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Around the World with Queer Kid Lit and YA: 13 Books to Read Now

By Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Books in translation have the power to challenge dominant attitudes and inspire new ways of seeing society—and ourselves. These thirteen books from around the world offer young readers refreshing perspectives on gender and sexuality, while also taking us on an LGBTQ+ book tour of Brazil, Canada, Equatorial Guinea, France, India, Japan, and Russia . . .


Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime!

Written and translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel and illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa
Published by Orca Books (US and Canada), Oratia Books (Australia and New Zealand), and Peniarth (UK)

These two rhyming board books about young children (and their pets) who just happen to have same-sex parents have been causing a stir this summer: the Russian translation was hailed as a challenge to homophobic laws that require LGBTQ+ books to have an 18+ sticker on the front, and in Hungary a bookshop was fined for selling the books without a warning that they represented families different from what is considered “normal.” Since their initial publication, these books have been translated into over twenty languages worldwide.


Jerome by Heart

Written by Thomas Scotto, translated from French by Claudia Zoe Bedrick and Karin Snelson, and illustrated by Olivier Tallec
Published by Enchanted Lion Books (US)

A compassionate and evocative picture book about a boy named Raphael, who senses his parents’ disapproval of his affectionate friendship with Jerome. But seen from the child’s-eye view, the parents’ objections are absurd and Raphael is right to say that Jerome is everything to him. A buddy. A secret hideout. A fortress that will last forever. From Raphael’s perspective, love is easy; why shouldn’t it be? A 2019 Mildred L. Batchelder Award honor book.


Emmett and Caleb

Written by Karen Hottois, translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone, and illustrated by Delphine Renon
Published by Book Island (UK)

A tender story of friendship, misunderstandings, resentment, and reconciliation, against the backdrop of the changing seasons of the rural idyll where Emmett and Caleb live in neighboring cabins. These are two male companions, of indeterminate animal species, different in character and easily exasperated with one another. Their relationship has its ups and downs, with endless worry about what to say to put things right, but theirs is a love that’s hinted at in the touch of hands, meaningful glances, and a rainbow-striped cake. 



Mayil Will Not Be Quiet!

Written in English by Niveditha Subramiam and Sowmya Rajendran
Published by Tulika Books (India)

Mayil wants to be a writer, and this diary is her place to let off steam, puzzle over boys and puberty, make sense of conversations with her friends and definitely-not-friends, and complain about her annoying younger brother. Yet for all their sibling squabbles, she defends her brother’s right to play with dolls and take dance classes instead of karate. Winner of the 2015 Bal Sahitya Puraskar prize and a Crossword Honor Book 2012, this infectiously funny and charming middle-grade novel in diary format references transgender identity and nonbinary genders in passing as part of a broader interrogation of gender stereotypes. 


Ciel and Ciel in All Directions

Written by Sophie Labelle and translated from Canadian French by David Homel (Ciel) and Andrea Zanin (Ciel in All Directions)
Published by Second Story Press (Canada)

A gender nonconforming trans kid using nonbinary pronouns, Ciel is a YouTube vlogger who has just started high school, where friendships and romantic relationships are complicated, especially when Ciel’s boyfriend moves to another country! This is an enjoyable middle grade/young teen series with multiple queer or trans characters, and it explores racism and transphobia with a light touch. Sophie Labelle is the transgender cartoonist behind Assigned Male and various other webcomics about queer and trans teenagers.



Where We Go from Here

Written by Lucas Rocha and translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Larissa Helena
Published by PUSH (USA) and David Fickling Books (UK)

Three young gay men are thrown together in friendship, and allyship, by having to come to terms with HIV. This debut novel, which was joint winner of the 2021 GLLI Translated YA Prize, demonstrates how far we've come in understanding and talking about HIV while also showing just how far we have yet to go to overturn prejudice and misunderstandings. This colorful and captivating novel, narrated from the alternating perspectives of the three queer protagonists, is a delightful read for young and older adults alike.


