Why Kids Need LGBTQ+ Middle-grade Books
When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a love letter to a girl.
I thought she was amazing: a brilliant writer, smart, funny, and an avid reader. Being a socially awkward thirteen-year-old girl whose only friends were a third-grade neighbor, her little sister, and the Pevensies from The Chronicles of Narnia, I wasn’t sure how to befriend her or express how awesome I thought she was.
I’ve always found it easier to express myself and relate to others through stuffed animals. This comes in handy as a children’s librarian. So, armed with a Teenie Beanie Baby from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, I struck out to express myself. I carried the Teenie Beanie Baby around in my pocket for weeks. I would bring it out and make it do little dances or wave at people or sit next to me at lunch.
And then one night I came up with a brilliant idea: I would write a love letter from the Teenie Beanie Baby to the girl I thought was amazing. In the letter, I’d tell her how amazing I/the Teenie Beanie Baby thought she was. Since it was a love letter, I obviously had to tell her that she was beautiful. I had to tell her that her hair was like spun gold — she really did have great hair — and that she was super smart.
The next day in English class, I presented her with the love letter. From the moment I spoke the words and handed her the folded sheet of notebook paper, I knew I’d made a mistake. She gave me a look that was both confused and alarmed, like there was something wrong with me and she didn’t know how to respond. Apparently it was not okay to give another girl a love letter, even if it was written on behalf of a male Teenie Beanie Baby.
Panicking, I lied and told her that my little sister had written it and thought it would be funny. But the look on her face told me I had messed up, that I was weird.
I didn’t bring the Teenie Beanie Baby to school after that.
When I read Barbara Dee’s middle-grade novel Star-Crossed — a story about Mattie, an eighth-grade girl who plays Romeo opposite her crush, the talented and beautiful Gemma, and how Mattie comes to terms with this crush and expressing it — I cried. Dee’s portrayal of middle school and a first crush are real and compelling. All of the yearning and excitement I felt as a seventh-grade girl with a crush on another girl came back to me while reading. It was like present-day adult me and past seventh-grade me were reading it and loving it simultaneously in different ways.
Seventh-grade me loved it because she needed this book to understand her feelings. She needed it to realize that she wasn’t alone. She needed it to know it was okay to be so excited about and interested in another girl. And she needed this book to help her put those feelings into words.
Present-day me loved it because it brought back those memories and feelings of seventh-grade me. I loved it because it reaffirmed what I had suspected about those past feelings. I loved it because I knew that so many LGBTQ+ youth need this book and books like it.
As a youth services librarian, beyond keeping in mind the needs and desires of the patrons I interact with, I always keep past me in mind: a girl who was afraid of talking to people, expressing herself, being seen, and asking for things. It’s imperative to keep in mind the kids who need middle-grade novels like Star-Crossed, Alex Gino’s George, the recently released Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake and P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy, and the upcoming Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callendar and Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow; the kids who may or may not know they need them and who may or may not be able to ask for them or even know that such books exist.
They need access to these middle grade books because they’re already experiencing these feelings or know someone who is. They need access to these books to help them discover themselves, recognize they’re not alone, and be able to imagine and read happy endings for themselves.
We, as librarians, owe it to everyone, and especially to LGBTQ+ youth, who so desperately need support, to ensure this access.
Kristin McWilliams is a youth services librarian/assistant branch manager at Houston Public Library. She started in June 2017 after completing her MLS at Indiana University. While studying at Indiana University, she worked as co-coordinator of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center Library on campus, center supervisor with IU Residential Programs & Services Libraries, and as a public service assistant and reference blog editor at IU’s Herman B Wells Library. As a queer woman, she has a particular interest in LGBTQ+ materials and serving LGBTQ+ youth. Find her on Twitter @writteninblue.
This is a very powerful story. The personal impact adds so much to its impact. We all remember those early teen years when you are trying to figure out your identity and how important acceptance is to you. Your article helps us to understand how difficult the process is for LQBTQ+ youth. Thank you for helping us understand.