In the past few years, the rallying cries have increased for more books for kids and teenagers featuring diverse characters ― and authors and publishers are responding. As we see more and more books featuring characters of color, characters who are LGBT, characters who are disabled, characters who aren’t native English speakers, and other key underrepresented groups, we’re seeing more and more YA books come out featuring characters who fall into more than one of those categories.
Books like these are essential to accurately reflect the world around us. After all, it’s not as if falling into one minority group makes you any less likely to be part of another.
So here’s a list of some of my favorite characters of color in YA novels who are also LGBT, listed in the order they were released. (I’m limiting this list to protagonists, by the way. If I expanded it to include secondary characters, the list would be a lot longer, and there would be even more amazing characters on here.)
J from I Am J (2011) by Cris Beam
J is transgender, and he’s also biracial ― his mother is Puerto Rican, his father Jewish. He spends the story trying to understand what it means to be transgender and what it means to be a man, while his parents struggle to accept J the way he is. What astonished me most when reading J’s story for the first time was how real he felt ― I kept expecting to bump into him the next time I went to Starbucks. That’s how complicated and fascinating this guy is.
Aristotle & Dante (tie) from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Saenz
I went back and forth trying to pick a favorite between these two, but I can’t ― I adore Dante’s romanticism and sincerity, but I also adore Aristotle’s beautiful narration and the complex way he thinks about his amazing family. So in the end, it’s a draw. Aristotle and Dante are both Mexican-American boys growing up in Texas who are slowly, very slowly, beginning to understand that they’re gay, and they’re in love. It’s at that same slow, gentle pace that readers discover that they’re in love with this book, too.
Sahar from If You Could Be Mine (2013) by Sara Farizan
Unlike Aristotle and Dante, Sahar and Nasrin, the two Iranian girls at the center of If You Could Be Mine, know they’re in love from the first page. Also unlike Aristotle and Dante, though, readers aren’t likely to root for these two as a couple. Although Sahar sees Nasrin only as the love of her life, readers will quickly discover that Nasrin is undeserving of Sahar’s devotion ― and the extreme measures Sahar to which is willing to go to for her, including undergoing sex reassignment surgery, which is legal in Iran despite the country’s criminalization of homosexuality. Over the course of the story, though, Sahar comes into her own, and by its end I was desperately rooting for her to find happiness ― and independence ― against seemingly impossible odds.
Enki from The Summer Prince (2013) by Alaya Dawn Johnson
I thought about naming The Summer Prince’s narrator, June, for this list instead of Enki. June is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in YA, and she, like Enki, doesn’t seem to identify with any particular sexual orientation; she loves who she loves and sleeps with who she sleeps with. But in a future world where sexuality is beside the point ― June has a mom, a deceased father, and a stepmother, and it’s such a nonissue it never even gets remarked upon ―Enki’s the one who a good chunk of the story in a serious relationship with another boy, so he gets my vote this time. Enki’s also the character who spends the entire story in a state of more-or-less open revolt against the creepy matriarchy that runs their city of Palmares Tres in a future Brazil, despite having volunteered for a symbolic leadership position that carries a state-sanctioned death sentence. Oh, and he’s black. Once you start reading this book, you’ll never be able to stop thinking about it.
Emi from Everything Leads to You (2014) by Nina LaCour
It isn’t until more than halfway through Everything Leads to You that we learn Emi, the 18-year-old girl at the center of the story, is of mixed race ― one of her grandparents is black, the other three are white. By then, we already know she mainly dates girls ― though refreshingly, she never actually puts a label on her sexual orientation, and we learn that she’s dated at least one guy in the past, too. So much about this story feels breezy and straightforward, including Emi’s casual attitude about her ethnic background and her constantly-in-love-with-someone status, that it’s easy to miss how beautifully the author weaves in all these intricacies in the midst of an incredibly compelling mystery/romance story.
Alek from One Man Guy (2014) by Michael Barakiva
This book! This book, you guys. Alek, who’s Armenian-American, has never given much thought about his sexuality ― until he meets Ethan, a skater dude who’s obsessed with Rufus Wainwright. One Man Guy is a romantic comedy that I can’t imagine any reader not relishing. It makes you remember what it felt like to be fourteen, in a good way.
Amara from Otherbound (2014) by Corinne Duyvis
An incredible fantasy, Otherbound is told from the perspective of two characters, a teenage boy, Nolan, living in real-world Arizona and a teenage girl, Amara, living in a completely different universe whose life Nolan witnesses every time he closes his eyes. Amara is a servant, dark-skinned and mute thanks to having had her tongue cut out as a child ― meaning, for those of you keeping track, this character is female, she’s lower-class, she’s not white, she’s disabled, and she’s not straight. In Amara’s world, gender and sexuality are non-issues, and she falls in love twice during the story, once with a boy, once with a girl. The story is a great reminder that fantasy worlds don’t have to follow the “rules” we think of as existing in the “real” world.
About the book
In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. A straight A student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spat on, and tormented daily. Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept ‘separate but equal.’
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power, and how they really feel about one another, something they’re both determined to ignore. It’s one thing to be frightened by the world around you – and another thing altogether when you’re terrified of what you feel inside.
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley is out now in paperback (£7.99, Mira Ink)