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Teen

A Reading Rainbow: YA Novels That Explore Sexuality and Sexual Identity

by Devon A. Corneal

ya novels that explore sexuality
Photography by Seana Williamson

When I was growing up, Judy Blume revolutionized young adult reading with novels that confronted both sex and sexual feelings openly and others soon followed. There was a catch though — all of the books dealt with people in heterosexual relationships. Gay, bisexual, or questioning kids didn’t have books that reflected their experiences or struggles. Thankfully things have changed.

David Levithan started writing about gay teens over a decade ago, and other authors since have explored the diversity of sexual experiences and identities to write funny, moving, powerful stories that embrace kids, no matter who they’re attracted to. Today’s teen readers can find books that contain characters who remind them of themselves and their experiences. Read on to see a few of my favorites.

  • Boy Meets Boy

    by David Levithan

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    In a perfect world, our sexuality wouldn’t matter much, and we could all go about our lives being who we are. David Levithan’s breakout novel Boy Meets Boy created exactly that world, where the class president at Paul’s high school is openly gay, the star quarterback is a cross-dresser, and Paul’s homosexuality is a non-issue. A world without discrimination allows Levithan’s vibrant and complex characters to shine. A must-read for teens straight or gay.

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  • Breathless

    by Jennifer Niven

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    This is a beautiful story about sex, love, and self-discovery from the author of All The Bright Places. When her parents split up, Claude and her mom decide to spend the summer on a remote island off the coast of Georgia. There, Claude meets an Earth-loving boy named Jeremiah and hopes to have sex for the first time. As their summer heats up, Claude must decide how much of her heart to give a boy she plans on leaving in the fall.

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  • On the Subject of Unmentionable Things

    by Julia Walton

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    This YA novel brings sexuality to the modern era with social media, politics, and the spread of misinformation. High school student Phoebe has a secret social media account where she shares well-researched facts about sex. But when a local politician vows to expose her, Phoebe must decide if she wants to keep her anonymity or fight for what she believes in.

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  • Date Me, Bryson Keller

    by Kevin Van Whye

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    If you adored To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, you’ll love this boy-meets-boy rom-com! When Kai asks out his (straight) crush, Bryson Keller, he’s surprised when he agrees. But a dare requires them to break up after five days. Bracing for the inevitable heartbreak, Kai cautiously falls for the wrong boy — who might be falling for him, too.

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  • Boys I Know

    by Anna Gracia

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    Sexuality, identity, and big decisions combine into an unforgettable story about an Asian American teen with an overbearing parent. June’s mother tells her who she can date, where she can go to college, and what to major in. However, June doesn’t want the same things her mother does, and she learns to fight for the future she envisions.

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  • Juliet Takes a Breath

    by Gabby Rivera

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    This award-winning novel about a young woman coming out will make you laugh, cry, and cheer. When Juliet tells her family that she’s gay, they don’t take it well. She escapes to Oregon, where she starts an internship with a feminist author, has a fling with a cute librarian, and learns to live authentically.

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  • The Passing Playbook

    by Isaac Fitzsimons

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    15-year-old Spencer, a transgender athlete, is thrilled to get a fresh start at a new school where nobody knows his history. But when he gets benched after a new law goes into effect, he must decide if he wants to stay safe on the sidelines or tell his story and deal with the spotlight. This story tackles themes of identity, sexuality, and fighting for your rights.

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  • Being Jazz

    by Jazz Jennings

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    One of the most prominent LGBTQ activists is the reality TV star Jazz Jennings. She transitioned to female at the age of five and has publicly shared her experiences as a transgender girl on YouTube, social media, and this touching memoir. With photos and interviews, this book offers a behind-the-scenes peek at Jazz’s incredible journey.

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  • Practice Girl

    by Estelle Laure

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    This empowering novel is about a girl who takes control of her story and doesn’t let other people define her. Jo struggles to keep a long-term boyfriend and eventually learns why—the boys at school have labeled her a “practice girl.” At first, she’s mortified. However, Jo decides to reject the cruel label and live life on her own terms.

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  • The Best Laid Plans

    by Cameron Lund

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    Get ready for a fun, side-splitting, swoon-worthy rom-com! When 18-year-old high school student Keely decides it’s time to lose her virginity, she sets her sights on a hot boy in college. But she wants some experience first, so she turns to her best friend Andrew to teach her the ropes. They promise to stay friends no matter what — but that’s easier said than done. You’re going to love this sex-positive and hilarious romance novel!

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  • Kiss & Tell

    by Adib Khorram

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    Identity, romance, and pop culture collide in this YA book about a gay teen in a popular boy band. As Hunter and his band tour North America, he feels pressure from the label, media, and fans to be the perfect queer role model. But after a messy (and public) breakup, Hunter wants to be true to himself, even if it ends his music career.

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  • Some Girls Do

    by Jennifer Dugan

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    The beauty queen gets the girl in this sweet and heartfelt queer romance from the author of Hot Dog Girl. Morgan is an out-and-proud track star who meets Ruby, a closeted beauty pageant contestant who loves tinkering on her old car. As these two girls fall for each other, they’ll have to figure out how to support and accept their individual journeys.

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  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club

    by Malinda Lo

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    Take a step back to 1954, when two girls fall in love at a lesbian bar in Chinatown. But in a time when people are terrified of anything (and anyone) different, being queer is dangerous. This breathtaking historical romance will keep you glued to the page!

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  • How It All Blew Up

    by Arvin Ahmadi

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    Amir’s traditional Muslim family was less than supportive when he came out. To escape the drama, he heads to Rome, where he finds freedom and acceptance with a new group of friends. But when his past catches up with him, Amir finds himself in a US Customs interrogation office, answering all sorts of personal questions. This funny and heartbreaking novel is about self-discovery, freedom, and choosing to live unapologetically.

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  • Nate Plus One

    by Kevin van Whye

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    This friends-to-lovers rom-com from the author of Date Me, Bryson Keller is a light-hearted and funny story that YA readers will adore. Nate and Jai are best friends, but spending the summer touring South Africa, performing in a band, and attending a wedding together could move their relationship out of the friend zone.

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  • Let's Talk About It

    by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan

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    Get your most pressing questions answered with this informative graphic novel. You’ll find helpful tips, advice, and information about sex, relationships, and emotions. This book should be on every teen’s bookshelf!

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2022.