By Barbara Dee
These days educators agree that there’s no such thing as a “boy book” or a “girl book.” All kids, whatever their gender identity—male, female or nonbinary—should have access to every book on the shelf, no matter the color scheme of the cover or where the main character falls on the gender spectrum.
But here’s something I passionately believe: We still need middle grade books about what it means to be a girl in our culture. In fact, I think we do a disservice to every kid if we don’t address issues that mainly affect girls (and nonbinary kids) in the middle school years.
That’s why I’ve written fiction about menstruation (Truth or Dare (Aladdin, 2016)), crushes on other girls (Star-Crossed (Aladdin, 2017)), body image and eating disorders (Everything I Know About You (Aladdin, 2018)).
And that’s why, in my upcoming middle grade novel Maybe He Just Likes You (Aladdin, Oct. 1, 2019), I’ve written a novel about sexual harassment in middle school—the unwelcome touches, jokes and comments that so many girls endure just as they’re hitting puberty.
Maybe He Just Likes You is a #metoo story, the first (I hope not the last!) middle grade novel about sexual harassment.
It focuses on Mila, a seventh grade band geek who’s being targeted by a group of “basketball boys.” Mila can see that these boys aren’t bad—they’re musicians, computer geeks, sweet big brothers. But somehow they’ve gotten the idea that harassing Mila is fun and funny, and that ignoring her when she tells them to stop is part of the game.
What’s dangerous about the boys’ behavior isn’t merely that they’re hugging Mila against her will, or scoring points for verbal and physical “contact”—it’s that they’re turning her into a non-person who doesn’t deserve empathy.
As our country wrestles with racism and xenophobia, it’s important for kids to examine their own behavior towards all less-empowered groups, including girls. Even Mila has to re-think her attitude towards one of her best friends, a gay boy named Max who’d been picked on by a homophobic classmate. “What happened with you was different,” Mila tells Max, who disagrees.
One of the takeaways from Maybe is that sexual harassment is damaging, just like other forms of intolerance, including homophobia. And if empathy is teachable, we can’t shy away from having the discussion—talking to middle schoolers about concepts like consent, boundaries, and respect.
As I’ve written here before, I love the current trend in middle grade fiction of tackling topics previously considered taboo, such as sexual and gender orientation, racism, and mental health.
I’m especially excited to see books like So Done by Paula Chase (Greenwillow, 2018) Up for Air by Laurie Morrison (Amulet Books, 2019) and Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young (Chronicle, 2016), all of which acknowledge that preteen girls have confused and confusing sexual feelings that play out in confused and confusing ways.
Is there a better way to start important conversations with kids than by sharing age-appropriate books like these? I really don’t think so.
I’m convinced that by asking sensitive but impersonal questions like, “What do you think about Mila’s reaction to the basketball boys’ behavior? What’s the difference between flirting and harassment? What could the adults have done better to support Mila?” teachers will spark conversation that feels safe and non-confrontational for every kid in the classroom.
After all, these books are only fiction–even if they do expose the truth.
Her books have received several starred reviews and been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist.
Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.