10 Queer YA Historical Novels That Reclaim LGBTQ History
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Historical fiction was my first genre love, and growing up I read lots of middle-level and young adult historical books that covered a myriad of time periods around the world. I have a hard time remembering any historical novels I read that contained weird characters until about 10 years ago. When I finally started seeing queer characters in historical fiction, it was like a startling revelation – sure queer people have existed throughout time. But what really made me cry was realizing that just because gay people were persecuted more and the world was less inclusive of those who weren’t cis or straight didn’t mean not that homosexuals couldn’t be happy. Queer historical fiction doesn’t have to be limited to suffering.
Reading queer historical fiction is so vital because for so long queer history has been ignored, shunned, or simply never spoken about. But the more I read and the more I learn, the more I realize that my perceptions about queer people in the past are misconceptions and I have become hungry for more stories that imagine lives full of challenges. and triumphs. These queer YA historical novels range from aspirational and slightly anachronistic to meticulously researched and heartbreaking realism, but I think all of them are really needed to inspire us to have a more inclusive and open-minded perspective on history. For this list, I define historical fiction as anything that takes place before 1990, and I’ve tried to stick to realistic fiction rather than fantasy (although there’s an example of travel in time in this list). But all of them will hopefully offer new perspectives and a fascinating insight into queer lives of the past!
Last night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
In this award-winning novel, Lily grows up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, isolated by her community but unable to shake off the feeling that something is different about her. When an advertisement for the nearby Telegraph Club and a chance encounter with a white classmate named Kath prompt Lily to sneak out, she discovers a whole new world of lesbians who welcome her and Kath into their circles, giving Lily clarity. and the courage to live his truth.
The boy in the red dress by Christine Lambert
On the eve of 1930, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the clandestine bar Cloak & Dagger is in full swing. Millie runs the joint while her aunt, who owns it, is out of town, and business is good, mainly thanks to the boy in the red dress, aka Marion – the star of the club. But when a young woman with a picture of Marion starts asking questions, then ends up dying soon after, Millie fears the heat the crime will bring to the speakeasy and Marion. Millie decides to solve the mystery, and quickly, before things get worse.
The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara
Based on a true story, this novel follows Mary Reade, who knows there’s no place for her in her childhood home and she doesn’t want to get married. So she disguises herself as a boy and joins the crew of a merchant ship, and tries to settle for a life of deception. But when her ship is attacked by pirates and she spots a female pirate standing on deck, it’s all the encouragement Mary needs to turn against her captain and join the pirate crew for a life of danger… but also of love and discovery. Bonus: If you like this one, check out McNamara’s second novel, A distance impossible to fallwhich tells the story of a young woman who joins a traveling circus in 1930 and falls in love with a daredevil pilot.
Like a love story by Abdi Nazémian
Set in New York in 1989, this Stonewall Honor Book follows Reza, Judy and Art, three teenagers who find themselves bound by love and friendship. Reza is a closeted gay teenager who recently arrived in the United States from Iran. Judy is his first friend and girlfriend. Art is his openly and proud best friend, documenting the AIDS crisis through his photography. When Reza develops feelings for the art, the three find themselves dealing with the deep complications of love, friendship, and loyalty.
Ziggy, Stardust and me by James Brandon
In 1973, homosexuality is considered a mental illness and Jonathan Collins is in trouble. He is bullied and alone, with few allies in life and nowhere to turn. He spends most of his time imagining an alternate world where his dead mother and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust are there to help him, and he considers getting help for his “mental illness”. But Jonathan meets Web, the first gay teenager who isn’t ashamed to be gay and sees him for who he really is. Web challenges Jonathan to open his mind to the possibility that there might be nothing wrong with him after all.
The most dazzling girl in Berlin by Kip Wilson
Hilde was raised in a Berlin orphanage and when she turned 18 in the 1930s, it was up to her to forge her own path in the world. She eventually gets a job at a gay cabaret, where she discovers a family for the first time in her life and a possible romance with Rosa, a waitress. But with hateful political messages taking root in Berlin and anti-gay rhetoric on the rise, Hilde must decide whether it’s worth staying in the only house she knows, or leaving for her own safety.
Music from another world by Robin Talley
Tammy Larson is a queer teenager locked up in 1977 with no one to confide in. She writes letters to Harvey Milk in order to let out her emotions, but when she is paired with a pen pal Sharon Hawkins, they bond over music and their sexualities. As their pen pal relationship deepens, they must find the strength to challenge anti-queer sentiment in their own lives and in their communities. Bonus: if you like this one, check out Talley’s list, which includes other great historical queer YAs!
Yesterday is history by Kosoko Jackson
Andre Cobb now lives in Boston, where he just received a liver transplant that saved his life. But shortly after the operation, he faints… and wakes up in 1969, where he forms an unforgettable relationship with a boy named Michael. But when he wakes up again in the present, he meets a boy named Blake, his donor’s brother, who tells him that his new liver has given him a genetic ability to time travel. As Andre continues to travel back in time and learn more about black gay history in 1969, he also finds himself growing closer to Blake…and must decide once and for all where he belongs.
Aristotle and Dante DDiscover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
In the 1980s, Aristotle is an angry teenager trying to make sense of the world and his family’s secrets – his father is deeply affected by his experiences in Vietnam and his older brother is in prison. When he meets Dante, a sweet and kind boy at the community pool, they develop a friendship that deepens into something more as they both find their way through a confusing and sometimes cruel world. If you like this book, be sure to check out the sequel, Dante and Aristotle dive into the waters of the world.
Nothing sung and nothing spoken by Nita B. Tyndall (October 18, 2022)
Charlotte Kraus is in love with Angelika Haas, so she happily follows her to underground swing clubs that listen to contraband American jazz, despite strict rules banning it in Nazi-controlled Berlin. The world is on the brink of war, but Charlotte and Angelika don’t think about it…until their lives inevitably become dangerous. As Swingjugend rebels against the Nazi regime, they discover that resistance could cost them everything and that war is just the beginning.
Want more queer YA historical fiction? Discover the anthology All Out: The Top Secret Stories of Queer Teenagers Through the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell. And for queer adult historical fiction, check out these fabulous queer historical fiction recommendations for Pride Month!