I grew up loved.
I knew that I loved my family and that my family loved me. I knew that not everyone had that kind of reciprocal support. So, I was lucky, and I knew that too.
I also knew that I liked boys, which was great because that meant I wasn’t gay. Now, I had been led to believe by just about everyone that there was something wrong with gay people. I won’t point fingers at my small town upbringing or religion because the message wasn’t just in the water, it was in the air. It was on the sitcoms I watched and in many of the books that I read. Definitely in all the movies.
None of that seemed quite right…in fact something really didn’t seem quite right, but it took me a long time to figure it out because of the reasoning’s simplicity. There’s just something not right about gay people. See? So simple. So inexact. It’s really the perfect false truth.
Like so many things in my teenage life, I found insight through literature—even if said insight confused the hell out of me. At a young age, I’d discovered a deep love of Walt Whitman and was unfortunate enough to have an ugly argument with a stranger one day at my bookstore job. He saw me reading Leaves of Grass, and said, “You know he was gay, right?” He said this as though I should not like Walt’s poetry because Walt was gay.
I was horrified. No, I was confused. I was utterly stumped because I disagreed with the man and had no idea what to say. That was the moment when I learned I was completely ill-equipped to have any sort of discussion about gay people, gay rights, and being gay.
Which was all compounded by the fact that I was starting to have crushes on girls. What was happening? Was I turning gay? Could that happen? I had no one to talk to, no stories or characters to reference. I decided that since I had crushes on boys and girls that I should just ignore the girl crushes, focus on the boys, and push everything into the proverbial closet.
You can imagine how well that went. Years of tormented depression later, I came out as bisexual and have been struggling to be proud and open to the world ever since. I’m delighted and revived by the recent SCOTUS decision, but somewhere at the back of my head, I have to imagine my twelve-year-old self and wonder what she would have thought about gay marriage. The answer is nothing. I wouldn’t have been able to see past “the wrongness” of gays to even imagine weddings. And so I have to ask, what would have helped me back then? What would have brought me out of that very dark, very limited place of understanding?
The answer is books.
So here is where the autobiography turns into an ad, but bear with me. Having been inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, my best friend and fellow YA author Amy Rose Capetta and I have spent the last six months dreaming up a charitable initiative called Rainbow Boxes. You can find out all the particulars at this link, particularly by watching the video, but basically, we’re on a mission to get more inclusive fiction onto community bookshelves as well as into GSA and LGBTQIA homeless shelters. In our minds, more books = more hope.
Because the problem is that the old, simple, perfectly false truth—that there is something wrong with gay people—is still out there in the water and the air in America. It’s toxic and sad, and most frighteningly of all, partially invisible. And the only way to fight boiled-down judgments is with stories.
We all know that books teach understanding and empathy and uniqueness and validity. They show you someone else. They show you yourself. They prove that we all have things to learn, things to unlearn, and most importantly, that we all have very unique reasons to love and be loved.
What if fourteen-year-old me—with all my limited understanding and inherited embarrassment about homosexuals—had gone into the library and checked out a book about a young lesbian? Or a bisexual? Or a transgender boy? Or an intersex person? What if I saw that they weren’t damaged individuals but part of the gorgeous, elaborate array of humans? After all, these aren’t fanciful what ifs. I don’t know about you, but I learned firsthand how to survive the landscape of my depression from one Holden Caulfield.
We all know that stories save lives, but I’ll add something to that. Characters save hearts. I’m going to conclude with the fifteen titles that will be in each Rainbow Box. They all feature LGBTQI main characters in a variety of settings, adventures, and love stories. None of these books existed when I was a teen, but they exist now. Please help us get them into more hands by donating or spreading the word about Rainbow Boxes, and above all else, enjoy these beautiful stories for yourself!
The 15 titles included in each Rainbow Box:
(1) Magoon, Kekla. 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order).
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Questioning, Lesbian
Description: On the verge of finishing sophomore year, Ellis has to deal with her comatose father’s worsening condition, her strained relationship with her mother, and problems with her oldest friend. For readers who love a strong contemporary story with realistic teenage struggles at its heart, Ellis’s story is perfect.
(2) Lo, Malinda. Huntress.
