YA is Too Late: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction

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I can’t remember when I learned what the word gay meant. I remember people snickering when Maria sings “I feel pretty and witty and gay!” in West Side Story and not getting the joke. I remember how “that’s so gay” was used as an insult in middle school and I repeated it, not fully understanding what it meant. Will & Grace came on the air just as I entered high school. That is likely when I started to understand what gay meant, though it was packaged in a bright, shiny, made-for-prime-time TV package.

Will and Grace

There have been many TV shows, movies, and books since the explosion of Will & Grace that address LGBTQ issues and feature well-rounded characters instead of just stock characters. YA fiction in particular has been very good at addressing the need for more LGBT content. More Than Just Magic is doing a month long YA Pride series, so be sure to drop by and check out her recommendations (including my book Days That End in Y). Teenagers are famously preoccupied with love and relationships, so it’s only natural that questions of sexual identity and preference are explored in YA fiction. But 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.

So I wrote for them.

I knew many boys like Benji growing up. I babysat them, drove them to camp, sang in choir with them, sat next to them in school. Only they were not openly gay then. Some of them were too young to identify. They may have felt different, but couldn’t put their finger on why. They may have understood that it wasn’t safe for them to come out, and so they waited until they were much older and long gone from their hometowns to do so. Do these boys see themselves in fiction? I certainly had a hard time tracking them down.

Days That End in Y Cover

It was always my intention to address Benji’s sexuality but it needed to be at the right time. I am thankful to Scholastic Canada for giving me three books to develop his character and bring him to a place where he can admit such a deeply personal and scary thing to his best friend. I hope that my readers who have grown to love Benji can accept him as well, and in turn, accept those in their lives who need all the love and support they can get.

I hope that when children read my series about Benji and Clarissa they learn something about empathy and bravery. I hope kids who are struggling with their own sexuality are inspired by Benji’s bravery and comforted by Clarissa’s acceptance. I hope it prepares kids to be open and compassionate when their own friends come out to them.

We still have a long way to go. Books featuring gay characters are among the most consistently banned or censored books in America. I recommend the following middle grade novels featuring positive LGTBQ characters or children questioning their sexuality. Please feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments:

Updated in June 2016:

TheThingAboutJellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

husky

Husky  by Justin Sayre

george

George  by Alex Gino

letters

Letters in the Attic  by Bonnie Shimko

starring kitty

Starring Kitty 

better nate

Better Nate Than Never by Tim Federle

 

 

five six seven

Five, Six, Seven,  Nate! by Tim Federle

Boy in the Dress JKT_FINAL_REV.indd

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams

misfits

The Misfits (book 1) by James Howe

joe

Totally Joe (The Misfits Book 2)by James Howe

stitches

Stitches by Glen Huser

drama

Drama by Raina Telgemaier

seeyouh

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

marco-Bomb-mock-1P

Marco Impossible by Hannah Moscowitz

Pride is about love and acceptance- so go forth and spread the love!

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17 thoughts on “YA is Too Late: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction

  1. Christa says:

    Great post Vikki! I think you’re absolutely right – kids start forming ideas/opinions on relationships really early in life. They don’t wait to their teenagers. And I think the way LGBTQ characters are represented in media has a big impact on that. And like you said, it’s about empathy too. It’s not just about coming out story, we need to education hetrosexual children, otherwise we’re stuck with these horrible bullying situations you see all the time now a days.

    Thanks for linking to YA Pride! I actually had a number of requests to include more middle grade titles this year (which is how your book, Drama, Marco Impossible AND Drama all ended up on the schedule!)

  2. Beth Stilborn says:

    Great post! I’m so glad it came up in my google alert for middle grade fiction. I, too, write middle grade fiction, although I’m not-yet-published. I’ve just brought “Drama” home from the library, but haven’t had a chance to get into it. I’m currently reading “Better Nate Than Ever” and am stumbling somewhat over the words used to bully this kid who is perceived to be gay. I know it’s true to life, but I wonder how far a Middle Grade novel should go?

    • vikkivansickle says:

      Hi Beth,

      That is an excellent question, one I struggled with myself in Words That Start With B. I find that adults flinch at certain words but for some reason we are okay with scenes of bullying. I’m still trying to figure out why this is. Is it because words are easier to censor? Is it because using certain words is a lazy way to address a situation and a scene seems to take more thought and is therefore more acceptable? If you err on the side of caution, using placement words, kids will sniff you out and you may lose a moment to connect with the authentically, but you please the gatekeepers (parents, librarians, teachers, etc).

      I don’t think there are simple answers to this, but know that you are not alone in asking this question! Good luck with your writing!

  3. MaryWitzl says:

    I completely agree. The kids are out there, and they always have been. At the very least, they need books to show them that they aren’t alone, and the earlier they get them, the better.

  4. vst3in says:

    Great, great post, and very insightful comments. Thanks for seeing this need and writing to it. I have some of the listed books in my library, but now maybe I can fill it with more! This is such a private, lonely, scary struggle for students to have. Literature is a way for them to feel all right on some level, and to find ways to cope.

    • vikkivansickle says:

      Thank you so much- I’m so glad the post has generated some discussion. I’m hoping to expand my reading list, so that others who are struggling to find books that speak to kids about this confusing time in their lives will have some great books at their disposal!

  5. cheriee says:

    Thank you so much for these great recommendations. As an elementary school librarian I search for books with gay characters that are appropriate at this level. I love your books Vikki, and have them all! But you have missed one of my all time favorites: The Misfits by James Howe. This book and the other companion books, Totally Joe and Addie on the Inside are wonderful reads and a great way for kids this age to become friends with a gay character. They are always checked out. We also have a sets of both these books for lit circles. I noticed yesterday that they are looking very ragged so will have to replace them this summer. (I also have a lit circle set of Words that start with B) You can read about the Howe books at my blog here. http://dickenslibrary.blogspot.ca/2011/12/addie-on-inside-by-james-howe.html

  6. Renee Tracy says:

    Great post and recommendations. Just wanted to add one more. Misfits by James Howe and its sequel Totally Joe.
    YA Pride!

  7. www.katewalkeraustralia.com says:

    Hi Vikki,
    You’re absolutely right. Gay characters should be part of the landscape in children’s literature starting with picture books and early junior fiction. As a rule young minds are wonderfully open and blessed with a fine sense of human rights and human equality. The best way to understand our fellow man and woman is to walk a mile in their shoes, and there’s no better way to do that than through story.
    We’ve come a long way in a short time and should be proud of the gains we’ve made. In 1991 I published one of the first YA novels ‘Peter’ – about a 15 year old dirt-bike rider who suspects he’s gay. The first 7 publishers I approached refused to read it. The next few actually read it but said, “No way!” A few told me I’d be committing career suicide if I got it published. They said both private and public schools in Australia would black list me, and all my books, and my publisher as well. That’s how gay characters in books were viewed back then.
    One brave outfit – Omnibus Books – took the risk and I’m forever grateful to them. The book was banned in some schools, but on the other hand it went on to feature in awards in both Australia and the US. And to this day – more than 20 years later – I still get emails from young men saying, “Thank you for ‘Peter’.”
    I applaud your courage and I can assure you there’ll be many a young man and young woman who remembers your stories with gratitude, and whose lives you’ll have touched.
    Best wishes, Kate Walker

    • vikkivansickle says:

      Hi Kate, Thank you for your thoughtful message and your personal experiences publishing a gay character in the children’s market in Australia. I”m always interested in seeing how other countries are dealing with the issue. I’m so glad Omnibus Books took a risk on your book- I’m going to look it up right now!
      Take care and thanks for your words of encouragement!

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