Season of the Witch: The Rise of Queer Magic in YA SFF

When the decade began, there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about in queer YA, and certainly there wasn’t much to think of in terms of trends; it was more like “What 1-5 books with gay or lesbian protagonists actually made it onto bookshelves this year?” But the last few years have seen a massive rise in both number and diversity of representation, and have also seen queer YA go far beyond realistic contemporary rife with painful coming out stories.

In fact, I dare say that queer YA is finally big enough to have its own trends, and this past couple of years, there’s nothing we’ve seen rise further and faster than teenage witches in a whole rainbow of orientations and genders.

Use the W-word, bruja, or strega—one way or another, they’ve flown onto your shelves on their metaphorical broomstick and they’re clearly here to stay for a while. While witches aren’t entirely new for queer YA (2011’s Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey being one of modern queer YA’s most notable early titles), Zoraida Córdova’s 2016 series opener Labyrinth Lost seemed to have kicked off a wave of acquisitions that would see an incredible rise in non-hetero hexing.

We did have to be a little patient, as timelines in traditional publishing go (though Molly Landgraff was kind enough to give 2017 her self-pub trans girl tome Tally the Witch, and Moïra Fowley-Doyle did bring the magic in Spellbook of the Lost and Found), but all trends must find their starting point somewhere, and in this case the boom began in the middle of 2018. June got Sapphic magic in the form of Katrina Leno’s Summer of Salt, and then July saw the iconic Hocus Pocus finding its YA form in celebration of the movie’s 25th anniversary with a lesbian lead, authored by A.W. Jantha, and immediately hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The anthology Toil & Trouble, edited by Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood, published the next month and featured a delightful number of queer stories between its purple covers. Just one month after that, Tessa Gratton’s polyamorous Strange Grace gave us even more witchy goodness, bonded to a pact with the devil. And finally, Amy Rose Capetta closed out the year with The Brilliant Death, about a demigirl strega named Teo who falls for an even more powerful strega: the genderfluid Cielo.

And there was no slowing down from there. Amy Rose Capetta came right back in 2019 with a different take on queer witches, this time an atmospheric contemporary fantasy called The Lost Coast. We got These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, about a lesbian named Hannah who’s an elemental witch finding love after having her heart broken by another girl in her coven. Graphic novels got in on the fun with Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, starring a bookish witch named Nova who’s reunited with a childhood crush (now IDing as nonbinary) and working with them to battle a demon while they fall in love. The end of the year saw guys getting in on the fun, with I’m a Gay Wizard by V.S. Santoni being delightfully self-explanatory and Ryan La Sala’s Reverie finding a delightful villain (or is she?) in a drag queen sorceress.

And so we come to our current year, where the sequel for The Brilliant Death has already released, Sarah Gailey’s first YA (When We Were Magic) and E. Latimer’s Celtic-themed and Ireland-set Witches of Ash and Ruin are on deck, and spring will see The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Sterling’s sequel (This Coven Won’t Break), Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, Alicia Jasinska’s The Dark Tide, and Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, starring a trans brujo named Yadriel who accidentally summons the ghost of a hot classmate in his determination to prove he’s every bit the boy his family doesn’t yet see he is. (While not quite witchy, magic use is definitely front and center in Andrew Eliopulos’s The Fascinators, too.)

Yes, there’ll be more in 2021. (Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley, The Contemporary Witches of Salem by Sol Santana, and The Witches of Silverlake by Simon Curtis are three that are already on my radar.) It’s clear queer witches are here to stay in YA. And it’s very cool, to see queer YA rise not just to the point of having obvious trends but to having its biggest of trends be protagonists with tremendous power.

But I also think there’s an inextricable tie between queer kids and witches, both historically persecuted, and one that perhaps helps writers even just a decade older than today’s teens connect with how much the world is changing.

Coming out stories certainly still have their place, especially in more conservative areas and for less-represented identities, but for just as many teens (if not more), coming out has become a considerably smaller issue; Gen-Z is identifying as not being heterosexual or cisgender in far greater numbers than ever before . As in most of the above titles, sexual identity isn’t at the Plot Point level anymore; it’s a character detail and an informative gaze. That can be an impossible thing to internalize for anyone whose journey to being open about their identity was rife with struggle, and as a queer author, difficult to shake that even a book set in our contemporary, non-idealized world can lack homophobia being one of the villains lurking at the edges of the story.

But in writing witches, you can give your characters an entirely different reason to have to hide a fundamental aspect of themselves, to congregate with other people who share their same secret differences, who find different ways to express themselves than their peers might. The threat of being outed remains deeply and dangerously real, for some characters strictly regarding their witchery—Hannah is an out-and-proud lesbian in These Witches Don’t Burn but has to keep her coven a secret (and the irony is layered by the story’s being set in Salem)—and for some, like the recently outed Dayna of Witches of Ash & Ruin, both facets of their identity have consequences when cruelly exposed. But even where the main characters have painful secrets on both fronts—the only thing that even remotely competes with When We Were Magic’s Alexis’s pain at having accidentally killed a classmate with magic is the confusing and frustrating crush she has on one of her (female) best friends—it’s the threat of their power being outed that forces the witches’ hands into something ugly. The magic is what’s dangerous, out of control, a threat, a thing they don’t necessarily know how to wield and must defer to elders on; their sexuality just is, owned by their own generation, whether people like it or not.

Of course, for those teen witches exploring their gender identity and presentation, there’s much to be said for witchy powers too. It enables the protagonists of The Brilliant Death to most truly present their nonbinary identities. It allows one of the witches of When We Were Magic to help change another’s appearance to be just a little more feminine on a femme day. The concerns and frustrations you might see those characters have in realistic fiction about their presentations are a spell away from irrelevance.

Just how inextricably linked are queerness and witchcraft? Perhaps the best case for their bond is made in Capetta’s The Lost Coast, where misfit Danny finds herself moving to the Northern California Redwoods and finally fitting in for the first time among a sextet of witches who all happen to be queer. It’s among them that she unlocks her own power, but also where she first finds a kinship with peers, where she sees girls “always touching and kissing each other because so many before us couldn’t.” It’s where she first finds purpose and connection, in this setting where queerness and magic feel wholly interlinked.

Some of the best fun of reading and writing witches comes from them being powerful and glamorous misfits, keeping their lives secretive because the outside world simply can’t handle it. They might be steeped in fascinating mythology, iconicized by history, and generally just cool. But they can also be a beautiful and fascinating way to bridge the unfamiliar freedom of so much of Generation Z with those who came before it.

One thing’s for sure: the queer kids on the shelves aren’t quite ready to blend in with everybody else. And that’s just the way we like it.

Dahlia Adler is an Editor of mathematics by day, the overlord of LGBTQ Reads by night, and an author of Young Adult and New Adult books at every spare moment in between. Her upcoming novels include the Daylight Falls duology, Just Visiting, the Radleigh University trilogy, and the upcoming Cool for the Summer (Wednesday Books, 2021); she is the editor of the anthologies His Hideous Heart (a Junior Library Guild selection) and That Way Madness Lies (Flatiron Books, 2021); and her short stories can be found in the anthologies The Radical Element, All Out, His Hideous Heart, and It’s a Whole Spiel. Dahlia lives in New York with her husband, son, and an obscene amount of books, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @MissDahlELama.

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