10 YA Graphic Novels About the LGBTQIA+ experience | Stellar Panels

From fantasy to more realistic stories, these diverse works update classic coming out narratives and focus on self-discovery.

If there is one notable development in recent LGBTQIA+ graphic novels, it’s that they are following the rest of the medium in becoming more diverse in terms of characters and stories. Tien, in Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish, is a member of a Vietnamese immigrant family and wrestles with not only whether to come out to his parents but whether they will understand what that means. Juliet, the protagonist of Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath, finds dismay and acceptance when she comes out to her large Puerto Rican family, while her journey to Portland, OR, brings her a new view of the politics of gender and color. And in How To Be Ace, Rebecca Burgess writes about her asexual identity, an orientation that hasn’t been fully represented in media until recently.

Some of these stories are fantasies, and some reflect reality more directly. Some put a new spin on the classic coming out story, while others focus on self-discovery. All present queer characters whose sexuality is interwoven with the many other strands of their lives, making for complex and fascinating stories.

Flamer by Mike Curato (Holt, 2020)
Gr 8 Up –Aidan was bullied in middle school for being “different.” He’s part Filipino and part white. He’s gay, although he wrestles with that, believing it to be sinful. Aidan expects the bullying to get worse in high school, but summer scout camp is a respite between miseries. He cherishes the rituals of the camp, the freedom of being out in nature, and his longtime friendships with the guys in his troop. His secret crush on his tent mate, Elias, makes it complicated, though, and another camper keeps picking on him. The situation escalates, but Curato paces the story carefully, alternating scenes of deep beauty and happiness with those of violence and callousness. When things become overwhelming, Aidan decides to take his own life, but a vision of his inner self intervenes, pointing out reasons to hope. In the end, his friends are more accepting than he expected. The art is simple but carefully composed and well suited to this emotional story.

Girl Haven by Lilah Sturges, illus. by Meaghan Carter (Oni Pr., Feb. 2021)
Gr 5 Up –Ash’s mother disappeared three years ago, leaving behind a shed filled with notebooks, costumes, and other items, all related to the magical land of Koretris, a fantasy world that only girls could enter. Ash has read the notebooks and knows the stories, but the story becomes real when Ash’s friends from the Pride Club come to visit and they are all whisked off to Koretris. They are immediately plunged into a heroic battle, but Ash can’t brush off two important questions: Where is his mother? And if only girls can enter Koretris, how did he get in? By the end of the story, Ash has not only won the battles but also found the answers to both questions. Carter’s manga-influenced art is easy to follow. The gentle colors help set the mood, and the humans and fantasy creatures alike are drawn with expressive faces that quickly convey their emotions.

The Hazards of Love Vol. 1 by Stan Stanley (Oni Pr., Mar. 2021)
Gr 9 Up –Amparo is nonbinary, attends a Catholic girls’ school, and has a tendency to get into trouble. They want to do better, not only because they are in love with library nerd Iolanthe but also because they realize how their behavior impacts their family. When a deal with a talking cat goes awry, though, Amparo ends up in Bright World, a candy-colored nightmare of a place where humans are valued only for their labor and their nutritional qualities, and the corrupt locals steal bits of their bodies and minds a little at a time. While Amparo is trying to scheme their way out of Bright World, Iolanthe becomes suspicious of the Amparo she sees (the talking cat has taken on the teen’s likeness and life) but can’t figure out what’s happening. Only when Amparo’s abuela dies and her ghost gets involved does Amparo’s luck start to shift. This comic was originally published as a webcomic, and it is ongoing, so the story isn’t complete in either format.

How To Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual by Rebecca Burgess (Jessica Kingsley, 2020)
Gr 11 Up –Burgess, who uses they/them pronouns, grew up feeling different, partly because of their severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also because they were not in the least interested in romance or sex, two topics that everyone around them seemed obsessed with. Burgess speaks directly to readers, explaining what asexuality is and depicting how they navigate a world where they sometimes feel out of place and often have to feign interest in sex in order to get along with others. Because they are British, parts of the story (such as the school system) may be unfamiliar to Americans, but Burgess’s confusion and uncertainty about being different will resonate with many teens.