Playing a Part

Written by Daria Wilke and translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books (USA)

Grisha is a Moscow high-school student coming to terms with his sexuality, bullied at school and harangued by his grandfather, who dismisses him as a “sissy.” Luckily, the inclusive community of the puppet theater where he spends most of his time is a safe space where he can be himself. Written as a story for young teens, this is one that also has to carry the 18+ sticker in Russia, where there’s a ban on publishing anything that could be seen as promoting homosexuality to minors. And with one of the main characters leaving Russia for his own safety, this YA novel doesn’t shy away from casting a light on the vulnerable situation faced by many queer people.


La Bastarda

Written by Trifonia Melibea Obono and translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (with an afterword by Abosede George)
Published by The Feminist Press (USA) and Modjaji Books (South Africa)

Banned in Obono’s home country of Equatorial Guinea, this is a daring and often humorous YA novella about coming out as a lesbian in traditional Fang culture. Okomo is an orphaned teen, or bastarda, who lives under the watchful eye of her grandmother, who does everything she can to marry Okomo off to a rich man. Instead, Okomo falls in love with a girl who’s part of a rebellious group of young lesbians who flee violent persecution in the village to live in isolated but peaceful exile in the forest. Obono is considered one of the bravest voices in contemporary West African literature, and this surprising story, awarded an Honor Title by the GLLI Translated YA Book Prize, is well worth a read.

Read an excerpt of La Bastarda on WWB. 


Here the Whole Time

Written by Vitor Martins and translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Larissa Helena
Published by Scholastic (USA) and Hachette Children’s (UK)

Cringe comedy at its best, this novel throws us into close quarters with anxiety-ridden teen Felipe on a vacation from hell. His mom has invited his sexy neighbor Caio to stay—in Felipe’s room!—and there's nowhere to hide. Felipe has body issues and is in counseling to help with his confidence, but he’s refreshingly and wonderfully unencumbered by worries about his sexuality. Still, that doesn’t make it easier to cope with having his former best friend, and now the biggest crush of his life, sleeping right there on the floor next to him! A brilliantly witty and touching novel that was joint winner of the 2021 GLLI Translated YA Prize.



Luisa: Now and Then

Written and illustrated by Carole Maurel, translated from French by Nanette McGuinness, and adapted by Mariko Tamaki 
Published by Life Drawn/Humanoids (France/USA)

A gripping and richly cinematic graphic novel about fifteen-year-old Luisa, who finds herself catapulted into Paris a decade and a half in the future, to a dramatic confrontation with her thirty-something, still not-quite-out lesbian self. With pitch-perfect dialogue, stunning visuals, and plenty of humor, this time-traveling queer romance deserves its many accolades, including the 2020 GLLI Translated YA Prize Honor Title and ALA Stonewall Book Award 2019.


My Brother’s Husband

Written and illustrated by Gengoroh Tagame and translated from Japanese by Anne Ishii 
Published by Pantheon (US)

Winner of a 2018 Eisner Award, the Japan Media Arts Award for Outstanding Work of Manga, and the GLLI Translated YA Book Prize 2019, this is the first in a two-part manga series about the way Kana’s family’s life is turned upside down by the arrival of her uncle’s husband out of the blue. Kana’s dad, Yaichi, is in denial about his brother Ryoji’s homosexuality, so it’s a bit of a shock when, after Ryoji’s death, his Canadian widower turns up in suburban Tokyo to find out more about his life. This is a heartwarming and wry look at gender and sexuality from multiple perspectives, child and adult, Canadian and Japanese.


Looking for more reading lists? Check out the following:

10 New Children's Books in Translation to Read This Summer

8 Queer Books in Translation to Read Now

11 Translated Books by Asian Women Writers to Read This #WITMonth

Disclosure: Words Without Borders is an affiliate of and will earn a commission if you use the links above to make a purchase.

Published Sep 16, 2021   Copyright 2021 Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

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