Discover more from Shelf By Shelf
These Stories Saved My Life
In which I discuss the books I loved in childhood and now, that have kept me sane, alive, and full of joy.
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
Back in June of 2018, one of my favorite bookstagrammers, Larissa (bklnbooks) was doing a Pride Month shoutout for other queer bookstagrammers, and ended up sharing one of my posts in her stories. I had only been actively sharing more book content for a few months and I didn’t even know bookstagram was a thing, but once she shared my post, I was quickly introduced to that community and many of the great readers there. It was partly because of this community that I also discovered many of the queer reads I’ve since come to know and love. Because of that, every Pride month since, I’ve shared stacks of my favorite queer reads to influence more readers to check them out. These last few years have seen a wealth of diverse queer stories, and it’s been so exciting to witness this burst of new stories. But that hasn’t always been the case. I plan on following my tradition of sharing a lot of queer reading recommendations this month, but today I wanted to share a little bit of my journey as a queer reader, to hopefully help give some insight into why it’s so important that we have access to these stories and what it’s like when we don’t.
I’ve always known the thrill of seeing myself represented in literature, in some capacity. When I was in elementary school, I read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, which is about a blonde boy (sorry Josh Hutcherson) who loves to draw and becomes friends with a spunky and adventurous girl—my entire identity as an eight year old was “blonde boy who likes to draw and is friends with a spunky girl”. There were also a lot of stories that captured the same feelings I had about my wants and likes—there were books about kids who liked to read or who wanted to become mermaids or who had accidentally killed their teacher and now had to hide the body. Maybe that last one doesn’t apply to me, but I still stan Lois Duncan. Either way, I knew how to find books that helped me see myself in some way. For a time, I thought that was enough. I think when you’re part of any community that isn’t centered as the norm, you grow up with the idea that you will never see yourself fully represented—in some ways, maybe it makes you a better reader, because you don’t expect to always be the focus of every story, but you also, when you’re younger at least, assume that those stories aren’t out there because you’re alone in your experience. Which can feel isolating.
When I was in middle school, I went to the public library and found a book called Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You by Doriane Cirrone. The book opens with a naked gay boy being drawn by the narrator’s sister. I remember reading that opening page at the library, quickly snapping the book shut, then going to a quiet corner of the library where no one could see me. I was immediately captivated. Even though the gay boy wasn’t the main character, knowing he existed, that he was seemingly allowed to be gay with no issue, thrilled me. I was raised in a conservative christian household, and despite the fact that two of my Granny’s best friends were gay men, I had always been taught that it was something bad, and that gay men were going to hell. Even though I knew and loved my Granny’s friends, there were never conversations about their sexuality around me. Reading this book and seeing this character speaking openly and having this narrator and her family seemingly okay with it gave me my first burst of hope in this world.
Not long after I read Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You, I found another book called Totally Joe by James Howe, which turned out to be a book about a gay kid around my age, twelve or thirteen, and this time, he was the main character. I was so excited by this, by reading about Joe’s crush on a boy, about him and the boy considering dressing as Burt and Ernie for Halloween, how they were trying to figure out their sexuality and their feelings for each other. I remember even going to the office of this woman named Keesha, who was in charge of the YA section of the library at the time, and telling her how much I enjoyed these books. I don’t even know if I told her what the books were about, because I was so nervous, but she always listened and offered other suggestions for books I should try. I’m sure she knew I was gay, even if I kept telling myself I wasn’t. Looking back, it’s become clear to me that the librarians and booksellers who offer us these stories of acceptance are just as important as the stories themselves.
At some point, I remember telling a friend about these books, and she recommended I try a book called Bright Purple: Color Me Confused by Melody Carlson, which ended up just being a somewhat anti-gay Christian book, and I learned very quickly that there were some people who shouldn’t talk to about these things.
While I enjoyed the books I discovered around this time, most of the gay boys in these stories were fit or charming or funny in ways that I wasn’t—I struggled with my body, my gender, my awkwardness around others. Greedily, I gobbled up the few queer stories I had access to, and while they all shared the commonality of these characters also liking boys, none of the stories represented the queer experiences particular to me.
