I’ve always kept an eye out for LGBT literature when I’m choosing what book to read next, and I’m always drawn to the Young Adult section. Not only because so many LGBT novels about people my age end up in YA, but also because I am yearning for the deep romantic plot and happy endings heterosexual couples take for granted in nearly all media. Though YA is often looked down upon, especially for college students who may be pressured to read more "serious" literature, I've found many beautiful works of art in this section. These are my five favorite YA LGBT novels.
Red, White, and Royal Blue (2019) by Casey McQuiston
The newest novel on this list, Red, White and Royal Blue is a lovely book that I practically inhaled in one night. Though it initially seems to have a cliché romance novel plot—the First Son of the United States falls in love with the Prince of England—it is more profound than it seems. With pop culture references and slang perfectly tailored to a college audience, the characters read as real, modern twenty–somethings in an Austen–ian love story. It is their love for each other that elevates this novel from saccharine and light to heart–wrenching. My favorite parts of the novel were the emails exchanged between the two protagonists: love letters filled with poetry and excerpts from historical queer love letters. Issues of sexuality, home, grief, queer history, and politics pepper the novel and add a cerebral dimension to an already well–crafted, funny read about two men falling in love despite the odds.
Carry On (2015) by Rainbow Rowell
Carry On is Rowell’s love letter to Harry Potter, and its influence on this work is obvious. Set in a fantastical world, Carry On is a compelling magical mystery. However, for me, one of the best parts of the novel is the burgeoning relationship between protagonist Simon, and his vampire roommate Baz. A traditional enemies–to–lovers relationship turned queer adds a quirky romantic element amid discussions of class, power, and identity in a bright and charming magical world. As an avid fan of both magic and fan fiction, I admire Rowell's unique yet nostalgic take on a magical world like the one we all loved—though my time at Hogwarts had to end, I found a new home in the Watford School of Magicks.
The Captive Prince (2012) trilogy by C.S. Pacat
The Captive Prince has inspired its fair share of controversy, but I would step up to defend this series to anyone. This is one of the most political, well–plotted, and complex series I have ever read. At its core, it's about two leaders who must win back control of their countries through subterfuge and violence. Though the series has been criticized for the initial power imbalance between its protagonists and the inclusion of slavery, it allows both the reader and the characters a chance to learn about why these power systems are violent and morally wrong. Captive Prince is so well–written that you will find yourself rooting for the love between two diametrically opposed characters—its protagonists initially hate each other, but as they work together to overcome both enemies and deeply–rooted traumas, they become devoted to each other. The plot and character growth are impeccable, and the series boasts one of the most despicable, realistic villains I’ve ever read about. A warning for those who want to read this book: it is the most sexually explicit of the bunch, and has significant themes related to child abuse.
The Song of Achilles (2012) by Madeline Miller
Inspired by the Greek classic The Iliad, The Song of Achilles is one of those books that you have to be ready to cry over. On the surface, this is the reinterpreted story of Achilles, the famed war hero of the Trojan War. However, at its heart, it is about the love between Achilles and Patroclus, his lover and the narrator of the novel. Though historians debate whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or simply best friends, this novel hinges on a deep romantic relationship spanning all the way from childhood to adulthood. The novel spirals toward tragedy as the Greek classics often do, but Patroclus’ pure love for Achilles soothes the novel’s inevitable heartbreak. This is not only a heartbreaking love story but an easy way for modern readers to enter the world of classical Greek epics.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
If you only choose one novel on this list, choose the story of Aristotle and Dante. This is my favorite novel, a subtle love story between two Mexican–American boys in 1987 Texas. The gorgeous desert setting beneath a starry sky is absolutely beautiful to read about. The protagonists struggle with themes of sexual and ethnic identity, family dynamics, the meaning of art, and the reconciliation of your past with the future. I recommend this novel for any college–age student because it is the perfect rumination on teenage uncertainty. Aristotle’s pondering about his future, his place in the world, the type of person he's supposed to be, and who he's supposed to love are the universal questions that we must all grapple with, especially as we're entering adulthood. Above all, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a story about the deep, enduring nature of love, and about how love can make you vulnerable, but when practiced without shame and secrecy, it can also save you.