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Middle School Pride : LGBTQ+ Tweens in Literature for Youth

rainbow heart ballons guillaume paumier
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Middle school (usually 5th through 8th grade) is an incredible time.  Kids begin to see themselves as part of a larger world, their minds and bodies go into development overdrive, and their relationships with everyone can shift dramatically.  Middle schoolers are heavily invested in figuring out their identities; they push for increased independence from adults while often desperately seeking a sense of belonging among their peers.  These experiences can be especially confusing, painful, or frightening for kids who feel different–such as kids whose gender identities or sexual orientations stand out in our still very binary and heteronormative culture.

This spring, Buzzfeed published an article titled “Coming Out As Gay in Elementary School,” which interviewed a few children and their families on their experiences coming out as gay, genderless, and queer at ages ranging from 7 to 13 years old.  The article also cites research and interviews with Dr. Caitlyn Ryan of San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project.  In a 2009 practice brief, Dr. Ryan notes that their research shows that “both gay and straight children have their first ‘crush’ or attraction to another person at age 10” and on average, adolescents in their studies identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual at age 13.4 (2).  In the same report, she reiterates that children develop and express gender identity at ages 2-3 (2).

As a librarian,  I want to be able to provide all of my students with stories that both reflect their lives, experiences, and identities and expand their understanding of our diverse world.  Since these studies and testimonies clearly illustrate the relevance of LBGTQ+ stories to middle school students, I wondered: how many middle school age characters who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum show up in middle grade and young adult fiction?

Happily, we are beginning to see more and more novels featuring 10-14 year old LGBTQ+ characters. However, I struggled to find representations of girls who like girls or transgender boys, which was disheartening.  We’ve got some great titles currently available and several exciting titles set to be published this year. But I’d love to see even more, especially featuring lesbian/bisexual/queer girls and transgender boys!

dramaDrama – Raina Telgemeier (2013 Stonewall Honor Book, 2013 Rainbow List, 2013 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens)

While her painfully bad singing rules out a future as an actor, theatre fanatic Callie has found her place backstage as a set designer. When talented twins Justin and Jesse join the middle school musical, the drama on and off stage reaches new heights. Callie’s thrilled to have a fun new friend in openly gay Justin and she hopes that quiet Jesse might be the boy to help her get over her crush on her old friend Greg.

so hard to saySo Hard To Say – Alex Sanchez

Thirteen year old Xio is confident, bubbly, and ready for first kisses and romance.  When shy Frederick starts at school, Xio is happy to lend him a pen and invite him to join her lunch table.  The two quickly become close friends but as Xio’s attempts to transform their relationship into romance escalate, Frederick finds himself increasingly attracted to handsome soccer player Victor.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim FederleBetter Nate Than Ever (2014 Rainbow List, 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2014 Stonewall Honor Book) and Five, Six, Seven, Nate- Tim Federle (2015 Rainbow List, 2015 Lamda Literary Awardfive six seven nate

When thirteen year old Nate hears about open auditions for the lead in the upcoming Broadway production of E.T. : The Musical, he will stop at nothing to get to New York City and claim his rightful space in the spotlight.  Along the way, Nate faces merciless competition, perilous public transportation, and growing questions about his sexuality and identity.  Nate’s adventures continue in the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!  

totally joeThe Misfits and Totally Joe James Howe (2008 Rainbow List) 

Four middle school outcasts sick of being the targets of their peers bullying band together and use the student council election to fight name-calling at school.  The characters all have spin-off novels, including the hilarious Joe, who writes about his challenges and triumphs as a young gay kid in his humorous alphabiography,  Totally Joe.

marco-Bomb-mock-1PMarco Impossible – Hannah Moskowitz

Stephen is used to playing sidekick to his charismatic best friend Marco.  But the dependable duo’s relationship is facing the strain of impending separation as they head off to different high schools.  Now, on the weekend of their eighth grade graduation, Marco is determined to execute one last escapade: breaking into the high school prom to win the heart of his longtime crush, British exchange student Benji.

the house you passThe House You Pass on the Way – Jacqueline Woodson (2006 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 1997 Lambda Literary Award)

As the child of an interracial marriage, fourteen year old Staggerlee already stands out in her small town.  When her cousin Trout comes to spend the summer, Staggerlee finally has a true friend and confidant–someone with whom she can discuss her deepest thoughts and desires, including her emerging attraction to girls.

Additionally, Rick Riordan’s popular Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series feature an important gay supporting character, demigod Nico di Angelo.

gracefully graysonGracefully Grayson – Ami Polonsky

Sixth grader Grayson Sender doodles abstract princesses and dreams of wearing flowing skirts instead of oversized track pants.  Friendless and frustrated, Grayson can no longer avoid the growing realization that she is a girl, despite being male-assigned.  When she auditions for the female lead in the school play, Grayson’s journey becomes increasingly public, revealing new allies and new challenges.

wanderingsonWandering Son series – Takako Shimura (2013 Rainbow List)

From their first meeting, fifth graders Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki sense that they have a unique connection.  Shuichi and Yoshino each have a secret.  Shuichi, assigned male, longs to live as a girl and Yoshino, assigned female, yearns to live as a boy.

From Alice to Zen and Everyone in Between – Elizabeth Atkinson and The Boy in the Dress – David Williams with illustrations by Quentin Blake both explore the lives of gender non-conforming tweens navigating middle school life.

We can also look forward to more exciting titles, including:george

George – Alex Gino (August 2015)  When other people look at her, they see a boy called George.  But fourth grader Melissa knows that she is a girl and sees an opportunity to embrace and share her identity with the world through the school play.

huskyHusky – Justin Sayre (Sept 2015)  The summer before ninth grade, Davis worries that he will enter high school defined entirely by his size.  But then he realizes that he might not be seen as ‘the husky kid’ but as the ‘the gay kid.’
Up a Tree Without a Paddle – Donna Gephart  (Summer 2016) This coming of age tale focuses on Lily Jo, a transgender girl, and Norbert, who transfers to her school.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading George by Alex Gino and The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
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I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.

4 Comments

  1. Delighted to see my new middle grade novel (now called LILY & DUNKIN) on this excellent list. Thank you for sharing this . . . now I’m off to share on FB and Twitter.

    • Thank you so much for your comment and the update on the book’s title! I’m looking forward to reading it!

  2. I just finished reading George and loved it…though I’d say it is probably too young for middle school.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I agree that ‘George’ falls on the very youngest end of the age group covered in this post but since it’s one of very few middle grade books focused on a young transgender character, I couldn’t resist including it!

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