Swipe Right on These LGBTQ+ YA Books

Swipe Right on These LGBTQ+ YA Books

Derek Milman

When Aidan agrees to meet up with a match from an online dating app, the last thing he expects is to spend the next day on the run. Swipe Right for Murder, Derek Milman’s YA thriller, kicks off with Aidan waking up beside the dead body of his recent hookup. Aidan tries to piece together what happened while attempting to outrun both the feds and a cult. To celebrate the book’s release, here are five LGBTQ+ books that Milman thinks you should swipe right on.

Aidan Jamison, the 17-year-old hero at the center of my second YA novel, a neo-noir thriller called Swipe Right for Murder, is unapologetically queer. He gets caught up in a classic case of mistaken identity after a hotel hookup (via app) goes wrong. On the run from the feds, cutthroat killers, and in a way, himself, Aidan finds himself in a moral quandary after he gets entangled with a terror group whose pro-LGBTQ agenda he can’t help but sympathize with.

I had a lot of fun creating Aidan. I think it’s important that LGBTQ YA novels have main characters who aren’t necessarily chiseled, sharp-jawed saints, but are funny, flawed (even damaged) individuals struggling with their self-worth, morality, and place in the world. Aidan has a troubled past and loads of issues, but he’s confident in what (and who) he desires, and he’s open about that. While I’ve read tons of great books about kids coming out and finding their first love, I wanted to write a book with a gay kid who’s the star of an adventure caper. I’m endlessly intrigued by the idea of LGBTQ characters seamlessly integrating with high-concept stories. I hope gay kids who read this book see themselves in Aidan, possibly the world’s unlikeliest action hero, and will know anything is possible.

I’ve always loved reading about LGBTQ characters filtered through genre fiction, and different types of books as well, where the coming-out aspects of the main character aren’t at the forefront of the story, but are either a given or in the past. Below, I recommend five awesome LGBTQ novels that cross genres—and formats—in unique and unexpected ways.

Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

We keep getting teased that “gay horror” will finally become a stable subgenre, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Billy Martin (known professionally as Poppy Z. Brite), wrote a gay Southern gothic take-no-prisoners haunted house tale that I’ve never forgotten. The story concerns a young comic book artist named Trevor McGee. When Trevor was a kid, his father murdered his mother and younger brother before committing suicide—but spared Trevor’s life. Trevor returns to his childhood home in North Carolina to face his dark past and get some answers. There, he meets Zachary Bosch, a sharp 19-year-old computer hacker who is on the run and wanted by the police. They fall in love in a house filled with furious supernatural goings-on while Trevor slowly loses his grip on reality and Zach desperately tries to keep him in the light.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

In terms of the modern teen voice in YA books today, Andrew Smith is a master at mixing teenage ennui with a biting wit, minced with just the right amount of sensitivity and nihilism. He also manages to interject something I see very little of in current YA—sweetness. Grasshopper Jungle is one-of-kind. The main character is Austin Szerba, a bisexual skater punk navigating his romantic feelings for both his girlfriend Shann, and his best friend, Robbie. A complex triangle begins to take shape as the trio faces the end of the world—in the form of giant mantises who wreak quick and violent havoc on their small, recession-bruised Iowa town. Smith doesn’t shy away from the two activities that typically remain at the forefront of teenagers’ minds: sex and food. A mysterious bunker, desolate corporate-pharma films, and horrifying plague strains give this novel cool Lost vibes by way of J.D. Salinger and Gus Van Sant.

All Eyes on Us by Kit Frick

From a technical standpoint, dual POVs are tricky to get right, but this book nails it. The two young women narrating this twisty tale are both dating Carter Shaw, a hotshot real estate heir, but for very different reasons. Amanda Kelly, the pretty, popular girl, bathed in the same golden light that also touches Carter, is aggressively encouraged by her social-climbing parents into a set, safe future. Rosalie Bell, on the other hand, is using Carter as a beard to hide her girlfriend Pauline from her family, who belong to a fringe Christian fundamentalist religious sect and have put Rosalie through hell with forced conversion therapy. The two girls become unlikely allies after a mysterious texter—with an unknown number—starts taunting them, seemingly wanting to take down Carter, but threatening to dump everyone’s secrets out into the open in the process. Suddenly, no one can be trusted. Kit Frick ropes you into this puzzle with effortless poise, slowly ramping up the tension, but it’s her take on the idea of two young people from different backgrounds breaking free from the constraints and expectations thrust on them by their “loved ones” who “mean well” that makes this an unforgettable read.

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Natasha Ngan creates a lush, complex world in this elegant own voices Asian fantasy tinged with darkness and rage. The book is, at heart, a fiercely feminist love story about Lei and Wren, two girls of the Paper caste (fully human, the lowest and most oppressed caste) who are stolen away from their families to serve as concubines to the demon king in his magnificent, sprawling palace. The book is about consent and class as much as it is about how materialism can be weaponized to blind against the cruel machinations of power. But it’s also a forceful story about sexual violence and forbidden attraction, featuring a wondrously diverse cast of characters, and some killer world-building in Ikhara—inspired by Asian culture and history, from imperial China to feudal Japan. It turns out Wren has a slew of secrets, and a heartbreaking conflict emerges: Maintaining her secrets keep Lei safe, but they also cause an emotional rift between the two girls. Their relationship is both tender and courageous. When Lei gets tapped to take part in a dangerous plan with everything at stake, the novel seamlessly incorporates some breathless action scenes that will burn the tips of your fingers as you turn the pages.

Bloom by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

Illustrated in lovely two-tone seaside shades and incisively written, Bloom is a gem. Young Ari is just out of high school and dying to move to the big city to pursue generalized glory with his scruffy indie rock band (made up of his closest friends, with their own complicated dynamic, and Passion Pit references). He has a big decision to make. His Greek family’s locally-adored bakery is struggling, and his parents can’t afford to lose Ari. Ari, however, doesn’t know if he wants to spend the rest of his life sweating over sourdough rolls. He seeks a replacement for himself, and finds the perfect one in Hector Gallea, a sweet-natured grounding force, in town for the summer to settle his deceased grandmother’s affairs. The two boys slowly fall for each other, so yes, this is a queer coming-of-age tale set in a charming family bakery, complete with a recipe at the end! I loved how Ari wasn’t always perfect and was sometimes downright bratty. He doesn’t really know what he wants. The economic uncertainty of Ari’s working-class family threatens to harness Ari’s attempts at a self-determined future, which felt very real. I also liked the fact that Ari’s family members aren’t portrayed as burdensome villains, but as caring people who truly want the best for him, despite their circumstances. Ari himself, with all of his flaws, felt so genuine to me. Adorable, and quietly multi-layered, this graphic novel is a must-own.

Derek Milman has worked as a playwright, screenwriter, film school teacher, DJ, and underground humor magazine publisher. A classically trained actor, he has performed on stages across the country and appeared in numerous TV shows, commercials, and films. Derek currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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