Windows and Mirrors: LGBTQ Literature Reflections and Recommendations

By Tricia Baldes

Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at Ohio State University wrote,

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

This idea of books as windows, as sliding glass doors, and as mirrors, is something we talk about a lot in my eighth- grade classroom. My students often refer to books using these terms, identifying “mirror books” and “window books” and they have strong convictions that both are important for them as readers and as young adults.

Everyone deserves to see themselves in books. And as a teacher curating a classroom library, I feel it is my responsibility to make sure all of my students have access to books that are mirrors for them. A few years ago, an eighth-grader brought to my attention that my library was not living up to this expectation for my LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual and allies) students. I recognized this truth, and responded immediately, committing to becoming more familiar with books that could serve as mirrors for my LGBTQ students and making sure these books were on my library shelves. And because of the work of authors of books for young adults (YA), I did not struggle to find amazing books to fill this need.

Here are a few of my favorites:


Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

As I said, I have an eighth-grader to thank for shining light on the shortcomings of my library—an eighth-grader who was grappling with identity, and who after learning about gender fluidity, thought this might be the right term to describe feelings that before seemed impossible to explain. I turned to the YA community, wondering if I would find a book with a character who identifies as gender fluid, and thanks to author Jeff Garvin, I found Symptoms of Being Human.

This book tells the story of Riley who on different days identifies as a boy or as a girl, or somewhere in between. Riley’s therapist suggests that writing a blog may be a healthy way to express the realities of being a gender-fluid teen, so the book is written through a first-person narrative interspersed with blog posts that Riley is writing and posting anonymously. The creative outlet and response to the blog has Riley feeling more confident and empowered until someone threatens to uncover Riley’s identity as the author.


If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

I was fortunate to pick up an advance reader copy of If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo at the National Council for Teachers of English conference in 2015, and then to meet Meredith at the same conference in 2016, where she gave some great advice for our student writers back home who were writing their own novels during National Novel Writing Month.

This book tells the story of Amanda Hardy as she starts a new school. Amanda is finally living as her true self, after years of being Andrew and suffering from the cruel treatment of peers in her old school, which led to her eventual suicide attempt. Amanda soon finds herself connecting with and developing feelings for Grant, though is unsure how much she should trust him with all her secrets.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

It is clear that Benjamin Alire Sáenz, author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, is a poet. Prior to the first chapter, the book opens with, “WHY DO WE SMILE? WHY DO WE LAUGH? WHY DO we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that thing in the pit of your stomach called desire?” What follows—in the story of Ari and Dante—attempts to answer these questions.

Chronicling the friendship of Ari and Dante, the book does something not often found in YA literature, exploring how boys—as friends—can love each other deeply.


I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Jandy Nelson, author of I’ll Give You the Sun, is also a poet in her own right. My Kindle highlights for this book surpass almost all others in my library for good reason. Noah and June, twins who were once inseparable, have drifted apart. Their story is told via their alternate perspectives, beginning with Noah who, at 13, is falling fast and hard for the boy next door. The next chapter picks up with June three years later after the twins’ relationship has been fractured by a yet unknown force. As the book moves back and forth from Noah and June as well as back and forth in time, we come to understand the truth in Nelson’s words: “Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time. Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.”

Obviously, this is a small selection from the many important LGBTQ books that we should be including in our libraries. This post from AbeBooks includes a few of these as well as some other suggested titles, some of which are on deck for me as summer reading! 


By Jess Burnquist

More than teaching great literature, it’s always been a goal of mine to teach students to love reading. Students are far more inclined to love the act of reading when what they read is immediately relevant to their lives because of who they are or who they know.

It’s been established that marginalized populations are frequently erased or underrepresented in so much of what is considered standard classroom reading. A great read on this issue has been written by Amina Mohamed for Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

Being able to provide recommendations for literature that are meaningful to the multitudes is a wonderful thing—and it’s even better if that reading has come highly recommended. Having been an AP literature teacher for so many years has left me feeling out of the loop for more contemporary and relatable titles, so I took to social media for recommendations from writers, teachers and parents with specific attention given to LGBTQ characters. The response has been wonderful, and my personal reading list just grew tenfold! (Next step: Pay those library fines.)

Here are some titles recommended by some of my wonderful connections. All of the summaries noted are taken directly from the publisher, as shared on Goodreads or Amazon:


Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

“Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.” - Goodreads


George by Alex Gino

“BE WHO YOU ARE. When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she'll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part … because she's a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte—but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.” - Goodreads


And She Was by Jessica Verdi

“Dara’s lived a sheltered life with her single mom, Mellie. Now, at eighteen, she’s dreaming of more. When Dara digs up her never-before-seen birth certificate, her world implodes. Why are two strangers listed as her parents?

Dara confronts her mother, and is stunned by what she learns: Mellie is transgender. The unfamiliar name listed under “father”? That’s Mellie. She transitioned when Dara was a baby, after Dara’s birth mother died. She changed her name, started over.

But Dara still has more questions than answers. Reeling, she sets off on an impromptu road trip with her best guy friend, Sam, in tow. She is determined to find the extended family she’s never even met. What she does discover—and what her mother reveals, piece by piece, over emails—will challenge and change Dara more than she can imagine.

This is a gorgeous, timely, and essential novel about the importance of being our true selves. The back matter includes an author’s note and resources for readers.” – Amazon.com


The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

“One teenager in a skirt.

One teenager with a lighter.

One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, Calif., one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.” – Amazon.com


One Man Guy by Michael Barkiva

“Alek Khederian should have guessed something was wrong when his parents took him to a restaurant. Everyone knows that Armenians never eat out. Between bouts of interrogating the waitress and criticizing the menu, Alek’s parents announce that he’ll be attending summer school in order to bring up his grades. Alek is sure this experience will be the perfect hellish end to his hellish freshman year of high school. He never could’ve predicted that he’d meet someone like Ethan.

Ethan is everything Alek wishes he were: confident, free-spirited, and irreverent. He can’t believe a guy this cool wants to be his friend. And before long, it seems like Ethan wants to be more than friends. Alek has never thought about having a boyfriend—he’s barely ever had a girlfriend—but maybe it’s time to think again.” - Goodreads

Please let us know what other books we should add to our lists by tweeting to @kindredexchange and/or commenting below!


Author Bios

Tricia Baldes

Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.

Jess Burnquist 

Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is the Director of Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me was published in 2017 Dancing Girl Press.