This year, I’ve been on a quest to read more Australian fiction. A lot of the books I covered for my thesis were from the US or, occasionally, the UK, meaning that while I have a heap of recommendations up my sleeve regarding all things queer YA… I realised there was a bit of a gap in my knowledge.
So, what does the world of YA with LGBTQIA+ protagonists look like in my own backyard? Here are some examples I enjoyed from my recent reading! I’m always looking for more, so if you have any other recommendations, please do drop them in the comments!
The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough (2021)
In a sleepy town tucked between the mountains and the sea, Jackson’s ordinary summer break is interrupted by the arrival of Tomas: a mysterious, quiet, decidedly cute boy in the care of Jackson’s aunt. Instructed to make sure Tomas “stays out of trouble”, Jackson reluctantly takes the stranger under his wing, exploring the forests, avoiding local racists and awkward ex-girlfriends, helping brainstorm a therapeutic graphic novel project and maybe, just maybe, falling a bit in love.
This Indigenous queer coming-of-age story addresses the pressures of small-town masculinity while also presenting a very tender alternative version of it. While Jackson has to reckon with the complex intersections of his identity and the expectations hanging over his head, overall this is a slow, sweet story with an optimistic throughline. The romance that develops gradually between Jackson and Tomas is wonderful, with plenty of fun, naturalistic dialogue (not to mention some great, funny moments among Jackson’s friends).
CW: characters using racist and homophobic slurs; racist micro- and macroaggressions from antagonists; internalised homophobia
Dancing Barefoot by Alice Boyle (2022)
Patch, the scholarship kid at a fancy Melbourne private school, has always stuck with her best and only friend Edwin. But when the school accepts Edwin’s transition, they put him in the boys’ group for the upcoming school camp… leaving Patch to fend for herself among the other girls. But maybe everything’s not so bad: through a zany turn of events, it seems like Patch’s long-time crush, Evie, is keen on spending time with her. But does Evie just want to be friends, or is there a chance for something more?
This is a coming-of-age rom-com with all the ingredients: sugar, corn, and just a bit of cheese. I appreciated that Patch’s friendship with Edwin took such prominence, and not just because he’s one of the few trans characters to be found (currently) in Australian YA. Patch’s relationship with Evie is sweet, too, of course. Bless their hearts, they’re a pair of fledgling Melbourne arts nerds with their taste in vintage music and gallery exhibits. Patch’s narrative voice is full of personality, and there are some fun character interactions that keep the relationship-driven plot bobbing along.
I couldn’t help hungering for a little more perspective on the wealth gap between Patch and her classmates—perhaps because it was done so well in Ciara Smyth’s Not My Problem, another recent lesbian contemporary dramady that vibes similarly to Dancing Barefoot in a few ways. It would have been cool to see this addressed from an Aussie perspective, since we like to think we’re above petty old-world things like social class, but definitely have our own insidious version. Patch also, in her swirling self-doubt and assumptions that Evie cannot like her back, continually seems to forget that bisexuality exists. It’s awkward and a little uncomfortable, but in good faith I’ll hold that against the character and her insecurity rather than against Boyle. Overall, though, Dancing Barefoot is pretty fun: a good use of a familiar formula, freshened up with queer flavour.
CW: a misunderstanding leading to false sexual assault (i.e. forced kissing while drunk) allegations; violence against the trans character (albeit not transphobia, just teenaged boys being dickheads)
Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans (2020)
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.
Fairies, witches, and forest spirits all dwelling at the corners of suburbia, waiting for three trans friends to have an adventure among them! As I’ve expressed before, Euphoria Kids is just plain lovely, emphasising queer joy over pain and inviting you into a dreamy little journey. This one’s also nice because it skews a little younger: the gentle stakes, straightforward-but-pretty writing, and focus on friendship means you can probably hand this to a (later) primary school reader and they won’t feel intellectually out of their depth or confronted by anything freaky. (You know, aside from the freaky notion that trans people exist and deserve to be happy… but if you’ve ended up on this blog, chances are you don’t feel that way, hey?)
CW: discussion and brief depiction of depression and dysphoria
Henry Hamlet’s Heart by Rhiannon Wilde (2021)
Henry Hamlet and Len Cane have been best friends since they were kids, and have stuck together even as they grew into each other’s opposite. Henry is an anxious, overachieving overthinker, and Len is a confident charmer who’s somehow ended up great at sport and art. These two have been each other’s other half for so long… but could they work as a couple?
I can be won over by a childhood-friends-to-lovers premise, it has to be said. This one captures the vast internal complications of this well, dwelling in the strange in-between phase where you’re kind of dating but also, who can tell, because you already know each other so well and everything’s being done so out of order? Against the backdrop of the final term of high school, it’s a lot for the titular Henry and his heart to handle. Henry is written realistically as a nervous teenager who overthinks almost everything, which means his internal narration can loop in on itself in places like an anxious gay ouroboros. The overall prettiness of the writing makes this fun to read even when it feels like it’s re-treading ground, though; full of lovely turns of phrase and colourful descriptions of the Brisbane scenery.
