"Please Don't Talk About Your LGBTQ+ Book": Barbara Dee on "Star-Crossed" and Her Recent School Visit Experience

Barbara Dee's latest novel features a middle school-aged character who crushes on both girls and boys. At a recent school visit, teachers told Ms. Dee not to mention the book.
Barbara Dee is the author of numerous lighthearted, humorous tween-focused novels, including Truth or Dare, The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys, Trauma Queen, and Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life. Her latest novel, Star-Crossed, recently drew controversy during a school visit. You recently blogged at The Nerdy Book Club about an unfortunate experience you had at a school while discussing your new book. What’s the book about and what happened at the school? Star-Crossed is a middle grade novel about a school production of Romeo and Juliet in which the girl playing Romeo realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. The main character, Mattie, just had a crush on a boy and isn't ruling out the possibility of a boy-crush in the future. She isn't labeling herself; all she knows for sure is that right now she likes beautiful, talented Gemma. As she considers all the things you worry about in middle school—What if the other kids find out? Should she tell her friends? What about her family?—the plot parallels the action of Romeo and Juliet. Except Star-Crossed isn't a tragedy—it's gentle, humorous, and positive. And that's why what happened at the school was so upsetting. I was midway through a day of five presentations to sixth graders when two of the teachers asked me to stop talking about Star-Crossed. At first, they said the kids weren't "mature" enough for the material. But when I explained that my publisher (S. & S.) recommended the book for ages nine to 13, that Scholastic had licensed it for book clubs and fairs, and that it had earned glowing reviews and blurbs from big-name middle grade authors, they confessed that the real reason was that the school district was "politically polarized" and they feared "parental backlash." The teachers assured me that they personally were in favor of books featuring diverse characters, and [books] that exposed kids to concepts like inclusiveness—they just didn't want me to read from, or even talk about, Star-Crossed. Later I learned that one of the teachers actually apologized to her classes, telling the kids that she knew they were "upset” [by my talk] and she assured them that she'd told me to stop talking about the book. You mentioned in the blog post that part of you really wished you had stood your ground or walked out, but that you had a professional obligation to fulfill and didn’t think walking out would be professional or appropriate at that moment. If you could talk with some of those teachers, one-on-one, right now, what would you like to say to them? What do you hope they’ll do the next time an author comes to their school? I would tell them two things. First, it isn't okay just to be in favor of inclusiveness in the abstract—you need to be inclusive, walk the walk. Parents (and teachers, too) aren't protecting kids by shutting down conversation about sexual orientation; they're only causing confusion and shame, doing a disservice both to kids who may identify as LGBTQ+, and also to straight kids who are being deprived of a chance to develop empathy. One of the best ways to make ALL kids feel safe and included in the classroom is by exposing them to a diverse set of characters in sensitive, age-appropriate fiction—providing students with "mirrors" as well as "windows." I think that in the scramble to avoid "parental backlash," the teachers at this school lost a great opportunity. And I have to say that one of the ironies here is that the school did face "parental backlash" from parents angry with the way a visiting author was shut down. The other thing I'd want to tell the teachers: When you invite an author to visit your school, please do your homework. Prepare for the visit by reading up on the author's books. Familiarize yourself with the author's latest projects described on her website, so that you're not surprised when she discusses them, and so that you can participate in the discussion. As a straight, cisgender woman, what made you decide to write a book with a middle grade character who likes both girls and boys? How did you find and develop Mattie’s voice?

Photograph by Randy Matusow

When George, Lily and Duncan, Gracefully Grayson, and Better Nate Than Ever came on the scene a couple of years ago, I celebrated—but I wondered why there wasn't middle grade fiction about a girl's crush on another girl. And aside from Rick Riordan's The Trials of Apollo, which shades into YA, where were characters who liked both boys and girls? While some kids may be 100% sure of their orientation by eighth grade, others may be wondering or exploring or simply uncomfortable with labels. And that's okay—middle school is all about questioning who you are and who your friends are. When it came to developing Mattie, I did have some personal experience to draw on. But Mattie isn't based on anyone in particular; she's a pure product of my imagination. What has been the reception for the book so far? Do you have a sense of how readers are embracing it? The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic and deeply moving. I'm hearing daily from readers as young as nine or 10—and also from readers who are 16 and 28—telling me how they wish they'd had access to books like Star-Crossed when they were in middle school. The publisher's age recommendation is for kids nine to 13, so it's been a bit of a surprise to see how wide the appeal has been. But I think many readers are just hungry for sweet, positive fiction featuring non-straight characters. Mattie is in eighth grade. In fact, many of your characters throughout the novels you’ve written are in middle school. For me—and I suspect for many of us—middle school was one of the hardest periods to survive. Why do you write for this age group? What was your own middle school experience like? Has it informed your process? Middle school kids are so precocious these days, constantly bombarded with stimuli—but of course, they're still kids. Which means they're confused, goofy, obnoxious, brilliant, open-minded, wrong-headed—a mess of contradictions. And I find that fascinating. As for me, in middle school I was a straight-A student who was constantly reading, and also a secret rebel. If that's not a recipe for "middle grade author," I don't know what is! What were some of your favorite books as a kid? How much time do we have? A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, Little Women, Eight Cousins, The Secret Garden, Theater Shoes, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Rascal, My Side of the Mountain, All-of-a-Kind-Family, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Half Magic. And those are just the first that spring to mind! What’s next for you? In September, S. & S./Aladdin is publishing my eighth middle grade novel, Halfway Normal, about a girl returning to middle school after two years away for cancer treatment. It's hard for her to reconnect with classmates and teachers until she's able to identify with a character in Greek mythology. So even though Halfway Normal is a very different story, I think it pairs nicely with Star-Crossed—two books about smart, strong girls turning to literature when they can't find the words for their own complicated feelings.
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