Per Savin-Williams and Diamond, the age at which people realize their LGBTQ identity tends to fall between eight and ten. This research was published in 2000. Yet, the (small) proliferation of queer-themed middle grade novels is still a relatively new phenomenon. Since Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever (2013) and Alex Gino’s George (2015), we’ve seen a steady rise in the number of queer-themed middle grade novels being published.
This year’s crop of titles stands out in that we get to see some more queer girls in the canon (heck yes!). Below are the titles that received a starred review from at least one journal. They might not win the Stonewall (or will they?) but they’re certainly worth a read. And, while you’re in the middle grade mindset, be sure to check out our posts on Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World and Hurricane Child (coming soon).
Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow
HarperCollins, June 2018
Melly loves making a lot of noise on the drums, but she’s never had rockstar confidence. Two weeks at Camp Rockaway at the urging of her best friend Olivia pushes her outside of her comfort zone—and it gets worse when the pair are split into different band groups. Still reeling from the too-recent news that her parents are divorcing, Melly could really use a friend, but Olivia is too distracted by a crush on a boy bandmate to provide reliable support. Instead, Melly finds herself turning to one of her own bandmates, Adeline, and discovering unexpected attraction.
This is one to watch out for, y’all–perhaps doubly so since it checks all the boxes for middle grade conventions but could easily appeal to readers who are a little older, too. Bigelow gets the emotional stakes just right, sympathetically depicting the way first forays into dating can impact existing friendships—especially when a queer love interest is mistaken for a replacement best friend. The dynamic between Melly and Adeline is super sweet, and one of the missteps that puts them temporarily at odds allows the novel to stress the importance of consent. The balanace between the immediacy of Melly’s attraction to Adeline and her openminded uncertainty about how she may identify seems very true to middle school. Embracing the cheesiness of pun-loving Camp Rockaway, I’d say this is one worth banging the drum for. —Dani
Love, Penelope by Joanne Rocklin; illustrated by Lucy Knisley
Amulet Books, March 2018
Fifth grader Penny writes letters to her future sibling over the course of her Mama’s pregnancy, which culminates just after the 2015 marriage equality ruling. Penny’s intermittently illustrated updates cover family, school, friends, and how her favorite basketball team is faring.
Penny’s moms, Mama and Sammy, are fairly prominent in the story. Their blended family offers variation on the typical middle grade representation of queer parents: Penny’s father died when she was young, and her Mama met Sammy some years later. Much of the story is about injustice, as Penny, who is white, gains awareness of the racism that impacts friends of color and indigenous family members, as well as the homomisia directed at her moms. It’s Penny’s plea that “‘if you get married, everyone will know our family is as good as everyone else’s’” (247) that prompts Mama and Sammy to propose simultaneously upon the legalization of same-gender marriage. The format and perspective limit the depth with which the novel addresses the issues it brings to the fore—will this also limit its award chances?—Dani
Nate Expectations by Tim Federle
Simon & Schuster, Sept 2018
Nate’s back for his last hurrah, and all three of his books got brand new cover art to celebrate! The latest fiasco: E.T. The Musical was robbed of any Tony nominations, in effect dooming the show—along with Nate’s Broadway career. While most company members already have their next gigs planned, Nate is not-so-quietly freaking out. His next gig is ending up back in Jankburg, Pennsylvania, where the high school doesn’t even have an auditorium. All things point to hilarious, though, as the now fourteen-year-old Broadway baby makes the best of his return and puts on an all-singing, all-dancing production of Great Expectations. *cue the applause*
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough cute, stolen kisses in the stairwell to make up for poor Nate’s unhealthy relationship with self-involved castmate Jordan. But Federle deals with the relationship realistically. Thankfully, Nate also finds a love interest a little closer to home who not only helps him get over Jordan but also come out. If not for some troubling (but not off brand for Nate) fatphobic comments made at the expense of a secondary character, I’d say this book was a shoe-in for consideration. At the very least, it brought me (a former theatre kid) all sorts of nostalgia.—Alec
One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock
Scholastic, Feb 2018
It’s 1977, and Allie Drake has just started her first day of middle school. Her two goals: (1) to make a friend and (2) to join the newspaper staff. Check and check. Everything goes according to plan. That is, until Allie starts to have feelings for her new friend, Sam, and the crush becomes mutual.
Coming out tropes abound as the girls struggle to find acceptance in their community amidst the backdrop of Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign. But, as a whole, the book does a decent job of staying true to historical context while also showing glimmers of acceptance. In one notable scene, Reverend Walker offers a rebuttal of the book’s more conservative Christian messages. For that, and because it may well be the first ever historical fiction title to capture queer life for this age group, this is a title worth celebrating.—Alec
Did we miss a title that you loved? Leave us a comment below and tell us about it! You can also email us and write a guest post!