Summer is just around the corner and if you’re anything like me, it’s a time when you plan to (and sometimes really do!) read a little bit more than usual. For those of you who want to engage with more LGBTQ+ literature or who are writing LGBTQ+ stories and want some insight on who is doing it well, I’ve come up with this list of ten amazing reads from across the genres, with some very brief thoughts explaining why I think you should add these titles to your “to be read” lists.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
I’ve often said that the best kind of book is the book that teaches while it entertains. Perhaps not surprisingly, YA novels tend to fall into this category. They make for lovely and usually simple reading, perfect for stressful times when we need escapist leisure (hmm… why is that so appealing right now?). Yet, they are also often quite instructive; at least, the really good ones are. Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After is a good LGBTQ+ Summer Read. Felix’s story, the story of a young trans black man, is a particularly important and powerful one right now. It is a story that needed telling.
Don Juan in the Village by Jane DeLynn
Jane DeLynn’s novel is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully written YA novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protection, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack.
The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Somewhere amidst all the very heavy reading that I was doing last summer, I apparently needed a break. That break was found in Jen Wang’s delightful graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. The story is about a young man, a prince, who sometimes likes to dress in women’s clothes. He hears of a brilliant young dressmaker and hires her to be his own personal designer.
The story is charming—delightful, really—and fresh in the way it bends gender roles separate from sexuality. The art, too, is simply wonderful. The story has its ups and downs, of course, and nothing goes entirely smoothly, not even for a prince, but the ending is a dessert worth waiting for.
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
The heart of this graphic novel is three fairy tales, including two versions of Cinderella (the German and the Vietnamese) and The Little Mermaid. Also incorporated into the plot are concepts such as traditional coming out and coming of age in America, the immigrant experience, colonization and empire, post-war identity, and so much more.
What on the surface might look like another wonderfully illustrated children’s story, is in fact a powerful, delicate, and uniquely rendered story about a queer, Asian American boy’s life, his family, and their heritage, not to mention language itself. I was utterly captivated by this one. The Magic Fish has found its place on my forever shelf.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
This collection contains three parts. Running through all three is a series of poems titled “Duplex.” Each one grows considerably sharper and more poignant as the collection roars forward to its conclusion. Somehow, Brown creates beauty where none should exist. His poems make explicit the horror we have grown accustomed to in our daily lives, but they do so in the way “Ganymede” promises from the outset: When the speaker asks us, who doesn’t want to be loved by God, we see the answer in the very craft of poetry. And what have we sacrificed for it?
“I begin with love, / hoping to end there,” Brown writes in one of his “Duplex” poems, and I must cheer him for succeeding. This collection and every poem in it, whether it is tackling issues of rape or terror, mass shootings, workplace struggles, or the intimacies of the bedroom, is filled with love. Crafted with love. Expressing love in every word and line, in every syllable and caesura.
Fire to Fire by Mark Doty
This collection is a kind of “greatest hits” from a National Book Award-winning poet. It gathers the “best of” Doty’s previous seven poetry collections (pre-2008) and adds some of his more recent uncollected pieces. What it proves is that Doty is one of America’s greatest contemporary poets and certainly a standout for gay poetry. I responded most to his poems about loss and about the painful but necessary act of moving forward.
The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed
This one speaks directly to the current movement and to the violence that has been perpetrated against black bodies for too long. Reed uses a full arsenal in his exploration and call to arms, from mythology to modern cinema, from pop culture to classical poetic forms. At its core, this is a critique of exploitation, an expose, and while it often looks outward at the populations of marginalized people, it is also personal, intimate, and revolutionary.
Reed’s style of free verse is deeply informed by formal structure. His poems are always in conversation with other poems, and other poets. This is likely to become a well-cited model for emerging poets.
A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
If I’m not mistaken, this is the first text in the “revisionist history” series, and it’s a decent inaugural text for that project. Although this study ends in the 1990s and could therefore use a new edition, the book is exactly what it says it will be, an illuminating and detailed history of queer people in the United States, from its founding to the AIDS crisis.
Those new to LGBTQ+ history will learn a lot from reading this book, some of which will be surprising. If you’re hoping to add depth to your characters’ backstories or to write historical fiction, this is going to be a helpful read.
Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram
In the years following World War II, a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation’s imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to the gay experience and sensibility; and changed our literary culture. What writer doesn’t love reading about other powerful and history-making writers?
Thinking About It
This LGBTQ+ Summer Reading list of course just scratches at the surface of a brilliant and ever-developing “canon” of LGBTQ+ literature in the United States and elsewhere. I could write for pages and pages about other writers, like Ocean Vuong and Emily M. Danforth, who deserve to be read.
If you have other great suggestions for LGBTQ+ summer reading, feel free to leave them in the comments!
Adam W. Burgess is a Professor of English at the College of Southern Nevada. He has a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and is pursuing a post-doc writing certificate at the University of California, Berkeley. He loves engaging in all topics related to LGBTQ literature and craft. You can find Adam on his website or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.