of the Stars
Ancrum is quickly rising in notoriety as an author of some seriously intense brilliance, beginning with her marvelous and powerful The Wicker King—perfect for fans of The Raven Boys and strong mental health depictions—and continuing up through her June release, Darling, a take on Peter Pan. In between is this soft Sapphic slow-burn romance perfect for space geeks, about a girl named Ryann who dreams of traveling to the stars and ends up falling for a girl whose mother left her behind in order to do just that.
For another queer YA with heartwarming space nerdery, check out The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper, and for more Sapphic romance, try You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Final Draft by Riley Redgate, Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan, Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi, The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth, Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen, The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding, Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli, and Going Off Script by Jen Wilde.
Black Wings Beating
One of my favorite trilogies in all of YA SFF, London’s epic fantasy series revolves around a pair of twins who practice falconry in a society overshadowed by the threat of war. Kylee, who’s aromantic asexual, is the gifted one of the two, but she’s not interested in exploiting that power. Meanwhile, Brysen would kill to have her magic with birds and land the boy of his dreams. When he sees his chance in the quest to capture the all-important and majorly deadly Ghost Eagle, Kylee insists on going along to keep him safe. But neither could possibly imagine what lies ahead.
For more great queer epic YA fantasy, check out The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, and The Brilliant Death by A.R. Capetta, and for one specifically with an aroace main character, try This Golden Flame by Emily Victoria.
Follow Your Arrow
CeCe is a major social media influencer, something she built up together with her girlfriend, Sylvie. But when Sylvie breaks up with her, CeCe’s unsure who’ll still be interested in her as a solo project. And when she starts dating a guy, things get even more fraught.
Despite the fact that she’s always been open about being bi, now people are calling her a fraud for wanting to participate in Pride and rock the rainbow. To keep the guy and the gig, she’ll have to come clean to him about her internet fame and stand up for who she is in the community, with or without a girl by her side.
For more new YAs taking on biphobia, check out Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar.
Felix Ever After
Callender’s cross-category talent is unmatched; in the same year they released King and the Dragonflies, a stunning Middle Grade novel that won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, they also managed to drop this groundbreaking YA about a trans boy (who ultimately comes to identify as a demiboy through some continued questioning) named Felix who gets targeted by a bully insistent on exposing his deadname and pre-transition photos and decides to take revenge. But Felix’s plan doesn’t go quite as planned when he starts to feel something for the very boy he’s trying to catfish.
Related: 10 Thought-Provoking YA Books Like The Hate U Give
For more great realistic contemporary YA starring trans boys, check out Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve, All Kinds of Other by James Sie, The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons, and Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee.
Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)
It’s impossible to have a discussion about sex in queer YA that doesn’t include this brave, wildly honest, and wholly necessary YA debut. Not for the faint of heart, it revolves around a gay boy named Jack who finds himself running an online sex advice column, and getting badgered by a homophobic stalker as a result.
While he tries to figure out who’s attempting to destroy him, he helps a lot of other kids along way, with unfiltered conversations about blow jobs, asexuality, BDSM, fetishization of queer guys by straight girls, and more. (I also highly recommend Rosen’s sophomore novel, Camp, which continues to tackle tough in-community conversations with a delightfully summery setting.)
For some more favorite contemporary gay YA, check out The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery, Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass, History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, and Keep This to Yourself by Tom Ryan.
Talley is one of queer YA’s most prolific authors, jumping genres from historical to contemporary to paranormal and back again. This one is my personal favorite of hers, a brilliant dual-narrative with one timeline exploring the lavender scare and origins of lesbian pulp fiction in the American 1950s and one in the present day.
The latter stars Abby Zimet, who’s doing a school project on said fiction, and falls down the rabbit hole researching author Marian Love, who seems to have disappeared after writing some of Abby’s favorite work. And back in history, a girl named Janet is inspired to write lesbian romance after stumbling upon one such novel, but knows it means taking a risk that might be too big to handle.
For more brilliant queer YA historicals, check out Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, a must-read set in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, set in 1950s Chinatown. Or go back even further with Aden Polydoros’s upcoming historical fantasy thriller, The City Beautiful, set at the World’s Fair in 1893, or Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin, set in 1926.
Emezi’s literary brilliance is well documented, and this short, brilliant speculative novel deserves all its acclaim and then some. It stars Jam, a trans girl living in the city of Lucille, where the children have been told monsters no longer roam. But if that’s the case, then why has one emerged from one of her mother’s paintings and taken up residence in their room? What is Pet there to show her and her best friend, Redemption? Together, they’ll quest to find out, and learn that monsters come in many forms.
For more speculative trans YA, check out the excellent paranormal Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and fantasy The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon.
Can't Take That Away
A very welcome new voice in queer YA fiction, Salvatore’s debut is an ode to nonbinary identity and Mariah Carey, who gives our lead their name. Carey Parker is genderqueer; if you want to know what pronouns to use that day, you can check the bracelet on their wrist. (Or look at the chapter openings.) Carey’s also talented as hell, and when they decide they want the role of Elphaba in the school play, it sets off a chain of transphobic reaction that forces them to stand up for what they know they deserve.
For more contemporary YA with nonbinary leads, check out I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, Even if We Break by Marieke Nijkamp, and in speculative YA, try the upcoming The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta, Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller and Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve.
Want a little something of everything? Saundra Mitchell has got you covered. In addition to Mitchell’s own queer books, including All the Things We Do in the Dark and Looking for Group (as Rory Harrison), she’s also the editor of the all-queer anthology All Out—a collection of all-queer, all-historical short stories from authors like Tess Sharpe (The Girls I’ve Been), Anna-Marie McLemore (The Mirror Season), Kody Keplinger (Run), Sara Farizan (Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel), and more (including yours truly). There's also an all-contemporary (though not all realistic) follow-up, Out Now, which features Mark Oshiro (Anger Is a Gift), Katherine Locke (The Spy With the Red Balloon), C.B. Lee (Not Your Sidekick), Meredith Russo (If I Was Your Girl), and more.
And yes, there’s a third coming—Out There, which is all futuristic queer fiction, with stories from a whole new collection of authors including Kalynn Bayron (Cinderella is Dead), Naomi Kanakia (We Are Totally Normal), Z Brewer (Into the Real), and Nita Tyndall (Who I Was With Her).
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Featured photo: Aziz Acharki / Unsplash