I’m a Wild Seed by Sharon Lee De La Cruz (Street Noise, Feb. 2021)
Gr 11 Up –In this colorful graphic novel, De La Cruz, a queer woman of color, reflects on how growing up in a patriarchal, colonialist society affected her sense of self. De La Cruz describes how she pushed back against these constraints, which delayed her acceptance of her sexuality, and ultimately became comfortable with who she is. The art is simple, almost childlike, with bright colors and uncluttered panels.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera, illus. by Celia Moscote (BOOM! Box, 2020)
Gr 11 Up –Juliet Milagros Palante, a queer Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx, travels to Portland, OR, for an internship with feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. There she finds some new friends and soaks in the hipster culture but also comes to realize that the writer she admired from afar is not quite as saintly up close. Meanwhile, her girlfriend ditches her, and her mother, to whom she came out just before she left, keeps calling and insisting that her lesbianism is just a phase. This graphic novel is adapted from Rivera’s novel, and Moscote fills the pages with beautifully curvy characters and luscious candy colors.

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (Random/Graphic, 2020)
Gr 7 Up –When Tien was younger, he read library books to his mother to help her learn English. Now that he is in middle school, they have kept up the tradition. Nguyen weaves three folktales into his story, with the framing tale told from the point of view of Tien and his mother. Tien isn’t sure how his parents will react if he comes out to them, because the language and cultural gaps are so vast, while his mother is preoccupied with worries about her own mother, who is still back in Vietnam. The stories in the real world unfold with straightforward but carefully designed art: Tien has a crush, takes a risk, and gets in trouble at his Catholic school, while his mother is called home when her mother dies. In between these sequences, Nguyen retells “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid,” stories that relate obliquely to the human characters’ lives but also have a strange beauty of their own. The book concludes with extensive notes on the fairy tales, including the costumes and other details.

Renegade Rule by Ben Kahn and Rachel Silverstein, illus. by Sam Beck (Dark Horse, Jun. 2021)
Gr 7 Up –The Manhattan Mist, a quartet of queer young women, has reached the championship round of the virtual reality game Renegade Rule, and the pressure is on. The stakes are especially high for one of the teammates, but the finals are tough on all of them, as nerves begin to fray, friendships splinter, and romances get complicated. Plus, they are up against some stiff competition. The story mixes humor and intense competition as the team members doggedly pursue the top prize. The art is colorful, with realistically proportioned figures and dynamic compositions.

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh (First Second, 2020)
Gr 5-8 –Snapdragon is a girl who doesn’t fit in at school. Jacks is a witch who picks up roadkill, liberates the spirits of the dead animals, and sells their skeletons on the internet. When Snapdragon becomes Jacks’s apprentice, she learns about animal anatomy, witchcraft, and her own family history: Jacks was once her grandmother’s lover. As Snapdragon pieces everything together, there’s a side story: Snapdragon’s friend Louis transitions to Lulu, something everyone in the story accepts quite readily (although Lulu’s father has to get a bunch of books from the library to understand it). The story has some great twists, the art is energetic, and the characters are easy to like, from prickly Jacks to Snapdragon’s weary but relaxed mother.

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky (Random, 2020)
Gr 8 Up –Lelek, a witch, and Sanja, a young woman who is good at swordplay, team up and wander the land in search of Lelek’s stolen magic in this fantasy story about friendship, forgiveness, and trauma. As they move through different towns, Sanja learns bit by bit about Lelek’s past, the expectations put on her, and the terrible fate that her family suffered. Zabarsky’s art is at once simple and intricate, clear-lined and filled with detail, and the palette is limited but varies from scene to scene. This is one of those stories that’s immersive, pulling readers into its fantasy world, and it’s also paced well, with wordless sequences and quiet moments mixed with scenes of action and danger. A good pick for fantasy fans who are looking for something a little quirky.

Brigid Alverson is the editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog.

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