Forever young: A reader’s perspective on a new history
by Erin Saluta
Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book? I grew up reading books and some of my favorite childhood authors were Beverly Cleary, Walter Farley, E.B. White and Judy Blume. It was this last author, Judy Blume, who got me in trouble. In fourth grade one of our class sessions was silent reading. We could bring a book for home or check one out at the library and everyone would find a space in the classroom and read.
Needless to say this was my favorite class of all! We had to keep a journal where we tracked all of our books with a mini book review and each time we reached five books we got a silver star, with ten we got a gold one. And this was back when stickers were THE prize! I ended up reading forty books that year but then again, I didn’t have a TV at home so reading is what I did. I read forty stories and soon I had gone through all my favorite authors and was on to new ones including Judy Blume.
Judy Blume definitely has a diverse collection which allowed me to learn important things about growing up such as exercises to increase my bust size in Are you there God? it’s me Margaret, how to get rid of freckles from Freckle Juice, how bullying affected kids in school through Blubber, and how to face your fears like Sheila did in Sheila the Great. However, I eventually found a story by Judy Blume called Forever and it was definitely advanced for a fourth grader. It was actually a story that wasn’t allowed to be read at school because the content was too mature.
But what was I to do? It was a new story by one of my new favorite authors! I had to read it! So I brought it to school and snuck away into a corner during our reading time and made sure no one could see the cover and read my book. So with all these precautions how did I get in trouble? My mom found out anyway.
The cool thing was that my Mom read the story before me just to make sure it was appropriate. She also talked to me after I finished and we discussed the mature topic and relationships in general. She would never dissuade me from reading a story she just wanted to make sure I understood the story and the issues presented. With regard to getting in trouble, she didn’t want me taking the book to school per the school’s request and well…I did, so I had to get in trouble. I don’t remember the punishment but what I do remember is the storyline of this too mature book.
A young woman falls in love with a young man and they have sex! It’s supposed to be forever, but they are young and things that happen to young people happen to them. It was my first story where the focus was on the falling in love part of life and not on all the other things I had been relating to in the stories I read — dreaming about finding that beautiful horse to call my own, having a mouse appear and do cool stuff like take a toy canoe out for a spin, have a swan that would float me on its back — you know the usual magical things that come from reading stories.
No, what I had read when I finished Forever was a young adult novel. It spoke of kissing and love and heartbreak and taking on the responsibility of someone else’s feelings in an intimate way. Pretty advanced but heck, we are all progressing in that direction right? It probably would have been more appropriate for me to have read that in high school rather than fourth grade and it would have been even more amazing if it had two young women falling in love!
But I didn’t wait and it didn’t include homosexual content. That’s available NOW, though, and it’s what makes our lesfic genre so amazing; it has grown to include young adult novels. Think about how cool it would have been to pick up a story about girls being girl crazy instead of boy crazy when you were in grade school or in high school. That affirmation that you aren’t alone? That you aren’t really all that different? I can only imagine but for our young adults, that is a reality they, mostly, have access to.
I’m by no means claiming to be the know all of our genre’s history but I do know that when I was in school, living in the stacks of the library reading everything I could get my hands on, a novel about two young women falling in love was not found by this reader.
It could have been the town I lived in didn’t have a demand for such stories to be in the library, the school I attended too small to need to include such diversity yet, or simply the fact that there weren’t a lot of options available to read in the first place. Now there are! Now they are capturing a history most of us don’t even consider and it is so important.
I don’t know about you but there is no way I would want to go back to school now. It seems terrifying in so many forms yet our LGBT youth are doing it every day. The pressure of being different, the new forms of acceptance, the increased use of drugs and peer pressure for delinquency, the slow trickle down of support from amazing professionals in the field of education. It’s almost mind boggling to think that teachers were fired — heck, they still are in some places — for being LGBT but now there are support groups available in some schools for LGBT students. That is historical! That is amazing but it is still not enough to make me want to repeat my tweenage/teenage years.
What I can do is read about it, though. Because as much as we want to be an inclusive group of LGBT people there is a generation gap. The same way I believe with all my heart that such titles as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker, Lee Lynch’s The Swashbuckler and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues should be included in educational literature to provide everyone with a glimpse of lesbian history, I think it is important for the older generation to understand the new challenges our youth are facing. And there are challenges! Some we had to face but some that are unique to these young people.
I discovered this sub-genre of lesfic young adult over ten years ago and I am so thankful that it has continued to grow. I started with Julie Anne Peters’ Keeping you a Secret and Far From Xanadu both still on that cusp of that generation of unacceptance in school.
My perspective, which could be completely off, is that it seems youth in school have become a little more accepting of LGBT. I do know that there is still bullying and still traumatic experiences but it seems the younger generation is stronger in a way. More capable of accepting differences with regard to sexuality. However, Peters’ work catalogs experiences of young women when they were finding themselves during a period of unacceptance.
Others also written on that cusp are Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World, Tea Benduhn’s Gravel Queen and Julia Watt’s Finding H.F. All these stories are so poignant to the time they are written and help establish how these young women faced their challenges in regards to their sexuality; challenges that were undertaken in their teenage years.
So what is my question for readers? I want to know if you will read these stories. I don’t believe this is a sub-genre just for young adults. The same way my mom read Forever for me, I think we should read these stories to help the younger generation and ourselves.
We should open up that conversation, try to get a better understanding of what their challenges are and maybe show them how it does get better. And right now there are some amazing young adult titles out there! I have read all of Barbara L. Clanton’s Clarksonville Series and it is JUST as good as any other series I’ve read.
The characters are wonderfully written, diverse in their thoughts, challenged in ways that I can relate to — if not now, then from when I was young women in high school — and telling me a story about a history I need to know. The same for Annameekee Hesik’s The You Know Who Girls which is turning into a powerful series as well.
I mean, how many of us can imagine coming out to our mother’s while we are sophomores in high school? Yet that is one of the challenges for young adults today. It’s a scary, scary process for anyone regardless of age but add that to the social pressures of school, friends, and life as a teenager and you have to admire the strength because so many of them ARE coming out during this age. I know there are more — help me out and tell me other authors and titles that should be included. Let all the readers out there know the diversity in selection. Let all the other readers know about a new history.
And here is my challenge question, will you read a lesfic young adult title and tell me about it? Have you already? If so what were your impressions? Am I totally off with thinking that it is a part of our history that needs to be read by all generations to connect us together as one huge LGBT community?
And if you don’t want to read a young adult story, why not? I’m honestly curious as to what some of those barriers might be and maybe, just maybe we can help break them down. If I haven’t mentioned it enough I am so proud of our lesfic author community and having an increase in young adult options is only one more reason why! They are truly making history with the stories they write and providing readers like me with a sense of welcome. Thank you authors for doing what you do!