Middle Grade Books with LGBTQ+ Themes
While there is a plethora of well-known YA literature as well as children’s picture books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters—see David Levithan, Libba Bray, and many others’ work in YA and now classics such as Asha’s Mums and And Tango Makes Three—books for middle readers with LGBTQ+ themes are sorely lacking. Kelly Jensen, in her post on Book Riot, laments that “there are so very few books for the 3-6th grade reading levels featuring LGBT main characters. Even among the lists compiled of best LGBT books, picture books and YA books dominate, with one or two middle grade titles, if any, per year.” The relative lack of middle readers featuring LGBTQ+ characters is a significant problem, because, as Vikki Vansickle points out “the middle grade years (ages 9-12) are when kids are the most in need of answers, empathy, and someone to relate to. YA is too late. You need to reach children in their middle grade years, when it really counts.” Vansickle’s point is that if we want books to teach all children empathy and compassion and to support LGBTQ+ children and let them know they are not alone, YA fiction is just not soon enough.
Given that today transgender children are coming out in elementary school (and sometimes earlier) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people report bullying as early as elementary school, middle grade books with LGBTQ+ themes are very much needed. An article in The Guardian notes that at a “multidisciplinary clinic where all British transgender children are assessed, the service has seen referrals increase by 50% every year, from 97 new cases in 2009 to 697 in 2014”; many of these children are under 10. Also see, for example, Canadian YA author Raziel Reid’s statement that “[h]e recalls being bullied in relation to his sexual orientation as far back as kindergarten, and by Grade 6 was leaving school in tears pretty much daily.” I decided to make an annotated bibliography to highlight LGBTQ+ middle grade books that have already been published (some amazing, some not very good, and a few in between). But I also want it to serve as a cry to action for more, and more diverse, LGBTQ+ middle grade books. In particular, books about trans boys, LBQ girls, and children of colour, as well as books of different genres, are sorely needed, being completely or mostly missing from this list.
Middle Grade Books with LGBTQ+ Themes (Part 1)
My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari; Published 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Gennari’s sweet coming-of-age realist novel is about 12-year-old June who lives in rural Vermont with her mom and, most recently, her mom’s soon-to-be wife. Tackling the early backlash against same-sex civil union legislation in Vermont—a context that might unfortunately be a bit confusing for and lost on many child readers, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer confronts adult bullies and the complex realities of children with LGBTQ+ parents. Alongside the homophobia plotline is June’s struggle to make the best wild berry pie and win this summer’s competition at the country fair. The recurring metaphors and similes related to pies and the lake that June lives by are lovely and effective: “my insides congealed a little, like a pie left out overnight”; June’s feelings of anxiety being mirrored by a rough windy day on the lake. Another of the book’s great strengths is that Gennari smartly refuses to simplify the situation, allowing June to realistically deal with the homophobia around her, including her own sometimes homophobic reactions, her conflicted feelings about her stepmom-to-be, and the trouble she has standing up to homophobic peers and adults. The book also beautifully captures the easy feeling of summer in a rural place at age 12: swimming, exploring the woods, boating, and riding your bike. Lastly, it features a friendly librarian character who supports June and helps her stand up to the homophobes! Overall, this is a sweet, authentic, moving story sure to be popular with kids who enjoy stories about fighting injustice and stories set in rural summertime, as well as kids with LGBTQ+ family members.
George by Alex Gino; Published 2015 by Scholastic Press
In some ways, George is a very familiar realist story about a regular kid in a regular school with regular ten year old problems: dealing with bullies at school, really wanting a certain part in the school play, an annoying teenage brother, and a busy single mom. Except, this story is about a ten-year-old transgender girl, which makes everything revolutionary. It is worth noting that George is actually written by a trans author, unlike a lot of fiction about trans characters written by cisgender (non-trans) authors for cisgender audiences. One key difference here is how Gino uses she/her to refer to George from the very beginning of the novel. The plot centres on the school play of Charlotte’s Web and how much George wants to play the part of Charlotte; unfortunately, her unsupportive teacher tells her she cannot even try out for the part. George and her best friend Kelly, however, concoct a plan to get George onstage and to tell everyone who George really is: a girl. The girls’ friendship is adorable, and they make a great pair: George as sweet and shy, and Kelly as the loudmouth, bossy best friend. While George is realistic in the ways it depicts friends’ and family members’ reactions to George coming out, it also ultimately offers hope and understanding. This book is an authentic, moving, positive introduction to trans issues for cisgender kids and an empowering, potentially life-saving novel for trans kids; therefore, its potential popularity is very high. Its reading level is on the low side for middle readers, and thus accessible even for younger and reluctant middle readers.
See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles; Published 2012 by Candlewick Press
See You at Harry’s is an emotionally-charged realist story about family, grief, finding your place in the world, and, ultimately, hope. 12-year-old Fern is the middle child and all she wants is to stay out of her dad’s crazy family restaurant advertising schemes, figure out what her feelings are for her guy best friend are, protect her older brother from homophobic school bullies, and maybe, just once, stop feeling like the invisible one in her big, chaotic family. This would be plot enough, but halfway through the novel, after Knowles has lovingly fleshed out all of the family members, an earth-shattering tragedy strikes Fern’s family, and Fern’s life is turned upside down. Knowles succeeds beautifully at creating a real, flawed family that is nevertheless full of love. 14-year old Holden’s sexuality is portrayed honestly and complexly, without making Holden’s struggle to come out the only interesting thing about him. Knowles does a wonderful job depicting how difficult it is for Holden to come out—even though his family essentially already knows—but how he somehow expects them to support his identity without ever having voiced it. Without ever being trite or preachy, this novel teaches some important truths about being yourself, accepting your sexuality, surviving emotional disasters, and the importance of family bonds. Beautifully written and emotionally resonant, See You at Harry’s is sure to be a hit with a diverse group of children, especially strong readers who like family drama.
Stay tuned for part 2 to find out about five more LGBTQ+ middle grade books!
– Casey is a writer and MLIS student and is perhaps best known as the creative mind behind the blog Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.