A Pile of YA Novels with Non-binary Protagonists (Part 1!)

For my thesis (which is now actually “nearly done” and will, come hell or high water, actually be submitted sometime in the middle of 2022) I analysed YA novels with non-binary protagonists. When I tell people that, often they’re surprised that there are enough books in that niche to make a study out of. And I get to say “yeah! There’s more than you might expect! In fact, I had to change the whole format of a chapter because there were too many to talk about all at once!”

So in celebration of nearly, actually, almost being done, and in celebration of the many fantastic books that have filled this category over the past couple of years (making said thesis, in its current state, possible!) I’ve compiled a pile of them for your perusal.

Please note this is only a handful of personal recommendations from within my studies: there are others I haven’t written about and others I haven’t read yet. Plus, this list is narrowed to non-binary protagonists (here defined as “a main POV character”) and if I included texts with non-binary love interests or ensemble cast members, there would be even more! More books exploring the complexity of gender in a variety of genres are being published each year, so no doubt I’ll come back and make more lists in future! For now, though, read on…

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve (2019)

A spooky, harrowing urban fantasy full of queer allegory

In an alternate 1997 where magic and monsters are a fact of everyday life, fourteen-year-old Z has died in a car crash and awoken as a zombie. Orphaned and ostracised, Z searches for a cure to their state of decay, and along the way befriends Aysel, a fellow misfit who is keeping her lycanthropy under wraps. Secrecy becomes ever more important for these monster-kids as anti-werewolf sentiment builds in their town, following the mysterious murder of a doctor who was performing electroshock “therapy” to try and disconnect fae and monsters from their magic.

Harrowing in places but also deeply heartfelt, this is a story about how we need friendship to survive in a world where we’ve been deemed Monster. Z’s genderqueer identity (the use of “genderqueer” being a neat historical detail: the term would have only been coined by activist Rikki Wilchins two years earlier!) is not tied to their otherworldliness, as they were exploring their options via (a very different vision of) the Internet prior to the whole zombification thing.

That being said, Schrieve delves into some deliciously yucky supernatural body horror that heightens and plays with the concept of dysphoria. Z needing to conceal their “monstrous” status in order to keep good-natured, law-abiding citizens from destroying them, also rings true to the experience of being trans in a transphobic world. But this horrorshow has a happy ending, I promise, and there’s an excellent thematic thread of queer rebellion and love all the way through.

Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans (2020)

A cosy, uplifting contemporary fantasy about the magic of friendship

Iris grew out of a seed in the ground and is pals with the fairies and dryads who live in the forest, so magic is no surprise to them. Babs is invisible most of the time, and is delighted when Iris can see her. The two form a tight-knit friendship, soon taking a nameless boy under their wings as well, venturing through the magical world that exists just on the fringes of their suburban lives. When they sense a witch in the woods, they band together and set out to figure out a way to lift the curse on Babs.

If you want a look at the importance of queer community against an urban fantasy backdrop that’s a bit less intense than the above example, try Euphoria Kids (or, read both: Salem first, then Euphoria as a chill-out). This is a sweet, low-stakes, domestic-magic story about the friendship between three trans kids: non-binary Iris, trans girl Babs, and the trans boy who is simply “the boy” until he finds his true name near the end of the book.

As I’ve written about before, this is an exemplary novel for how chill and nice it is, engaging with complicated gender feelings but overall emphasising euphoria over dysphoria as well as community and joy. Even the “villain” is not as scary as she first seems, and the overall effect is an adorable adventure where the young, marginalised protagonists are never in peril.

But if you do want your marginalised protagonists in peril, well…

Even if We Break by Marieke Nijkamp (2020)

A tense cabin-in-the-woods mystery/horror where the queer kids survive

A formerly tight-knit group of friends is drifting apart after a series of traumas and complicated life situations, so their unofficial leader—well, their DM—gathers them together for one last hang-out before they go their separate ways. But things just aren’t the same between the geeky pals, and soon their murder mystery TTRPG party gets a little too real.

As you may know, Until Dawn takes up an unfair amount of real estate, rent free, in my brain (I’m even the world’s first scholar to write about the game in an academic context, for goodness’ sake!). Even If We Break appealed deeply to this part of my psyche, supplying a campy (yet earnest) murder mystery horrorshow with a much more diverse cast of teens with a much more grounded set of issues.

A trans boy and a non-binary games master make up 2/5 of the central characters, and they each provide their own unique ruminations on the way fandom and creative outlets allow for gender exploration. You know, in between running for their lives from the mysterious killer who seems intent on exposing everyone’s secrets and picking them off one by one!

It’s a tiny spoiler but I feel like it will help convince people to read this: these trans character do not end up murdered! A number of the group manage to escape the night, though be warned there’s plenty of blood, gnarly injuries, and psychological thrills along the way.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (2020)

A moving contemporary coming-of-age drama about defiant self-love

Felix comes to his prestigious art school one morning to find the lobby plastered with an anonymous “gallery” of photographs depicting him pre-transition. Determined to find out who did this and get revenge, Felix creates an online persona named Lucky to befriend—and whittle deep dark secrets out of—his classmates and scholarship rivals. But the catfishing scheme goes awry when Felix learns more about his targets than he bargained for, and finds himself in the middle of a strange digital love triangle.

