World Book Day: Growing up in a rural community, LGBT+ books helped me find myself

On World Book Day, an LGBT+ woman discusses how important it is for young readers to find themselves represented in books.

A young woman with glasses reading a book in a library

On World Book Day, it is the perfect opportunity to celebrate LGBT+ books. I learned about so many aspects of LGBT+ culture through reading. Books introduced me to my first sense of the world and the knowledge that people were different from me. I also met my first queer companions through the world of literature.

Having grown up in rural Tipperary, where I was completely unaware of any LGBT+ people or even the fact that there was a community somewhere, stories and words were often more real than my own life.

One book which made a particular impact on me was Ash by Melinda Lo – a dark, gothic novel which retells the story of Cinderella through the lens of an Irish-influenced mythology. It had a bisexual central character who ends up in a Prince Charming-like happily-ever-after with a woman.

In the same way that the fairytales we read as children pronounce everything they discuss to be completely true, this book treated the romance between two women as something totally ordinary. Except that gingerbread houses don’t really exist in our world and women kissing do. This seemed revolutionary to me.

Recently I’ve been thinking about all the information that was left out of the Irish curriculum. Did you know Roger Casement was LGBT+? And Kathleen Lynn? And in English class, the writers Bishop and Dickinson? The list goes on. What else did we learn in school that directly pertained to us that we were completely ignorant of?

Today, on World Book Day, ten years on from when I started secondary school, LGBT+ representation across many different types of media is increasingly common and far more easily accessible, whether it is on TV, in movies, video games or online. But there is still something special about seeing LGBT+ characters in a book.

Young Adult (YA) fiction is especially important. For many teenagers, especially those who feel out of place beside their peers, books are a way to figure out how to navigate a social world where you feel at a disadvantage. Even if you feel totally normal, everyone can probably empathise with how hard it is as a teenager to know how to act in the correct context. For many people, YA fiction is a space to explore what it means to be a grownup, to be a person in the world, to grow into an identity – no matter what it is, how to manage emotions, attraction, rejection, how to take responsibility for your actions, and learn that it will all be okay again.

For LGBT+ teenagers figuring out who they are, access to language that talks about identity is readily available online, but for me, it was easier to find out about identities through someone else’s thoughts – in book format. It was almost as though the characters were carrying out a trial run of your life before you lived it.

Just as any sort of media is a reflection of what is happening in culture, so is literature – things happen in books as we should see them happening in life. Thankfully this is happening with LGBT+ characters more and more, and the range of LGBT+ Young Adult books is expanding almost daily. (If you’re curious, Mackenzie Lee’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and Birthday by Meredith Russo are good places to start.)

However, as we celebrate World Book Day, we need more LGBT+ books explicitly about someone coming out, or focusing solely on the bigotry they must overcome. What we need is The Fault in Our Stars, but with lesbians. We need The Catcher in the Rye, but with a trans narrator. (Harry Potter has already been done, amazingly – have you read Carry On by Rainbow Rowell yet?)

Currently, YA authors in Ireland and the UK are writing incredible books in terms of LGBT+ representation. In Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke, in Tom Pollock’s Heartstream and in Juno Dawson’s Meat Market, to name a couple of my recent favourites, LGBT+ teens deal with issues like first crushes, misogyny and social media, with a healthy amount of magic and folklore in the mix (fairytale retellings often end up being on the queer end of the scale, somehow). LGBT+ identity, whether explicitly voiced or just enacted, is already part of the characters’ personalities.

Recently I attended a panel at DeptCon, a convention on British and Irish Young Adult literature, where four YA authors discussed what ‘representation’ meant in terms of their work. They discussed the fine line between leaving characters out of a narrative, and speaking for a lived experience. They discussed the intersections between putting themselves in a story and creating a well-rounded world, just like the one we live in.

But the most important point was one they all agreed on: that everyone should see themselves in books. And this importance doesn’t diminish, whether you come across it as a teen or as an adult with a fully formed sense of identity.

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