I’m still trying to work out if this needed to be set in 2008, as there’s nothing to seriously anchor the story in this timeframe save for the references to alternative and emo music of the era (listened to on iPods, no less). There’s even a gay wedding (between Henry’s eccentric, hilarious grandma and her new partner—best characters? Maybe so) despite them not being fully legal yet. I can only assume Wilde wanted to generate a nostalgic fascination with the pop culture of fifteen years ago in her teenaged readers. Thinking of early Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy as something “vintage” current teens are “nostalgic” for is doing my head in, but I hope someone out there has fun with it.
CW: emotional unavailable, emotionally abusive, and mildly physically abusive parents (Len’s dad); brief homophobic jokes from classmates; deceased parents
The Monster of Her Age by Danielle Binks (2021)
Ellie Marsden’s grandmother is the (in)famous Lottie Lovinger, who made her screen debut as a cricket-bat-wielding, mini-shorts-wearing Final Girl in a ‘70s slasher movie and has been an undisputed scream queen ever since. Once, Ellie wanted to follow in her footsteps, but her one experience as a child actor left her traumatised—and estranged from Lottie, who let the on-set abuse happen. But when Lottie has a stroke, Ellie must return home and reckon with her complicated relationship with the Lovinger family legacy. Was Lottie a heroine, or a monster? Can a person be both at once?
Set in an alternate history where Australia had its own Golden Age of cinema right alongside Hollywood, this is a neat character drama about complicated relationships… and horror movies. Honestly I’m in love with this one purely for Binks’ rebellious twist on history, inviting us to imagine a world where Hobart is as glamorous as Beverly Hills and Aussies don’t have to fit themselves into the US market to make their art on a grand stage. Combined with the ruminations on the cathartic, feminist potential of horror as a genre, the nuanced discussion of forgiveness and trauma, and, yes, the very cute romantic subplot, this one’s a real winner for me. I wrote a whole post on it here!
CW: family members with terminal illness; discussions of child abuse (emotional manipulation, mild physical abuse, gaslighting); discussions of stalking and bullying
Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley (2020)
Peta Lyre is an “alphabet kid”, with ASD, SPD, and ADHD. Years of neglectful parents, uninterested teachers, and insistent therapists have convinced Peta that the best way to move through the world is not to ask it to accommodate her, but to try and fit into its rules: in other words, do everything she can to rate as “normal”. When a cute new girl named Sam moves to her school, however, Peta’s carefully-crafted routine and very-suppressed emotions start to take a different turn.
Who’s ready to get pissed off at some fictional adults? Because lord, does Whateley write a convincing, effective portrait of all the ways parents, teachers, and psychologists can make life difficult for a child born “different”. The book doesn’t present a solution to this, though it does give Peta the space, across the narrative, to get beautifully, justifiably angry about it. Catharsis, at least, if nothing else—and a protagonist I was rooting for all the way through.
While Peta represents a very specific slice of experience (no doubt drawn from the author’s own) I feel like she’s relatable to a variety of readers, and her story is a conduit through which we can all challenge the idea of “normal” and the social rules that define it. While I can’t speak to this in terms of its neurodivergent representation, I can happily recommend it as a piece of casually queer YA. Ironically, I found myself not that invested in the central romance, and much more compelled by Peta’s non-girlfriend relationships: with her best mate, Jeb, and with her uncle’s ex-girlfriend, Ant, who took Peta in when her biological parents “quit”. There are some great moments and sweet scenes throughout this, and again, that lovely, angry throughline about the way society reacts to people deemed “abnormal”.
CW: ableism; internalised ableism; parental neglect; domestic abuse; adults (early 20s?) getting handsy with teenagers
We Who Hunt the Hollow by Kate Murray (2022)
In an alternate world ravaged by interdimensional creatures called the Hollow, the Daalman family are a top-class monster-fighting dynasty. Their youngest daughter, Priscilla, feels left out of the action and unworthy of her family’s reputation, “blessed” only with the power to sense magical energy—altogether pretty mediocre and unhelpful. But when Priscilla tries to amplify her superpower, it mutates in unexpected ways, giving her the ability to summon the very monsters she’s supposed to be learning to destroy.
Part one of a series, We Who Hunt the Hollow feels like a Melbourne-flavoured throwback to the urban fantasy romps that were popular when I was a YA (complete with a pseudo love triangle and a broody but poetic bad boy!). Even if I, personally, didn’t quite vibe with that aspect, there’s fun to be had here. The worldbuilding is cool, with Murray constructing a version of our world reshaped by the natural disasters and political schisms that you might expect to follow a series of terrifying interdimensional rifts, and infused with a mix of magic and tech. The highlight of the book, for sure, is Priscilla’s chaotic but earnest relationship with her family, who are equal parts tangled up in interpersonal drama, supernatural action, and awkward discussions about how no one wants to eat the oldest sister’s cooking.
CWs: some bloody supernatural violence; age-gap relationships. Specifically, between our protagonist, who turns eighteen at the very end of the book, and a girlfriend who has already graduated from uni. The other prospective love interest is a young man of ambiguous “dropped out of uni” age, and it’s mentioned that at age eleven Priscilla had a thing for her fifteen-year-old sister’s BF. So, clearly her draw to people older than her is a character trait, which is honestly an interesting thing to explore… which makes me wish it had been commented on by the narrative or by, well, any of the adults, who seem fine with the arrangement(s)? In any case, slightly baffling but not a dealbreaker for me per se, but if that squicks you out be aware that it’s there.