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.
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.
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:
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Husky by Justin Sayre
George by Alex Gino
Letters in the Attic by Bonnie Shimko
Better Nate Than Never by Tim Federle
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams
The Misfits (book 1) by James Howe
Totally Joe (The Misfits Book 2)by James Howe
Stitches by Glen Huser
Drama by Raina Telgemaier
See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Marco Impossible by Hannah Moscowitz
Pride is about love and acceptance- so go forth and spread the love!