Originally presented at the Young Adult Studies Association online conference, November 2022.
Transcript: Hello YASA, wherever you are in the world! My name is Alex, and I’m recording today from Ngunnawal country. In this paper I’ll be presenting some work from my recently submitted doctoral thesis, which examined non-binary representation in YA through the lens of mythology-inspired fantasy. Specifically, today I’m going to talk about an issue that crops up when representing groups like non-binary people in fantasy, or other speculative fiction: the idea of the non-human non-binary character. This potentially dallies with a lot of negative conceptions, but I argue it’s also potentially a very playful space to explore gender identity outside of the confines of contemporary realism.
I have a new scholarly paper out, free to read in the International Journal of Young Adult Literature! This scoops up and lays out a bunch of my thesis data, representing a lot of research work. Check it out if you’re interested!
Non-binary gender is a marginalised queer identity increasingly receiving mainstream media representation, a subject that warrants investigation. Non-binary is an umbrella term under which many experiences of gender fall, a factor that necessitates a nuanced variety of narrative representations to avoid perpetuating or creating static and singular archetypes. This article examines a sample of young adult novels with non-binary protagonists published between 2017 and 2020, exploring the various ways these texts express and explore their central characters’ gender identity. My findings reveal thematic commonalities between these novels, with particular focus on the language used to describe these characters’ felt sense of gender, their experiences with dysphoria/euphoria, their relationships to broader queer communities within their story worlds, and the intersections of queer gender and speculative elements. I argue that this subset we might call ‘non-binary YA’ serves as an emblem of the development of queer YA overall, its rapid expansion through various genres and narrative types providing a microcosm of the growth of the literary field and pointing to its future.
Watch along for a dip into some of my research on the different ways writers can use POV—first-person, close third-person, or the “voice of god” omniscient third-person—to tell different kinds of queer stories and affirm the identities of their non-binary characters in different ways. I use a small sample of recent YA novels as examples, and even talk a little about my own novel manuscript 👀
Please also enjoy my cowboy shirt, the way my glasses sometimes go fully white in the sunshine like an anime character, and the dorky eye-catching thumbnail I made.
Originally presented, virtually, at the Australian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference, 1st July 2022.
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…
Premise: in an alternate 1996 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 fey and monsters from their magic.
Rainbow rep: a non-binary protagonist, a lesbian werewolf (a girl werewolf! That on its own is exciting!), and a queer supporting cast including lesbian selkies, trans werewolves, and sort of gender-ambiguous shapeshifters.
Content considerations: depictions of police brutality, depictions of homophobic bullying, magical plot elements that are clear stand-ins for conversion therapy, intersections of fantasy bigotry and real-world bigotry.
Queerness and “monstrosity” have intertwined plenty over the years, both for good and ill. Monsters, after all, so often represent some sort of social Other, some sort of values or behaviours or appearances that does not suit the dominant norm and is thus frightening to people who do fit into that norm. Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, the undead, are all liminal and transitory and odd in some way or another, so historically they have often been queer-coded as a shortcut to showing their villainy. However, many LGBTQIA+ folks have taken these queer monsters as their own, and felt a strange affinity for folklore, creature features, and the general landscape of the Gothic and the frightening. Out of Salem understands this connection with its whole heart, and it makes for a story that’s both harrowing and heartwarming.