How Stonewall Liberated Young Adult Literature

Writers, publishers, and librarians brought the radical energy of the uprising into children's books

Photo by Shereen M

Two weeks before the Stonewall Riots, the first major young adult book to explicitly feature homosexuality hit the shelves. At the time, a book for teens that included a queer plot was so radical that, when John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip debuted in June 1969, the publisher appended a blurb from a psychiatrist. “A moment of sex discovery is told simply but poignantly in the life of a thirteen-year-old boy through his relationship with a friend of his own age and sex. It is how he absorbs this experience that becomes the key to what will happen next,” Dr. Frances L. Ilg of Yale wrote. Ilg went on to assure potential readers that “Davy is able to face his experience.” Not exactly glowing praise, but an official sanction that seemed necessary at a time when homosexuality was still considered a psychological problem.

The book, like Ilg’s blurb, aspired to both assuage parental fears and carve out space for same-gender attraction. In it, thirteen-year-old Davy Ross develops a close relationship with his classmate Douglas Altschuler after he moves to a new school. At one point, Davy kisses Altschuler, and they spend the night together, where they have a sexual experience that in the following days Davy can only refer to as “it.” After, he struggles to make sense of what he’s done. Although his thought process reflects the prejudice of the era, the fact that he contemplates the legitimacy of his feelings at all was exceptional: “There’s nothing wrong with Altschuler and me, is there? I know it’s not like making out with a girl,” Davy asks himself. “It’s just something that happened. It’s not dirty, or anything like that. It’s all right, isn’t it?”

But the publication of Donovan’s book, along with its wide library and bookstore distribution, was not a success of Donovan’s alone. I’ll Get There got its life thanks to a series of literary activists, who, taking cues from the gay liberation movement that followed the Stonewall Riots, went to great lengths to push LGB literature for young people into the mainstream.

I’ll Get There, like most early works of queer literature for children, can trace its genesis to an early trailblazing editor: Ursula Nordstrom. Nordstrom is widely credited with pushing the burgeoning category of YA literature, which dates to the 1942 publication of Seventeenth Summer, out of its moralistic foundations. Whereas the earliest spate of YA books centered on books that taught kids how to act their best, Nordstrom championed books that dealt with “taboo”: drugs, sex, and family drama. She once wrote that she wanted the category to move out of “bad books for good children” and toward “good books for bad children.”

Ursula Nordstrom wanted young adult literature to move out of ‘bad books for good children’ and toward ‘good books for bad children.’

Herself a lesbian, Nordstrom had a penchant for hiring queer writers like Donovan, even when they weren’t open about their sexualities. In addition to Donovan, who lived with a man for fourteen years, Nordstrom sought out writers like Where the Wild Things Are’s Maurice Sendak and Harriet the Spy’s Louise Fitzhugh, who quietly shaped the burgeoning world of books for young adults while hiding or downplaying their sexualities.

After years of acclimating the category of children’s literature to heavy but true-to-life themes, Nordstrom dreamed of publishing a book like I’ll Get There. When in 1968 John Donovan wrote to her with his idea, Nordstrom responded that she had “been waiting a long time for a manuscript that includes ‘buddy-love problems’ and it will be fine if you are the one to do it successfully.”

For a major editor to lend her support to a book about gay teens was no small feat. In 1969, the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and because strict decency laws meant that books with homosexual themes could be confiscated, no writer dared broach the subject for young audiences. (“Gender identity disorder” was also a diagnosable illness, which wouldn’t be revised until 2013.) In fact, Nordstrom’s version of “good books for bad children” YA literature drew from the same well as lesbian pulp fiction, which offered literary representation outside the bounds of official book distribution networks in the 1950s and ’60s. Pulp writers like Marijane Meaker, whose 1952 lesbian romance/tragedy Spring Fire sold over 1.5 million copies during its lifespan, also wrote some of the first queer books for teens.

Even Nordstrom, despite her tireless support of books that dealt with the complexities of childhood and adolescence, knew that putting this novel out into the world was going to be a challenge. In a letter to Donovan in advance of I’ll Get There’s publication, Nordstrom wrote, “We’re going to meet a lot of resistance to this book and we will be eager to fight that resistance as intelligently and gracefully as possible. … I think it is going to mean a lot to a lot of young readers, if we can just get it past the adults who buy their books!”

Yet publishing the book was only half the battle. The work of getting I’ll Get There into the hands of kids fell not on Nordstrom but on a group of librarians who, in 1970, formed the Task Force on Gay Liberation during the American Library Association conference that year—the first LGBT caucus in any U.S. profession.

Israel Fishman, one of the creators of the Task Force, later credited the Stonewall Riots—which were celebrating their first anniversary on the day of the ALA conference—with providing the impetus for the organization. “I was inspired and truly touched by what was happening in New York hundreds of miles away,” Fishman told the crowd. “I want to emphasize that it was that shift in my consciousness—that I would no longer be afraid—that led me to bring about the birth of this Task Force, this miracle, this incredible tool/weapon for social change and liberation.”