Around the age of fifteen, maybe sixteen, I discovered Ellen Hopkins. She was known around school as the author of books about “bad kids” because the stories always involved young people getting into drugs, sex work, whatever the case may be—but when I first read her book Tricks, I remember thinking it was closer to what my life looked like than most of the books I’d read before. The few gay stories I’d read up until that point focused on middle class families, and the characters weren’t really going through anything too bad. I know people sometimes criticize writers for writing “trauma porn” for their queer characters, but those stories resonated with me way more than the ones where the kids biggest issue was being gay. Being gay almost felt like a footnote when considering my laundry list of struggles back then. And that’s kind of what it felt like for some of the queer characters in Hopkins’s books, too.
Ellen Hopkins books saved my life, if I’m being honest. At sixteen, I got sent to a place called Hope’s Corner after a suicide attempt, and when I got out I moved in with my mom and ended up reading Impulse. It’s a book about three teenagers who go to a mental health facility after suicide attempts—the book was definitely triggering and overwhelming, but there were two characters in it who struggled with their sexuality and seeing that there were people having almost the exact same experience as me helped. Hopkins also a lot about drug use in her books, and my mom and I read a lot of those books together. Around that time, my mom and stepdad were on meth and coke and whatever else, and those books gave my mom an entry point for us to talk about those things. Those books helped us understand each other and opened up a necessary dialogue we’d yet to have.
While I was still seeking out queer literature around this time, the books that mostly resonated with me ended up being books like White Oleander by Janet Fitch, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Most books dealing with sexual assault or the complicated dynamics between a mother and child or what it looked like to desire men all featured female protagonists. These experiences seemed to only be explored through the lens of girlhood. To be clear, this isn’t an issue with these books, and it isn’t something I’m upset about—I loved these books and I’m glad they were there when I needed them—it’s just an acknowledgment of an issue that’s only recently begun to resolve itself regarding these types of stories.
There were plenty of other books that captured aspects of my experience throughout the rest of high school and into early adulthood. Books like The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Will Grayson Will Grayson, and random other books I discovered along the way. Nobody told me that there were several major literary works that explored different types of queer experiences, and I wasn’t a very bright teenager, so I just took what little I could get and hoped more would come along the way.
It really wasn’t until 2015 that I read A Little Life and felt like a book really understood so much about my experience. I know this book is one of the most polarizing and many have loathed my constantly clinging to it, but I remember being so happy to finally have a book to share with my (then soon-to-be) husband to explain what I hadn’t been able to since we’d met. I can admit the book has plenty of flaws, but that’s not what this is about. I mean that certain stories exist for a reason. So many of the books like these have truly been the ones that have offered a path to conversations that before I read them, I couldn’t have. I always find this to be a gift.
Since then, I have read many other books that articulate so many various aspects of my experience, books that make me feel seen in ways I never thought I could before—authors like Alexander Chee, Garth Greenwell, Patrick Nathan, Edgar Gomez, Britney Purnell, and Brandon Taylor have captured various aspects of sexual desire in different ways, from different stages from teen years into later adulthood. Others like Meredith Talusan, Krys Malcolm Belc, Maggie Nelson, Akwaeke Emezi, Jacob Tobia, and Joseph Cassara have done such a beautiful job exploring gender in ways that have provided me with the language I needed to communicate things about myself. Carmen Maria Machado, Casey Gerald, Ocean Vuong, Saeed Jones, Peter Kispert, and Kristen Arnett have written about experiences that I once thought were mine alone, but that I have since discovered are so common among queer folk. And in writers like Joseph Lezza, Greg Mania, R. Eric Thomas, JP Brammer, Celia Laskey, and Steven Rowley I have found so much of the humor I needed to survive.
I cannot communicate enough just how important it is that I had access to these stories in order to not feel so alone, to keep going in my darkest moments. I want to spend this month, but also my whole life, celebrating the stories that have kept me alive and helped me find joy in my living. If you see me being a little overly sentimental this month, if I seem unbelievably enthusiastic over so many of these books, it’s me being as honest as I can about how grateful I am.
I just wanted to say that today. Life has been hectic, but I’m grateful for y’all, grateful for these stories, grateful for a community that is doing all they can to keep these stories in the hands of those who need them.
I hope y’all have a lovely night and rest of your weekend.
Until next time,