Digital Culture

Queer YA and the Rise of ‘BookTok’

Image credit: Isobel Neill

by Isobel Neill

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson: the book that (in the eyes of my closeted, fourteen-year-old self) might as well have been gold dust. This was the first novel featuring an LGBTQ+ main character that I ever came across, and its importance to me is unparalleled by many of the books I have on my bookshelf, even today. 

In hindsight, my excitement over the discovery of this book is tainted with a kind of sadness: growing up, I didn’t come across any LGBTQ+ representation in literature until I was fourteen years old. 

However, in the present age of ‘BookTok’, young adult fiction is changing for the better. Gone are the days of scouring bookshops for ‘Rainbow Rowell’, or of pocketing the only queer young adult novel you can find, likely written by a straight woman, or about suffering. In fact, if you visit any bookshop today – be it high street or independent – you will likely come across a ‘BookTok’ table stacked with a variety of queer YA novels such as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins-Reid, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, or Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé. 

Popular on TikTok, ‘#BookTok’ allows content creators to share book recommendations with their followers, compacted into short videos. Online book recommendations have been around since the 2010s, but the format of TikTok sets it apart from the likes of Goodreads, YouTube, and blogs. The ease with which TikToks can be created encourages more people to contribute, fostering a broader scope of recommendations, as well as a sense of community. Furthermore, the speed with which those TikToks can gather attention is compatible with the publishing industry and its interest in book trends, hence the promotional tables dedicated to ‘BookTok’. 

Growing up, the only LGBTQ+ books I could get my hands on centred primarily around male relationships, and while it was great to resonate with coming of age love stories, finally, something wasn’t quite right: none of the YA fiction available was sapphic. On ‘BookTok’, however, one of the most popular pieces of YA fiction is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, a thoroughly enjoyable queer love story about women in Hollywood, which highlights the rampant homophobia, sexism, and racism within the film industry. Popular sapphic recommendations cover various genres, and other examples include The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, a fantasy, Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron, a fairytale rewriting, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, a historical novel. 

Despite this, queer ‘BookTok’s intersectionality still has a long way to go. Many users point out the lack of POC representation across many book recommendation lists, as well as the over-repetition of stories about white gay men. Yet, ‘BookTok’s ability to integrate queer literature into the YA canon is undeniably encouraging. As sad as it is, publishers follow book trends, and queer YA’s rise in popularity means it will hopefully continue to diversify and grow in the future.