The Task Force set about disseminating books about LGB people as widely as possible. Soon after its founding, lesbian activist Barbara Gittings compiled a list of positive books about queer people in the first ever Gay Bibliography, which launched in 1971. At the ALA conference that year, the Task Force set up a kissing booth to protest the lack of inclusion of queer books and queer librarians, launched a Gay Book Award (now called the Stonewall Book Award), organized a panel entitled “Sex and the Single Cataloger: New Thoughts on Some Unthinkable Subjects,” and passed a resolution to protect the library rights of homosexuals. The impact it had on a literary world that continued to skirt the issue of LGB identity was seismic. Still, its activism had its limits: although trans women like Sylvia Rivera played key roles in the contemporaneous gay liberation movement, the Task Force did not give much thought to trans narratives in literature. Only in 2004, with the publication of Luna by Julie Anne Peters, did a book for teens center an openly trans character.

Many of these books, while offering newfound visibility for queer teens, were riddled with tropes about homosexuality and suffering.

Around the time the Task Force took off, queer YA literature was exploding. John Donovan’s book seemed to have broken a dam. In the eighteen years after I’ll Get There, thirteen books for teens touched on same-sex attraction, including Rosa Guy’s Ruby (1976), the first to feature a queer Black girl. But many of these books, while offering newfound visibility for queer teens, were riddled with tropes about homosexuality and suffering. Even I’ll Get There ends on an ambivalent note: although Altschuler tells Davy that he doesn’t regret what they did together, prompting some critics to see a hopeful message in the book, Davy ends up blaming his escapades for a car accident that kills his beloved dog. “It certainly isn’t in my nature to queer around,” he says, fearing that his dog’s death is punishment.

As researcher Scott John Arbery put it in 2000, I’ll Get There, “while praised for being the first young adult text to ‘openly’ approach the topic of adolescent homosexuality, also provided the blue-print for subsequent texts dealing with the subject.” The spate of books that followed latched on to many of the same motifs that Donovan’s book did. Car crashes, gay shame, same-gender kissing relegated to scene transitions—many of these same patterns materialized in the spate of books that followed I’ll Get There, including The Man Without a Face by Isabelle Holland (1972), Sticks and Stones by Lynn Hall (1972), Trying Hard to Hear You by Sandra Scoppettone (1974), and What’s This About Pete? by Mary W. Sullivan  (1976).

The new crop of queer literature advocates did not overlook these problems. Groups like the Gay Task Force made a point of calling out problematic tropes, foreshadowing the legacy of activism in YA literature that lives on today. For instance, in Lynn Hall’s Sticks and Stones (1972), Tom struggles with his feelings for his best friend just as a rumor spreads through his school that he’s a homosexual. Tom’s best friend later comes out as gay, and Tom learns to ignore the opinions of his classmates. But by the end of the book, the two boys end up as friends, not lovers, despite confessing their affection for each other.

The Task Force reached out to Hall to ask why the optimistic ending had not made space for the possibility that the two could be lovers as well as friends. Hall responded that although her original ending had included a romantic subplot, it evaporated during the editing process. “The publishers would not let me do it,” Hall wrote to the Task Force. “In their words, this was showing a homosexual relationship as a possible happy ending, and this might be dangerous to young people teetering on the brink. One editor wanted me to kill Tom in a car accident.”

Many authors internalized activist pushback to their books. After the Task Force criticized Trying Hard To Hear You (1974), Sandra Scoppettone noted that her book’s ending—in which a gay side character is hit by a car after he asks a girl on a date—“was misconstrued by many people. Perhaps this was my fault; I should have made the reason for this clearer. My intention was to show that he died trying to be something (heterosexual) he wasn’t and not because he was a homosexual.”

By 1976, the Task Force codified its aims into an official document entitled “What to Do Until the Utopia Arrives,” which directed librarians on how to approach books with queer themes. Decades later, the guidelines still mirror some of today’s discourse on representation. “Young gay women and men can and should be portrayed as heroes as simply as their nongay counterparts,” the Task Force wrote. “The positive acceptance of a parent, teacher, or best friend should be shown happening without destructive repercussions.”

The radical energy behind Stonewall spawned a parallel movement in the children’s literature world.

With the number of LGBT books for teens stretching into the hundreds in 2019, the lengths required to bring a book featuring same-gender teen kissing to the public fifty years ago feel increasingly hard to imagine. That isn’t an accident. Bookish activists organized for decades around the belief that queerness can and should thrive in children’s literature. The same radical energy behind Stonewall spawned a parallel movement in the children’s literature world—and that spirit of envisioning a richer, queerer, more complicated literature lives on today in the books of authors like Anna-Marie Mclemore, Mason Deaver, and Shaun David Hutchinson, who are pushing the genre to new heights.

The Gay Task Force, too, has become a mainstay of YA. Now the the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table, it oversees the annual commemoration of the Stonewall Book Award, and its work of critiquing books that engage in harmful tropes has shifted to individual bloggers, writers, and booksellers who remain vigilant on Twitter and Goodreads. Yet while YA books framed around “punishing” queerness still exist, the landscape of positive LGBTQ novels for teens is growing so rapidly that some literary activists have the luxury of adopting a new approach. Rather than challenge the hurtful queer YA, as the Task Force had to, the unspoken mission of blogs like LGBTQ Reads is to drown out the bad books for children with the good.

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