James Dawson and Cassandra Clare, who both appeared at London’s Young Adult Literature Convention last weekend, speak out about LGBT representation in books for teens
5:48PM BST 23 Jul 2015
“I didn’t want to write a dreary melodrama about coming out, and about how awful it is to find out you like guys,” says author James Dawson, in reference to his forthcoming Young Adult (YA) novel All of the Above.
“When I found out I liked guys, it was a massive weight off my shoulders, because I finally understood myself.”
The author, whose most recent book, the dark teen horror-thriller Under My Skin, was published earlier this year, believes that LGBT representation in YA literature has become more positive in the past decade or so. Books now celebrate gay identity and relationships, rather than focusing exclusively on characters who suffer and struggle with their sexuality.
“There’s that image, that stereotype of the tragic gay person who has to survive being gay. But to actually celebrate that identity, in all its glorious forms – I think that’s where YA is at now,” he says.
The formerly-bearded writer – he says he recently opted for a clean shave, after getting fed up of people describing him as “bearded author James Dawson” – was speaking to the Telegraph at the Young Adult Literature Convention, which took place in London last weekend.
A three-day event, held as part of London’s Comic-Con, it drew a surprisingly mixed crowd – there were plenty of adults in attendance, as well as teens – and featured panels and book-signings from a number of popular YA authors, including Dawson, Judy Blume (the veritable high priestess of teen literature), Patrick Ness, Derek Landy, Malorie Blackman and Holly Smale.
A book stall at London’s 2015 Young Adult Literature Convention
There was also a host of inventive costumes on display. The black-clad, rune-sporting “Shadowhunters” from Cassandra Clare’s bestselling The Mortal Instruments books were a popular fancy dress option, but Dawson himself arguably claimed the crown for the weekend’s best outfit, appearing as Daenerys from HBO’s Games of Thrones (specifically, as the naked, unburnt Daenerys seen at the end of season one).
During the panel, Dawson revealed that All of the Above will contain his first “proper sex scene”. The book, published this September, centres around a 16-year-old girl named Toria who relocates to a sleepy coastal town, and explores themes surrounding bisexuality, examining how it’s possible to be physically attracted to one gender, and emotionally attracted to another, all at the same time.
It was partly inspired, Dawson says, by the “coming out” of Olympic diver Tom Daley and model/actress Cara Delevingne.
YA fans relax next to a wall of books at YALC 2015
“Young people are very reluctant to come out with a label,” he explains. “It’s like they don’t want to pigeonhole themselves. If you look at Tom Daley and Cara Delevingne, when they talk about their sexuality, they never use words like ‘bi’ or ‘gay’. Instead, they say ‘I’m in a relationship with a man’, or ‘I’m in a relationship with a woman’. That inspired me.”
“I wanted to write about characters who were just at that precipice of trying to understand desire and sexual attraction.”
Interestingly, All of the Above, which can be broadly categorised as a “real-life drama”, marks something of a break with tradition for Dawson. While his previous YA titles have featured gay and lesbian characters, the books themselves haven’t been “about” sexuality, per se. 2014’s Cruel Summer, for example, is an addictive mystery-thriller; 2012’s Hollow Pike and Under My Skin (2015) are dark horrors.
Cassandra “Cassie” Clare, the woman behind the phenomenally successful The Mortal Instruments series, and another guest speaker at YALC, agrees that it’s important to see LGBT representation across a range of different genres.
Her six Mortal Instruments fantasy novels are set in a Medieval-inspired world of demons and fallens angels: think Paradise Lost meets modern day New York, with a healthy dose of teen angst and cynicism thrown in for good measure (There’s also a prequel trilogy, set in Victorian London.)
They inspired a 2013 film, starring Lily Collins and Jaime Campbell Bowers, as well as an ABC television series, due to hit TV screens in 2016, and are exciting, pacy, fantastically inventive and wildly popular with young readers.
Cassandra Clare signs copies of her books at London’s YALC 2015
They also feature a romantic relationship between two male characters: a young demon-fighting “Shadowhunter” named Alec, and a warlock named Magnus.
“I’ve talked to lots and lots of gay and lesbian teenagers and, for a lot of them, Alec is the first openly gay character they’ve read about,” Clare says.
“To find a character casually represented in something they might already be reading, in a world that they like, is very meaningful, and so I’ve tried to be mindful of including gay, lesbian and transgendered characters in all of the books that I write.”
Dawson – himself a fan of Clare’s series – thinks that the matter-of-fact way in which Magnus and Alec’s relationship is presented in the books is particularly important.
“People never think to talk about Cassie’s books as part of the [LGBT representation in YA] conversation. Those books have sold to millions and millions of readers, and yet the fact that Alec and Magnus are together is barely spoken about,” he says. “It’s just not an issue – they’re Shadowhunters/warlocks first, and gay/bisexual second.”
It seems that, when it comes to gay and lesbian characters in YA literature (and, to a slightly lesser extent, transgender characters), invisibility is no longer as big a problem as it once was. It has, after all, been 40 years since the publication of Judy Blume’s Forever, which featured a gay/questioning character named Artie.
Instead, perhaps the most important thing for YA authors writing today, is to get across the message that discovering your sexual identity, while always a bit scary, can also be an exciting, positive experience.
Being a young, gay teen (or a transgender teen, or simply a sexually confused teen) is rarely a walk in the park – but books, Dawson believes, can offer a source of hope.
“I’m always wary of saying ‘oh, we’ve come a long way and we’ve now got great representation,” he says. “It is a struggle, and it is a very individual struggle. If you are a 13-year-old [LGBT or questioning] guy or a 13-year-old girl, it’s still the scariest thing in the world to have to tell your parents, and I don’t want to undermine that struggle.”
“But I think that representing the light at the end of the tunnel is what YA is doing really well at the moment. “
YALC Video round-up (in collaboration with BookTube channel The Book Life)
YALC is presented by Book Trust in partnership with Showmasters, with the support of headline sponsor Prudential plc. All of the Above, by James Dawson, is published on September 3 2015 by Hot Key Books.
In a long blonde wig and nude-coloured body suit, complete with toy dragons – including the strategically placed “Drogon the modesty dragon” – he cut a flamboyant figure on stage, discussing everything from asexuality to “the hottest characters in YA literature”, during Sunday’s Bringing Sexy Back panel, alongside authors Non Pratt, Louise O’Neill, Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison.