Since we started the YA Cafe Podcast, we’ve gotten a lot of questions around LGBTQ middle grade novels. This means anywhere from 4th-8th grade. Since our show doesn’t always cover this age range, we thought we’d spend some time here talking about it.
Why should I include LGBTQ titles in my classroom library?
My students are too young. Including LGBTQ middle grade novels in your library is not about sex. Seriously. (I mean, we can talk about the statistics of middle schoolers who do have sex, but that’s not what you’re talking about; I know) Anytime we’re talking about including more representation in a classroom library, we’re talking about issues of identity. Middle school is the perfect time to explore that!
How can I include LGBTQ titles in a conservative school? This can be tricky to navigate, since you have to deal with internalized biases in your admin and possibly your community. We hear you. But we think this fight is WORTH IT! Queer kids are 4x more likely to die by suicide, so if we can save them by showing them characters like them, we must do it.
On a practical level, you can minimize push-back by focusing on queer genre stories. This means, instead of including romances right away, start by incorporating stories of queer kids fighting crime and saving the world! Since queer identity isn’t the obvious focus of these books, they seem more “palatable” to objectors. We have some great recommendations below. [And yes, we’re talking about respectability politics here. Sigh.]
I’m a white, cisgendered, straight woman. What right do I have to talk about LGBTQ issues? You have every right to be an ally! Being an ally means supporting your LGBTQ students and fighting for them. Get those books on the shelf, teacher! That’s part of your fight!
I don’t have any queer students, so this doesn’t matter to me. Well, statistically, you will have queer students, even if they haven’t come out to you. But more importantly: all students deserve to see a wide range of protagonists in the books they read. This helps build empathy and fight against internalized norms, like the messaging our society sends about white and straight as “default”.
Queer stories don’t begin and end at their ‘coming out’. If you follow the YA Cafe Podcast, you know that we love sharing books that transcend the ‘coming out story’ trope. Coming out stories are important! But they shouldn’t be the only stories that we put in the hands of our students. To quote the author Meredith Russo, we “want to see trans-revolutionaries, trans-astronauts, trans-post-apocalyptic survivors, trans-magicians, trans everything. Because the more we tell young trans people they can be, the more they will be.”
And most importantly, make sure you are including these books organically. For instance, rather than having a “LGBTQ+ Lit Circle” make sure you are including LGBTQ+ stories and voices in every topic. It’s wonderful to celebrate Pride month as an ally, but make sure your students see you as an ally year round.
We love you so much for thinking about LGBTQ middle grade novels. Your students need these. Here are some great recommendations we want to pass along.
LGBTQ Middle Grade Novels
Drama – Raina Telgemeier
Theatre kids, unite! Drama, tells the story of Callie, a middle-schooler with a passion for theatre. She isn’t very good at singing or acting, but she isn’t doesn’t let that discourage her! Instead, she takes on the role of set-designer for her school’s production of Moon Over the Mississippi. In between learning new skills – like carpentry – she gets to know the other crew members, and Callie soon finds out there’s as much drama off-stage as there is on-stage! This fun and colorful graphic novel might be a new class favorite 🙂
A Possibility of Whales – Karen Rivers
I have a full review of APoW up on my blog, but here’s a little preview; “A Possibility of Whales is Oscar-movie poignant. I’m always looking for more middle grade novels that present a transgender protagonist. Harry is trying to assert his identity in a way that is so perfectly preteen, but also as a young transgender adult. He struggles with his parents who see this as a ‘phase’ and insist on calling him ‘Harriet’ … I strongly recommend this for your classroom library.”
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The Best At It – Maulik Pancholy
In this charming MG debut, we meet Rahul Kapoor. He lives in rural Indiana with his Indian American family and he is certain of two things: 1. His grandfather, Bhai is his best friend in the world, and 2, Starting 7th grade terrifies him. Will he make friends? Will he be bullied for his race or his sexual orientation? To calm his nerves his grandfather gives him some advice: “Find one thing you’re really good at and become the BEST at it.”
This book releases October 8th, so pre-order your copy today!
George – Alex Gino
The author gives the reader a wonderful metaphor of norms and “playing societal roles” when George’s drama teacher denies her the chance to audition for the role of Charlotte in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. You see, George (who calls herself Melissa) knows she is a girl, but everyone in her school sees her as a boy.
If you’re looking for some trans representation for lower grade levels, check out this list from the New York Public Library of 12 Picture Books with Trans or Gender Non-Conforming Characters.
The House You Pass on the Way – Jacqueline Woodson
In this novel, our heroine, Staggerlee, struggles to come to terms with herself. She feels ‘othered’: not just with her sexual orientation, but also the fact that she is bi racial.
Jacqueline Woodson is always a ‘go-to’ author for me. I recommend another one of her MG novels, Harbor Me, in my blog post on Teaching Social Justice with Lit Circles. Woodson does such an incredible job of making you feel like you know her characters.
Marco Impossible – Hannah Moskowitz
I love Hannah’s writing! This is her only MG book, but all of her YA books are outstanding. We featured her novel Salt in episode 32 of the YA Cafe Podcast, and I also recommend her novel Not Otherwise Specified, which also features a queer protag.
Marco Impossible is an action packed romp, the whole book takes place in the span of 4 days! Hannah does an awesome job of capturing the voices and attitudes of Stephen and Marco. It’s a fairly quick read, and a great choice for reluctant readers.
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Letters in the Attic – Bonnie Shimko
Set in the 1960s’, this LAMBDA Award winning debut novel introduces us to Lizzy McMann. After her parents divorce, her life is turned upside down. She and her mother are forced to move away from their home in Arizona and travel to upstate New York to live with her grandparents. Once there, she is confronted with her first crush, the struggles of puberty, and her search for a new husband for her mother.
This book reminds me of a YA historical fiction novel that I love: Pulp by Robin Talley, which we discussed in episode 34 of the podcast. Both books do such a wonderful job of capturing the tumultuous feelings of forbidden tweenage love.
One True Way – Shannon Hitchcock
This novel is set in the 1970s in small-town North Carolina, a time and place in which LGBTQ+ rights were not widely acknowledged or even talked about. Allie and her mother move to town after a family tragedy, leaving her dad behind. On her first day at Daniel Boone Middle School, she meets Samantha (or Sam as everyone calls her), a popular jock girl. They are fast friends, and soon Allie realizes that her feelings for Sam might be stronger than just friendship.
This book creates genuine characters who students will care about. It also paints an accurate picture of the cultural attitudes towards gay relationships in the 1970s. I think this timeline of Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement from PBS is a great resource to show students who might not remember a time before gay marriage was legal in all 50 states.
One True Way is also exceptional in its portrayal of multiple same-sex relationships, which is so vital. Queer people do not exist in a vacuum; we are a community.
Not Your Sidekick – CB Lee
In Andover, everyone has superpowers. Well, not everyone. High schooler Jessica Tran has two well-known superhero parents, but not a trace of special powers. Resigned to an abnormally ‘normal’ life, she sets herself to college applications. All she needs is the perfect internship, and when she finds one that allows her to work alongside her crush, Abby she is overjoyed. There’s just one problem. The company she is interning for is *gasp* run by supervillains! Hijinks and flirtations ensue, but soon Jessica discovers that there may be something larger and more sinister at work than just “heroes” and “villains”.
Besides the representation provided by Jessica and Abby, they also have a trans friend, Bells, who is awesome and well-developed. Plus, if, students fall in love there are three more Sidekick books for them to explore!
The Marauders’ Island – Tristan Tarwater
Y’all know that I’m a sucker for pirates, but this novel has so much more. Azria, our protagonist, is training to be a Mage on the island of Miz. Because of a bureaucratic snafu, she never receives her certification, but her estranged mother offers her a job anyway as a Mage aboard her ship, the Hen and Chick. Adventures ensue, and mother and daughter grow closer than ever before.
Lumberjanes #16 – Noelle Stevenson
The Lumberjanes series of graphic novellas is like Girl Scouts meets the stories from Are You Afraid of the Dark?. It features close knit and well developed friendships, badass girl power, and spooky adventures.
It’s short and very engaging, perfect for reluctant readers. And if students fall in love, there are 64(!) more installments to the Lumberjanes series 🙂
Saving Montgomery Sole – Mariko Tamaki
Daria meets Supernatural in this novel by Mariko Tamaki, author of this year’s smash hit Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. This book has so much awesome representation! Montgomery, or Monty as her friends call her, has two moms and a gay best friend. And she’s angry about the prejudice and hatred aimed at them (and herself). When a traveling preacher arrives in town and starts spreading his homophobia by putting up anti-gay signs, she decides she has had enough. She buys a magical amulet online, The Eye of the Know, and channels her anger onto everyone she perceives as her enemy. How far will Montgomery go to get revenge and protect those she loves?
Fantasy/Fairy Tale vibe:
The Prince and the Dressmaker – Jen Wang
This charming graphic novel introduces us to Prince Sebastian and his trusted friend Frances. Frances is a talented young dressmaker who longs to become famous, but she is forced to keep her identity secret because her client, Lady Crystallia is really Prince Sebastian in disguise! This book explores gender identity, friendship, and loyalty. Its whimsical drawings and fairytale vibes make this a truly touching read for any age.
Hurricane Child – Kacen Callendar
Ever since her birth during a hurricane, Caroline feels like she has been trailed by bad luck. Her mother abandoned her, her father is always busy working, and she has no friends at her school. But when a new student, Kalinda, arrives, Caroline finally feels like she has a true companion. Callendar does a wonderful job developing the characters and the Caribbean setting. It also expertly tackles some big subjects like racism and homophobia. Hurricane Child sure to spark some valuable discussions in the classroom.
This books touching depiction of grief reminds me of another Elementary/MG book I love: Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen. I talked about that book, and techniques for Trauma-Informed Teaching on the podcast in episode 51.
Princess Princess Ever After – Katie O’Neill
A queer, feminist retelling of Rapunzel? Yes please! I love fairytale retellings, especially ones that make the story more inclusive. In this charming graphic novella we meet Princess Sadie, locked in a tower by her cruel older sister. What Prince, Princess will save her? That would be brave Princess Amira of course, riding to the rescue on her pink unicorn.
This refreshingly sweet and unexpected tale challenges gender norms for girls and boys. It also tackles subjects like heteronormativity, and the “ideal body”. It will spark some great discussions and help your students feel accepted and empowered.
If you are looking for inclusive YA fairytale recommendations I suggest, Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (featured in podcast episode 30), Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust (read my review here), or Ash by Malinda Lo.
Y’all, I need your help! Have you read a great MG mystery/thriller/suspense novel or comic with a LGBTQ+ protagonist? I tried in vain to find any to recommend, so if you have any suggestions please send them my way!
However, if you are looking for inclusive YA thriller suggestions, I have you covered 🙂
The Stonewall Riots: The Fight for LGBT Rights – Tristan Poehlmann
While it might be a bit too dense to be a pleasure read for a middle schooler, this book needs to be part of your curriculum. It’s aligned to Common Core and state standards, and it provides vital queer history lessons left out of standard history books.
Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community – Robin Stevenson
This is a wonderful book that sets out to explain to middle schoolers what a Pride festival is and why it’s important. It has a history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, a glossary of terms, photos, and tons of colorful sidebars and illustrations. I think it has a place in every middle school classroom library. Remember, Pride comes once a year, but with resources like this you can make your students feel safe and accepted year round.
Queer Heroes: Meet 53 LGBTQ+ Heroes from Past and Present! – Arabelle Sicardi
This stunning picture book could feel right at home in an elementary school library, or an adult’s coffee table. Queer Heroes celebrates people from all walks of life. Musicians like Freddie Mercury and Sia. Activists like Harvey Milk and Josephine Baker. STEM revolutionaries like Alan Turing and Leonardo da Vinci. Writers like Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, I could go on and on!
Honorable Mention (LGBTQ+ representation in secondary characters):
Contemporary: The Stars Beneath Our Feet – David Barclay Moore
12-year-old Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul and his mother are reeling from the death of his older brother, Jermaine. Lolly is feeling the pressure to join a “crew” and follow in his brothers footsteps. After a brush with violence, joining a gang seems like it might be his only chance to stay safe and protect his family. When his mother’s new girlfriend brings him a big bag of Legos, Lolly learns to channel his grief and confusion into creating a never-ending Lego city. With the help of a new friend, Lolly has to learn how to rebuild his life.
I wanted to include this novel because of the touching relationship between Lolly and his mother, who is a lesbian. Black, queer representation is so vital since queer people of color face violence at higher rates than their white peers.
All of your students, no matter their orientation, will appreciate you for making your classroom more welcoming and inclusive. And any students who feel marginalized or unseen because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, will remember you for the rest of their life. You can make a difference!
Are you already including any of these books in your classroom library? Do you have a favorite queer MG protagonist not included in this list? Comment below or reach out to me on IG @nouvelle_ela! I love hearing about your students, and seeing your shelfies 🙂