Historical fiction was my first genre love, and growing up I read a lot of historical middle grade and young adult books that covered a myriad of time periods all over the world. I am hard-pressed to recall any historical novels I read that contained queer characters until about 10 or so years ago. When I started to finally see queer characters in historical fiction, it felt like a stunning revelation — of course queer people have existed throughout time. But what really made me tear up is realizing that just because queer people faced more persecution and the world was less inclusive toward anyone who wasn’t cis or straight, that didn’t mean that queer people couldn’t also be happy. Queer historical fiction doesn’t have to be all about suffering.
Reading queer historical fiction is so vital because for so long queer history has been overlooked, brushed aside, or simply never spoken. But the more I read and the more I learn, the more I’ve realized that my perceptions about queer people in the past are misconceptions and I’ve become hungry for more stories that imagine lives full of challenges and triumphs. These queer YA historical novels run the range from aspirational and slightly anachronistic to meticulously researched and heartbreakingly realistic, but I think all are truly necessary for inspiring 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 tried to stick with realistic fiction rather than fantasy (although there is one instance of time travel in this list). But all will hopefully offer new perspectives and a fascinating peek into queer lives of the past!
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
In this award-winning novel, Lily grows up in Chinatown in San Francisco, insulated by her community but unable to shake the feeling that something is different about her. When an ad for the nearby Telegraph Club and a chance encounter with a white classmate named Kath inspire Lily to sneak out, she discovers a whole new world of lesbians who welcome her and Kath into their circles, giving Lily the clarity and the courage to live her truth.
The Boy in the Red Dress by Kristin Lambert
On the eve of 1930 in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the Cloak & Dagger speakeasy is hopping. Millie is running the joint while her aunt, who owns it, is out of town, and business is good, mostly thanks to the boy in the red dress, AKA Marion — the club’s star performer. But when a young woman with a photo of Marion begins asking questions, and then winds up dead soon after, Millie is afraid of the heat that the crime will bring down on the speakeasy, and on Marion. Millie resolves to solve the mystery, and quickly, before things can get worse.
The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara
Based on a true story, this novel follows Mary Reade, who knows that there’s no place for her in her childhood home and that she doesn’t want to marry. So she disguises herself as a boy and joins the crew of a merchant ship, and tries to content herself with a life of deception. But when her ship is attacked by pirates and she spots a female pirate standing on the deck, that’s all the encouragement Mary needs to turn on her captain and join the pirate crew for a life of danger…but also love and discovery. Bonus: If you enjoy this one, check out McNamara’s second novel, An Impossible Distance to Fall, which is about a young woman who joins a traveling circus in 1930 and finds herself falling for a female daredevil pilot.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
Set in 1989 New York City, this Stonewall Honor Book follows Reza, Judy, and Art, three teens who find themselves linked by love and friendship. Reza is a closeted gay teen who has recently arrived to the U.S. from Iran. Judy is his first friend and his girlfriend. Art is her openly out and proud best friend, who is documenting the AIDS crisis through his photography. When Reza develops feelings for Art, the three find themselves confronting 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 struggling. He’s 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 mom and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust are there to help him, and he considers getting help for his “mental illness.” But then Jonathan meets Web, the first gay teen who is unashamed of being gay and who sees him for who he truly is. Web challenges Jonathan to open his mind to the possibility that maybe there’s nothing wrong with him after all.
The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin by Kip Wilson
Hilde has been brought up in a Berlin orphanage and when she reaches the age of 18 in the 1930s, it’s up to her to make her own way in the world. She eventually finds a job at a gay cabaret, where she discovers a family for the first time in her life and possible romance with Rosa, a waitress. But with hateful political messaging taking root in Berlin and anti-homosexual rhetoric on the rise, Hilde must decide if it’s worth staying in the only home she’s known, or leaving for her own safety.
Music From Another World by Robin Talley
Tammy Larson is a closeted queer teen in 1977 with no one to confide in. She writes letters to Harvey Milk in order to let out her emotions, but when she’s matched with a pen pal her own age, Sharon Hawkins, they bond over music and their sexualities. As their pen pal relationship deepens, they must find the strength to stand up against anti-queer sentiment in their own lives and communities. Bonus: If you enjoy this one, check out Talley’s backlist, which includes more great queer historical YA!
Yesterday is History by Kosoko Jackson
Andre Cobb lives in present day Boston, where he’s just received a life-saving liver transplant. But not long after the surgery, he passes out…and wakes up in 1969, where he makes an unforgettable connection with a boy named Michael. But when he wakes up again in the present, he meets a boy named Blake, the brother of his donor, who tells him that his new liver has given him a genetic ability to travel through time. As Andre continues to time travel and learns more about Black queer history in 1969, he also finds himself growing closer to Blake…and must decide once and for all where he belongs.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Set in the 1980s, Aristotle is an angry teen who is trying to make sense of the world and his family’s secrets — his father is profoundly affected by his experiences in Vietnam, and his older brother is in prison. When he meets Dante, a gentle 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 enjoy this book, don’t forget to check out the sequel, Dante and Aristotle Dive Into the Waters of the World.
Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall (October 18, 2022)
Charlotte Kraus is in love with Angelika Haas, and so she happily follows her to the underground swing clubs that listen to contraband American jazz, despite the strict rules against it in Nazi-controlled Berlin. The world is on the cusp of war, but Charlotte and Angelika aren’t thinking about that…until their lives become inescapably dangerous. As the Swingjugend rebel against the Nazi rule, they find that resistance could cost them everything and war is only just the beginning.
Want more great queer YA historical fiction? Check out the anthology All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teen Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell. And for some queer adult historical fiction, check out these fabulous recommendations of queer historical fiction for Pride month!