Catch Part 1 of this article here.
Middle Grade Books with LGBTQ+ Themes (Part 2)
Marco Impossible by Hannah Moskowitz; Published 2013 by Roaring Book Press
Marco Impossible features an ambitious plot full of hijinks and mishaps as two 13-year-old best friends—straight guy Stephen and gay guy Marco—embark on a mission to worm their way into high school prom so that Marco can declare his undying love for his long-time crush. To add to the stakes, the boys only have one day to orchestrate the “heist.” The plot promises a lot of fun and humour. Unfortunately, Marco Impossible fails to live up to its plot’s potential, instead falling back on an increasingly significant sub-plot about homophobic bullying. What is more problematic is how the novel utterly fails at characterization: the boys are not authentic or likable, and Moskowitz tries too hard without succeeding to make them quirky and funny. Consequently, the relationship dynamic between Marco and Stephen is never believable; you cannot understand why either of the boys even like each other, let alone are supposedly best friends. This tension between them—Marco treating Stephen badly and Stephen whining about it—is never resolved, leaving the portrayal of Marco as controlling, immature, and narcissistic feel like a simple confirmation of negative stereotypes about gay men. The novel does do some things very well, such as the natural inclusion of ethnic and cultural diversity as well as offering an interesting twist by having the story told by the straight sidekick to a gay hero. Child readers more interested in plot than character may enjoy this novel, but overall it misses the mark of its potentially excellent story.
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky; Published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion
Gracefully Grayson aims to be an educational piece of contemporary realist fiction about a 12-year-old trans girl struggling with the idea that no one sees her for who she truly is. Unfortunately, this is clearly a novel written by and for cisgender people that ultimately creates a stereotypical story that, in addition to being slow and sad, mainly serves to evoke pity in the cisgender reader for the trans protagonist. Grayson’s life is chock full of tragedy: she is a friendless, bullied orphan and over the course of the narrative her grandmother dies, her new friend abandons her, her caretaker aunt tries to force her into gender normativity, and her favourite teacher is forced to leave the school after giving Grayson the female lead in the school play. Grayson, consequently, is mostly robbed of agency, empowerment, and support. Gracefully Grayson also uses such tired and offensive stereotypes as a brave yet pathetic trans protagonist; the idea of being “stuck in the wrong body”; and a lot of focus on feminine clothes as the primary way of expressing gender identity. Polonsky’s emphasis on the “stuck-in-the-wrong-body” trope is especially problematic, as it leads her to fail to truly portray Grayson as a girl; there is even some misgendering (using “he” to refer to Grayson). Overall, while this novel has noble intentions, it fails to present an authentic, relatable trans protagonist and to emerge from the sea of insulting narrative tropes about trans people. Furthermore, the length and reading level make this suitable only for the high end of middle readers, perhaps spilling over into the young end of YA fiction.
Drama by Raina Telgemeier; Published 2012 by GRAPHIX
Drama is a charming contemporary realist graphic novel about 12-year-old Callie, a musical theatre nerd who is set designer for the drama department, and her two new 13-year-old friends, twin boys named Justin and Jesse, who become part of their middle school’s latest musical production. Of course, Callie ends up dealing with lots of onstage and offstage drama. Drama, never failing to live up to its name, is mostly about everyone gossiping about who is dating who, sexual identity, and crushes, as well as how Callie and the rest of the cast and crew deal with all the obstacles a middle school budget and time restraints put on their production. The drawings are lovely: clean, brightly coloured, and expressive, Callie’s fun pink and purple hair above her animated facial features often being highlighted. Telgemeier expertly weaves in more than one bisexual/gay male character into the story, and walks very well the fine balance between nonchalance inclusion of queer characters as if they are simply a normal part of middle school life, and acknowledging that middle school can be a very hard time to be out. Especially impressive is the insistence on not excluding the possibility that a boy who likes a certain boy could be gay or bisexual. As the title implies, any child reader who loves drama of the theatre or dating variety should love this book; the graphic nature as well as the relatively low reading level could make this a good sell for reluctant readers and ones as young as eight.
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams; Published 2008 by Harper Collins Children’s Books
The protagonist of Walliams’s debut novel is 12-year-old Dennis, who is an ordinary boy living in an ordinary house on an ordinary street in England. However, readers soon discover Dennis is not quite as ordinary as he seems: of course, as the title tells us, he likes to wear dresses. Defying stereotypes—Dennis is a star soccer player in addition to his love of fashion and cross-dressing, The Boy in the Dress is a lighthearted, hilarious tale featuring a colourful cast of often larger than life characters. Many of these characters are Indo-British, such as Dennis’s best friend Darvesh’s overly enthusiastic soccer mom who admonishes Dennis for wearing a dress only because it was not a colour that suited him and the kind but swindling corner store shopkeeper Raj who, inspired by Dennis, comes to work one day in drag just for fun. Walliams smartly allows Dennis to be a real, complex boy who just likes to wear girls’ clothes: the novel does not delve into identity politics, but simply promotes the positive message that it is okay for everyone to be who they want to be. A silly, entertaining read sprinkled with the iconic and expressive illustrations of Quentin Blake, The Boy in the Dress is an endlessly charming book that will appeal to kids who are soccer and/or fashion fans and ones who love a good laugh.
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson; Published 1997 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Winner of the Lambda Literary award for children’s literature in 1998, The House You Pass on the Way is a quiet, subtle, contemporary realist story about Stagerlee, a 13-year-old girl trying to find her place in the world from the isolated spot of the rural Southern United States. Even before questioning her sexuality, Stagerlee has felt different as the granddaughter of grandparents famously killed in an anti-civil rights bombing and the daughter of an interracial marriage (a black father and white mother) in an all-black town. One summer, Stagerlee’s slightly older cousin Trout—whom she has never met before—comes to stay, and Trout’s openness about queer sexuality moves Stagerlee to imagine what her future might hold. Tackling racism from the point of view of a mixed race person and early lesbian sexuality, Woodson’s novel asks some complex, hard questions. It is a slow, serious, contemplative book that might for some readers feel like it never really gets to the “meat” of the story, a quality that is further harmed by Woodson’s tendency to tell about rather than show important action. Although it is a slim book, The House You Pass on the Way is not a fast read, given the complexity of the issues it deals with, and so is best suited to young readers who enjoy slower, introspective books, as well as for young LBQ and/or mixed-race girls wanting a fictional peer to identify with.