The 5 Kinds of Sapphic YA, From the Swooner to the Casually Queer

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

Most of my reading is bi and lesbian books. I know what I like. Luckily for me, the sapphic young adult sub-genre has exploded in recent years, with far more options than ever before. Unluckily, adult books have yet to keep up. There’s a healthy lesbian romance genre, as well as some queer SFF and a handful of bi and lesbian literary fiction being published every year, but nowhere near the diversity in representation, tone, and genre being offered in YA.

Until adult fiction catches up, I suspect YA will continue to be a big part of my reading life. Because sapphic YA has made up a significant volume of my reading for so long, I’ve noticed five general categories that they tend to fall into. Here are the five kinds of sapphic YA, with recommendations and examples for each. (Honestly, these would work for almost any queer YA, but my examples are all sapphic.)

1) The Tragic

annie on my mind nancy garden cover

This was a staple of early queer books, including YA. In these books, characters face an overwhelming amount of homophobia in their lives, and that struggle is central to the narrative. While these are a hallmark of the early days of queer representation, they aren’t inherently bad. There are plenty of people who still have to deal with a lot of homophobia in their everyday lives, especially when we take a more global view, and it’s necessary to have that struggle represented in literature. Not all the books in the “tragic” category have unhappy endings, either. They may emerge victorious on the other side! The defining feature of this category, though, is homophobia (or other anti-queer prejudice, to extend this to all queer YA) playing a major role in the main character’s life.


2. The “Queerest Queer to Ever Queer”

Once and Future cover

While The Tragic represented where LGBTQ books started, this category exemplifies how representation in YA has changed! I got the “queerest queer to ever queer” from Dahlia Adler’s LGBTQ Reads tumblr, where she gives regular recommendations for this kind of YA. These are the books that overflow with queer representation. They often have an almost all-queer cast. Usually, they have a variety of labels represented. YA in this category is loud and proud, whether it’s a queernormative SFF story or a contemporary with an all-queer cast.


3. The Casually Queer

Labyrinth Lost cover

These books are also known as incidentally queer, or books that just “happen” to be queer. The key to spotting a casually queer book is whether that character could be cis/allo/het and still have the plot stay essentially the same, though it might involve changing the gender of the love interest as well. It’s nice to see these crop up, because it means that authors (hopefully) don’t have to defend having a queer character as it being essential to the plot. These books didn’t have to be sapphic — but we’re very glad they are.


4. The Swooner

Tell Me How You Really Feel cover

What more do I need to say? These are F/F romances that are all about that swoon-worthy love story. While Annie On My Mind had a romantic relationship, that was secondary to the trauma and homophobia that had to face. In a Swooner sapphic YA book, the romance is the entire basis of the plot. They often won’t experience any homophobia at all, or it’s a very minor part of the story. Instead, they have classic romantic obstacles, like miscommunication. We’ve been seeing more of these lately, and I’m glad. They guarantee a happy ending and a heartwarming read, though there might be some drama before we get there!


5. The Balancing Act

How to Make a Wish cover

Is this a cop-out miscellaneous category? Maybe. These are the books that have a little bit of everything. They often having an element of a coming out story, but the plot doesn’t revolve around homophobia. A Balancing Act book may have a love story, but it’s not a romance. You couldn’t change their sexuality and leave the plot the same, like a Casually Queer book, but there is something else that forms the foundation of the plot. These tend to be complicated, multi-layered stories.


What do you think? Do you know any sapphic YA that doesn’t fit any of these categories? Let me know. And if you’re looking for more queer reads, check out our LGBTQ Archives!