Genre: Fantasy Identities: Lesbian
Description: Kaede is of the earth, and Taisin is a sage-in-training. The two girls are chosen for a dangerous journey into the heart of the Fairy Queen’s kingdom. A perfect book for readers who loves an epic fantasy with lyrical writing.
(3) Cronn-Mills, Kristin. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Transgender
Description: Gabe was born as a bio girl, but with the help of his radio program and his best friend Paige, he’s “letting his B side play”, even when the world makes it difficult. This story has a strong music angle, a good sense of humor, and an unforgettable main character.
(4) Sharpe, Tess. Far From You.
Genre: Mystery/Thriller Identities: Bisexual, Lesbian
Description: Sophie has almost died twice. The second time, her best friend Mina was killed, and Sophie rushes to uncover who was really behind it. This book is fast-paced with fascinating, damaged characters.
(5) Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Gay, Questioning
Description: This book chronicles several years in the lives of two boys as they form a strong friendship that holds strong during the transition to adulthood and the discovery of love. This beautifully written book is a celebration of both the universal and the unique in its characters.
(6) LaCour, Nina. Everything Leads to You.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Lesbian
Description: Emi is a precocious production designer who discovers a mysterious letter written by a Hollywood film legend—which leads her straight to Ava, a beautiful and struggling actress. This graceful book is a true love story, steeped in beauty and emotion.
(7) Farizan, Sara. If You Could Be Mine.
Genre: Contemporary Realism Identities: Lesbian, supporting gay and transgender characters
Description: Sahar and her best friend Nasrin have fallen in love, but in Iran they can’t be together openly. When Nasrin’s parents arrange a marriage for her, Sahar comes up with a plan to become a man, since sex reassignment is legal in Iran. This is a fascinating look at how far we will go for the people we love.
(8) Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Gay, Transgender (F to M)
Description: This portrait of a group of gay teenagers centers around the efforts of two ex-boyfriends to break the world record for longest kiss. This heartbreaking and hopeful story is narrated by a Greek chorus of men who died in the AIDS epidemic.
(9) Duyvis, Corinne. Otherbound.
Genre: Fantasy Identities: Bisexual, lesbian
Description: Nolan lives in our world, but whenever he closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a girl in another world—one full of magic and danger.
Intricate world-building and strong plot twists will pull in any fantasy lover.
(10) Charlton-Trujillo, e.E. Fat Angie.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Lesbian
Description: Fat Angie is struggling against the news that her war hero sister might be dead, when new girl KC Romance moves to town and shows Fat Angie how much potential she has to shake things up. This novel is equal parts funny and dark, with an unforgettable voice.
(11) Gregorio, I.W. None of the Above.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Intersex
Description: On the eve of taking things to the next level with her boyfriend, homecoming queen and track star Kristin finds out that she is intersex, throwing her life into turmoil and her identity into question. This novel is as thorough and informative as it is sensitive and engaging.
(12) Polonsky, Ami. Gracefully Grayson.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Transgender, (M to F)
Description: Grayson Sender is living with a crushing secret: “he” is a girl, but wearing skirts at school doesn’t seem like an option until a special teacher gives Grayson a chance to shine as Persephone in the school play. A beautiful, and often painful, exploration of what it means to live as your true self when most of the world seems to be set against it.
(13) Albertalli, Becky. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Gay
Description: When a classmate blackmails Simon, his sexuality—and that of his email pen pal, Blue—might become public knowledge. As the boys develop feelings for each other, things quickly become more complicated. This charming novel is a quick, voice-driven read.
(14) Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight.
Genre: Contemporary Identities: Gay
Description: Rafe has been out since eighth grade, and his entire life seems to revolve around being known as gay. When he starts at a new school, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret, but that gets a lot harder when he falls in love. This witty coming-out-again tale is perfect for fans of funny contemporary.
(15) London, Alex. Proxy.
Genre: Dystopian Identities: Gay
Description: Knox was born into the wealthy Patron class and Syd is his proxy, which means that when Knox gets in trouble, Syd is punished for it. But when both boys want more control over their lives, they know they have to run. A fast-paced action thriller, this story is for anyone who loves The Hunger Games or Divergent.
Cori McCarthy is the YA author of The Color of Rain, Breaking Sky, and the forthcoming, You Were Here. Find out more about her books at CoriMcCarthy.com or send me a tweet @CoriMcCarthy or @RainbowBoxesYA