Following on from my previous post on the importance of affirmative sex education, here are 10 books English Language Arts teachers can reach for to open conversations about love, relationships, gender and sexuality.
These works were chosen because they treat sex with the openness, thoughtfulness, honesty and sensitivity it merits.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
This brief, moving book touches an many aspects of life: education, self-discovery, solitude, family relationships, etc. but Rilke’s comments about love and sex shine. Don’t be satisfied with conventional definitions of what a relationship ‘should’ look like, he advises. Instead, seek to develop yourself as an individual so you can truly respect and cherish the individuality of another person. It is humane, wise, timely wisdom framed in sublime prose.
Frankly In Love by David Yoon
This YA novel centers on Frank Li, the teenage son of Korean immigrants, who finds himself trying to navigate the challenges of new love while wrestling with contradictory cultural expectations. Fast, good-humored and, well, frank, it highlights the importance of being honest with oneself and others — in life and in love.
Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler
With a nod to Demi Lovato, this novel explores how issues of class and privilege complicate the already complicated issues of love and sexual identity. Are Lara and Jasmine really falling in love, or are they just cool for the summer? And what happens if Lara chases the hunky Chase…? A touch frothy, but heartfelt and affirmative of love, wherever one finds it.
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
This Bildungsroman set in a well-to-do Pacific Northwest community hit home with me (though the community I grew up in wasn’t quite so well-to-do). In addition to being a welcome, thoughtful discussion of class, poverty and family tension, it has a romantic twist that is sure to get students talking.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Smith’s beloved coming-of-age tale set in early 20th century Brooklyn is refreshingly forthright about sex. It handles both positive and negative aspects of love and sexuality (including an attempted sexual assault) with a calm directness that can set the tone for open, non-judgmental classroom conversations.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Baldwin is perhaps my favorite writer on sex; certainly, the rare (American) author who understands and treats sex as the physical act of love. This short novel is appropriate for older teenagers, say 16-18, and explores the tragic consequences of prioritising social conventions over human relationships. To paraphrase Baldwin, the protagonist’s problem isn’t his homosexuality, it’s that his capacity for love has been crippled by his anxiety about what people might think.
Genderqueer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
Contemporary writers are creating a robust canon of books about gender identity and nonconformity. I love this graphic memoir for its matter-of-fact tone and authenticity. It highlights that gender identity is fluid and finding one’s path isn’t necessarily a linear journey — nor does it need to be.
Get it here
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
Lest you get the wrong impression about the back-to-back graphic memoir recommendations, let me quote one of my students when asked if he liked graphic texts: ‘No!’
He and I share the view that other people’s pictures get in the way of the (superior) moving pictures in our heads.
That notwithstanding, Persepolis 2 is an evocative, eye-level portrait of Satrapi’s struggles with language, culture, love and sexuality after she moved from Iran to Germany. This is a particularly strong choice for children who have immigrated or come from a cultural/familial context that distinguishes them from their classmates.
Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker
For younger readers, this is a charming, uplifting novel about a trans girl coming into her own. Details like Zenobia stressing out about which restroom to use add verisimilitude and the plot touches on vital issues like deadnaming, cyberbullying and the importance of community without ever feeling preachy.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
Sometimes, I read a book and think, wow, that was brilliant.
Sometimes, I read a book and think, wow, that was brilliant and I really want to be friends with the author.
When I Grow Up… is in the latter category. His poems about growing up as the child of immigrants, cultural tension, sexual identity, homophobia and the search for love are surpassingly deft, raw, funny, tragic, playful and defiant. They also communicate (don’t ask me how) a deep, fundamental good-personness. In a perfect parallel universe, Chen and I would go for drinks.
What texts would you add to a literary discussion of love, gender and sexuality? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke