Being a debut author is overwhelming in any year, but those who published books in 2020 have dealt with challenges none could have ever imagined (a global pandemic, the news cycle from hell, and everything and everyone going online). Despite that, this year brought us many standout books by established trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming authors (Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya included). It also brought us a deep, dazzling list of debut authors who deserve visibility and consideration for long-lasting careers. These stories will change worlds—individually and universally—and perhaps reflect human experiences on the page in ways readers haven’t seen before. Here are 18 (of many more) authors who debuted this year.
*Publishers’ notes in italics below.
The Ships We Built
By Lexie Bean
“Rowan has too many secrets to write down in the pages of a diary. And if he did, he wouldn’t want anyone he knows to read them. He understands who he is and what he likes, but it’s not safe for others to find out. Now the kids at school say Rowan’s too different to spend time with. He’s not the right kind of girl, and he’s not the right kind of boy.”
In this middle grade novel with tremendous crossover appeal, Bean tackles topics of abuse and grief. The story validates the pain facing young people questioning their identity and struggling with trauma, and also offers paths to healing. Readers of all ages write that this tender, beautiful, queer coming-of-age book helped them feel seen. No matter where you are in your journey—of identity or of sorrow—Rowan will meet you there with his letters and friendship.
Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition
By P. Carl
Simon & Schuster
“A memoir that is jolting, honest, passionate, and beautifully written” (Claudia Rankine), Becoming a Man explores one man’s gender transition amid a pivotal political moment in America.”
After transitioning in his 50s, Carl reflects on the years of his life that made him who he is in this heartbreaking and comprehensive memoir. As he weaves together his experiences with gender theory, political awareness, and current events, he questions what it means to be out and fully himself in a nation that centers on white men. Readers praise Carl’s authenticity and his thoughtful portrayal of everything he has lost and gained during his journey to his truest self.
By Hannah Abigail Clarke
“An outcast teenage lesbian witch finds her coven hidden amongst the popular girls in her school, and performs some seriously badass magic in the process.”
If you’re not hooked by the premise alone, readers’ gushing reviews will quickly convince you to add this YA debut novel to your to-be-read list. Clarke’s unique writing style creates a world of dark magic, blossoming friendships, and queer kids finding themselves for the first time, all while hexing bullies. The protagonist, Sideways, and her new, close-knit coven are both endearing and compelling. Clarke will continue to build their strange, atmospheric world as this series continues, and you’ll want to be along for the ride.
By Melissa Faliveno
Topple Books & Little A
“Flyover country, the middle of nowhere, the space between the coasts. The American Midwest is a place beyond definition, whose very boundaries are a question. It’s a place of rolling prairies and towering pines, where guns in bars and trucks on blocks are as much a part of the landscape as rivers and lakes and farms. Where girls are girls and boys are boys, where women are mothers and wives, where one is taught to work hard and live between the lines. But what happens when those lines become increasingly unclear? When a girl, like the land that raised her, finds herself neither here nor there?”
In Faliveno’s debut essay collection, her questions about gender, sexuality, relationships, and self are rooted in the soil of the Midwest. Each essay starts with thoughtful, refreshing observations and quickly expands to capture more universal truths. As a New Englander, I wasn’t expecting to find myself in the pages (despite our shared love of forest and flannel) but Faliveno answered questions about myself I didn’t even know I had. Tomboyland and its crisp, probing prose has been one of my most recommended books of the year.
By Shelley Feller
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
“’behold / this litmus of longing,’ Shelley Feller begins in the linguistic triumph that is their foray into extending the conversation that Hart Crane began in the last century. With Dream Boat, Feller anatomizes, churns, palpitates, then spews onto the page a powerful exorcism of self-loathing that non-cishet, non-binary souls like them have been forced to imbibe and digest all their lives.”
Because of the way Feller plays with text design, motion, emoji, and layers, their poetry feels like a living, kicking entity. Feller’s debut collection is experimental, both in what it does with language and how it uses sound and flesh to paint a portrait of the queer body and the queer experience. Feller isn’t afraid to be campy or silly, and the poetry benefits tremendously for it. Pick up this collection to experience innovation, beauty, and euphoria.
Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel
By Julian K. Jarboe
“In this debut collection of body-horror fairy tales and mid-apocalyptic Catholic cyberpunk, memory and myth, loss and age, these are the tools of storyteller Jarboe, a talent in the field of queer fabulism. Bodily autonomy and transformation, the importance of negative emotions, unhealthy relationships, and bad situations amidst the staggering and urgent question of how to build and nurture meaning, love, and safety in a larger world/society that might not be “fixable.””
Did someone say mid-apocalyptic Catholic cyberpunk? Yes, please. Jarboe’s debut speculative-fiction story collection is described by readers as “brilliant,” “exceptional,” “incomparable,” and “beautiful,” and I’m angry it took me until the end of this year to find it. Their vision for weird, wonderful worlds brimming with possibilities is refreshing and imperative. I can’t wait to dive into this queer futurity where gender and identity expand, and discover a new apocalypse to fold into my own.
All Boys Aren’t Blue
By George M. Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Byr)
“In a series of personal essays, prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood, adolescence, and college years in New Jersey and Virginia. From the memories of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, to flea marketing with his loving grandmother, to his first sexual relationships, this young-adult memoir weaves together the trials and triumphs faced by Black queer boys.”
This book is a love letter to Black, queer people; to Johnson’s family; and to readers who are still in the process of realizing who they are and who they could become. Johnson takes the trauma of their past and details it honestly and poignantly, demonstrating how much hope there is when people are willing to open their hearts, love hard, and live authentically. This excellent YA memoir is a guide and a boon for young people, but will inevitably help people of all ages love who they are.
By Sim Kern
“When an unprecedented hurricane devastates the city of Houston, Noah Mishner finds shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. Though he finds community among other queer refugees, Noah fears his trans and Jewish identities put him at risk with certain “capital-T” Texans. His fears take form when he starts seeing visions of his great-grandfather Abe, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy. As the climate crisis intensifies and conditions in the shelter deteriorate, Abe’s ghost grows more powerful. Ultimately, Noah must decide whether he can trust his ancestor — and whether he’s willing to sacrifice his identity and community in order to survive.”
Kern’s debut novella takes climate change and makes it personal. Readers will root hard for Noah and his found family to survive the crisis they’re facing, but Noah’s internal journey proves to be just as compelling. This book is a ghost story, but it’s a love story too: to the queer community, to those we’ve lost, and all we stand to lose if we don’t take drastic action. Kern’s prose is tremendously effective and will both break your heart and offer hope.
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
By L.D. Lapinski
Orion Children’s Books
“When 12-year-old Flick Hudson accidentally ends up in the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, she uncovers a fantastic secret: there are hundreds of other worlds just steps away from ours. All you have to do to visit them is jump into the right suitcase. Then Flick gets the invitation of a lifetime: join Strangeworlds’ magical travel society and explore other worlds.”
Lapinski’s middle grade novel, the first in a series, is the perfect escape for young people who are looking to safely adventure outside their own four walls. The author’s humor and sense of whimsy light up the page, and she builds world after world of possibility, of self, and of setting. This cinematic fantasy series will be a staple on kids’ shelves everywhere.
We Had No Rules
By Corinne Manning
Arsenal Pulp Press
“In Corinne Manning’s stunning debut story collection, a cast of queer characters explore the choice of assimilation over rebellion. In this historical moment that’s hyperaware of and desperate to define even the slowest of continental shifts, when commitment succumbs to the logic of capitalism and nobody knows what to call each other or themselves—Gay? Lesbian? Queer? Partners? Dad?—who are we? And if we don’t know who we are, what exactly can we offer each other?”
Where language fails, Manning’s stories triumph. Their exquisite prose in this collection is further elevated by a focus on relationships and what it means to be a flawed person in a broken world. But therein lies the raw beauty of the book: the characters’ humanity is on full display as they navigate complicated, impossible situations. Readers are invited to love them, and in turn, forgive themselves.
These Violent Delights
By Micah Nemerever
“The Secret History meets Call Me by Your Name in Micah Nemerever’s compulsively readable debut novel—a feverishly taut Hitchcockian story about two college students, each with his own troubled past, whose escalating obsession with one another leads to an act of unspeakable violence.“
Pitched by Lambda Literary as “a psychological reflection on insecurity,” Nemerever’s debut tackles obsession, destruction, sex, and the intersection of all three. It’s not a light read; it deals with both suicide and murder. It also shines a light on how quickly relationships can become toxic, and how lost people can find each other only to steer each other back out into a different type of wilderness. Nemerever’s prose is haunting and beautiful, powerful, and twisted. It might feel like a dream or give you nightmares, but either way, it will keep you up at night, turning page after page.
By Claribel A. Ortega
“For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business. Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.”
In this fun and creepy middle grade debut, Ortega weaves Dominican folklore into a story about family and friendship. The characters span generations and species, and together they master magic while navigating mystery and loss. While it’s a perfect read for Halloween, it would also be a great escape this winter: to St. Augustine, where spirits and love light the world.
Ana on the Edge
By A.J. Sass
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
“Twelve-year-old Ana-Marie Jin, the reigning US Juvenile figure skating champion, is not a frilly dress kind of kid. So, when Ana learns that next season’s program will be princess themed, doubt forms fast. Still, Ana tries to focus on training and putting together a stellar routine worthy of national success.”
I first bought this book for my friends’ kids. I also just got this book for me. Sass’ moving middle grade novel—described by so many as an instant classic—follows Ana into the incredibly gendered space of athletics and beyond those limitations. Through Ana’s eyes, you’ll fall in love with ice skating. More importantly, you’ll question what it means to win as Ana skates towards friendship, fulfillment, and the magic of becoming the best, most genuine version of yourself.
Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day
By JD Scott
“In this debut collection of short stories by the winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize, the sly fabulism of JD Scott’s fiction casts its own peculiar spell upon the reader as it outlines a world unsettlingly similar to our own.”
I have never read anything quite like Scott’s debut short story collection, and I mean that as the highest praise: it is strange, beautiful, and unsettling. In the collection’s pages, characters navigate mortality, love, religion, loss, and, in one especially marvelous novella, a world comprising one big shopping mall. Stories float through various genres without ever settling in any single one. Lose yourself in Scott’s queer, magicked reality, and check out their debut poetry collection (with its prescient title), Mask for Mask, which will be released by New Rivers Press in April, 2021.
By Meredith Talusan
“A singular, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir of a Filipino boy with albinism whose story travels from an immigrant childhood to Harvard to a gender transition and illuminates the illusions of race, disability, and gender.”
Readers may know Talusan from her work as a journalist or as the founding executive editor of them, but her debut memoir takes us deeper into who she is, where she’s been, and how she has built her own world. With pristine prose, Talusan discusses the intersections of her identity in both big and small ways, and distills big ideas of love, privilege, and art into tangible scenes that challenge readers to think beyond binaries. What does it mean to have a home when you are of two or more worlds? What does it mean to be human when all of who you are does not fit what the world expects you to be?
By Aiden Thomas
“A trans boy determined to prove his gender to his traditional Latinx family summons a ghost who refuses to leave in Aiden Thomas’s New York Times bestselling paranormal YA debut.”
Though Cemetery Boys’ prose is beautiful and nuanced, it’s also just a whole lot of fun. Thomas nails every dimension of this story. The world is vivid and the stakes feel high on every page. It’s also so easy to fall in love with the main character, Yadriel, and his school’s “resident bad boy,” Julian, who happens to be dead; their chemistry and sharp dialogue leap off the page. Thomas’s sense of humor and heart allow him and his characters to tackle hard, sad topics in ways that ultimately leave readers with so much hope.
Who I Was With Her
By Nita Tyndall
“There are two things that Corinne Parker knows to be true: that she is in love with Maggie Bailey, the captain of the rival high school’s cross-country team and her secret girlfriend of a year, and that she isn’t ready for anyone to know she’s bisexual. But then Maggie dies, and Corinne quickly learns that the only thing worse than losing Maggie is being left heartbroken over a relationship no one knows existed.”
Tyndall’s YA novel about grief, ambition, and the weight of being unknowable is rich with emotion and offers a unique take on queer high school experiences. The novel alternates between present day action and flashbacks to a better—though still complicated—time in Corinne’s life. Tyndall navigates dual timelines seamlessly to pack a powerful punch that left me aching. This novel is cathartic; keep some tissues handy.
Something to Talk About
By Meryl Wilsner
“A showrunner and her assistant give the world something to talk about when they accidentally fuel a ridiculous rumor in this debut romance.”
Wilsner’s novel is a delightful escape to Hollywood’s glamour—we all remember parties, silk dresses, and taking photos with friends, right?—but it also captures the seemingly mundane, day-to-day details that make great loves what they are. Wilsner captures the magic of TV writer Jo and her assistant Emma’s relationship by building these ambitious, memorable characters alone and together. They are each bright with precious dreams in a tough and ruthless industry. Can they achieve them side by side, and if not, will they choose each other still? They’ll make you wait for the payoff, but damn, is it worth it. Don’t miss this cinematic classic.
Jen St. Jude is the fiction editor for Arcturus Magazine, Managing Editor at the Chicago Review of Books, and has work in Gigantic Sequins, The Rumpus, and F(r)iction. Her YA novel is about two girls in love at the end of the world. Find them on Twitter: @jenstjude.