Felix is a wonderful rollercoaster of a book and Felix is a delightful protagonist. This book does an impeccable (and valuable) job picking apart the power imbalances that can occur in supposedly inclusive communities, and examines the many intersections of class, race, gender, and queerness that might make someone’s life joyful but also difficult.

This is a particularly interesting example of non-binary storytelling as it features a character who has already transitioned (you can even see a wink of Felix’s top surgery scars on the cover, bless), but who still feels a “niggling feeling” that his gender doesn’t quite sit right. It makes for a great exploration of the complexity and euphoria of gender, and a nice antidote to the idea that non-binary is an “in-between step” towards “properly” transitioning to binary M or F. The friends-to-lovers romantic subplot is also gorgeous, and while the narrative obviously has its hard moments the end result is joyful.

Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)

A modern-ish fairy tale about fighting fate

The del Cisne sisters are caught in a curse: in each generation two girls will be born, and one will turn into a swan while the other remains human. Blanca and Roja are determined not to fall to this fate, even as swans gather in the forest around their house and destiny seems to be pressing closer and closer. But then they find themselves entwined in the lives of two boys under a spell of their own. Maybe together they can find a way to change the pattern…

Blanca & Roja is as gorgeously written as all of McLemore’s books, spinning a dreamy fairy tale tone that pulls you deeply into this world of curses and transformations as easy as breathing. Alongside the two sisters are two other POV characters, one of whom is our non-binary protagonist: Page, who is having trouble expressing her comfort with both “he” and “she” in a town ruled by neat binaries. The solution? Turn into a baby swan for a bit, and accidentally end up embroiled in a family curse and a magical woodland landscape.

Page is a sweetheart just trying to figure things out and do his best, and the way Blanca supports her is really lovely. After a conversation about the complexities of Page’s gender feels, Blanca’s narration uses “she/her” for Page while also referring to Page as “the boy” which is a really fun way of using the text to play with and convey those complexities. It adds a nice extra layer to the thematic throughline about fighting the roles and fates assigned to you, tied up in the magic but also realistic.

The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta (2021)

A cute domestic fantasy about queer community and gender euphoria

Baking is Syd’s passion, and, like with all creative outlets, feelings end up poured into the work alongside the butter and flour. When Syd is dumped by a long-term girlfriend, Syd’s immediate coping mechanism is to bake a batch of brownies. But Syd’s heartache infuses the chocolatey treats, and everyone who eats them—including many patrons of the queer-owned community space and bakery where Syd works—quickly goes through their own horrendous heartbreak. Syd embarks on a quest to undo the delicious but disastrous damage, slowly figuring out that not everything in life, identity, and romance has a strict recipe.

The Heartbreak Bakery is a sugary delight, taking a very playful approach to gender exploration. Syd is still figuring out which, if any, pronouns suit, so Syd uses none for most of the book—something you can do when it’s written in first-person and your hero only needs to be the “I” of the narrative! There are also other characters with multiple or alternating pronouns and the narration takes all of this in stride in a super refreshing way.

In the same camp as Euphoria Kids, this takes a very domestic and matter-of-fact approach to its magical elements, having fun running on dream logic and balancing fantasy with realism. Be warned: you may leave each reading session craving baked goods, enchanted or otherwise.

The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall (2020)

A dark fantasy about pirates and magic

Flora—disguised as a boy named “Florian”—is a pirate indebted to her bloodthirsty captain. Evelyn Hasegawa is a lady, shipped off to an arranged marriage with her luggage stored in her own coffin. The pirates’ plan is simple, the same one executed countless times before: kidnap the rich girl, sell her for a profit. But as Flora and Evelyn begin to fall for each other, alliances shift, and the two end up on the high seas in a battle for their own agency—helped along by an unexpected friend in the Sea itself.

Mermaid takes the trope of the “crossdressing” female pirate and uses it as a vessel for gender exploration: what if it begins as a disguise, but this young swashbuckler settles into this glorious fluidity between boy and girl? What if neither tells the whole story, nor is it as simple as considering “Flora” and “Florian” two distinct halves?

This high fantasy is a harrowing one, leaning into the grimy horrors of both cutthroat pirates and ruthless imperialists, with the heroes caught in the middle of a very unfriendly world (one in which sexual violence is an ever-present threat, so big content warning for that even if it doesn’t end up happening to either of the leads). But, like all these recs, this one has a happy ending that makes for a big sigh of relief after the whole rotten bloodthirsty adventure. I had to be in a specific mood to read this one, but I’m surely glad I did!

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1 Comment

Filed under Alex Reads, And I Think That's Neat

One response to “A Pile of YA Novels with Non-binary Protagonists (Part 1!)

  1. Pingback: “Heh”: May ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

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