I was pleasantly surprised by this YA story collection of queer historical fiction. I wasn’t expecting it to be bad, of course, but I also wasn’t prepared for just how much it moved me. In All Out, seventeen fantastic YA authors writes stories about queer teens, representing a diverse range of gender, sexuality, race, class and identity. Out of seventeen stories, there were only three that didn’t work for me, and given how picky I am about short stories, that’s saying a lot.
My only criticism is that I wish this collection had been more geographically diverse. All of the stories took place in American and Europe. And though there was definitely some racial diversity, and several authors of color contributed to the anthology, the majority of the stories featured white characters. I can only hope for a volume two, because, though Eurocentric, this collection was just fantastic.
None of the stories in this collection were grand, or universal, or breathtakingly dramatic. This is part of why they worked so well. They weren’t trying to do too much. They all felt wholly complete. I never felt like they ended right when the action started, or like, when I got to the end, I didn’t know what I was supposed to think or feel. These stories were small, illuminated moments, all different, all worthwhile.
The stories ranged across time and place–from 18th century Amsterdam to 1950s San Francisco to 14th century England. There were stories about witches, maids, apprentices, the children of laborers, outcasts. Here were queer teenagers trying to figure themselves out–whether at a roller rink in 1970s Maryland, in the back halls of Kensington Place in the 18th century, in the forests of northern California during the Gold Rush, on a small boat in colonial Virginia, or at Kurt Cobain’s funeral in 1990s Seattle.
It was a balm and a joy to read these stories, in which queer teens, so often ignored by history, are celebrated. Each story felt like a small but life-changing moment of recognition. The moment when two best friends realize they feel the same way about each other. The moment a teenage girl realizes she is not alone in the world, or a young gay boy realizes he has the courage to come out to his parents. That moment when two queer people–no matter where, or in what century–see each other, and recognize each other. This moments of recognition, of connection, of revelation–were so beautiful to read. What a joy to see queer teenagers finally seeing a way to a future, falling in love, standing up for themsleves, accepting themsleves.
This collection made me think a lot about what it means to be part of a legacy, to be able to see yourself in your ancestors. Queer people have been here the whole damn time. We’ve been right here despite laws made to hurt, jail, traumatize, and kill us. We’ve been right here, loving and struggling and laughing and messing up, despite a world that, for most of its history, has been telling us to hide. A world that still tells so many of us to hide.
It’s so affirming to see yourself represented in literature, and it’s great that more stories featuring queer characters are published every year. But I think it’s just as important to be able to look behind you into history and see yourself there. Queer people didn’t spring out of nowhere in the 1960s. Reading these stories, for me, was so powerful, because, even though I know they’re fiction, I also know that these people, in some form, existed. While I doubt I’ll ever know as much as I’d like to about the real history of queer people (although there are some great nonfiction books out there), and while I know that many of those who came before were beaten, burned, killed–I also know that they must have experienced those moments of connection. Those moments of recognition. Experiencing those moments, through these stories, was powerful and humbling and moving and affirming.
None of these people are real. Not the two household maids who find love in the 1700s in Kensington Palace in “The Dresser and the Chambermaid” , or the two women who meet and form a connection after running from men they do not want to marry in colonial Virginia (“The Sweet Trade”). Not the two gay apprentices to stage magicians who fall in love in 1870s London in “The Inferno and The Butterfly”, or Robin Hood, reimagined as a trans boy, and his lover, Will Scarlet, in “Every Shade of Red”. Not the teenage girl who sees possibility and connection when she meets a male imperator in San Francisco during a Chinese New Year celebration (“New Year”), or the girl who quietly discovers a part of her asexual identity on a roller rink in 1970s Maryland (“And They Don’t Kiss At the End”). None of these people are real, and yet, all of them are real. That’s the beauty and impossibility of fiction: it can tell the true stories that slip through the cracks of history.
I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys YA, but especially to queer teenagers. It’s a book I wish I’d had when I was a teenager–but I’m equally glad to have it now.