Is Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee the first ever middle-grade novel with a bisexual protagonist? I don’t know, maybe. But either way, I’m super happy it exists. Queer-themed fiction is increasingly common in the YA genre, but queer stuff for kids is very rare, especially when the protagonist is queer. (More often it’s parents or a friend). Add in how super rare it is to see a bisexual character in ANY book, and I’m super down to read it. Here’s the description:
Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.
As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.
The cover, the cuteness and openness of it all, just all give me the warm fuzzies. I love that they’re dancing on the cover together. Mattie doesn’t use the word “bisexual,” and while I wish she had, it might not have been in character for young kids to make that jump. She’s still quite clear that she might crush on boys or girls, so for me it was no big deal — it’s the concept that I care about the most, and she may be the best bisexual character I’ve ever seen, gently figuring out her own identity and defending her ability to not choose if she doesn’t want to or isn’t ready.
Plus, the book models behavior for allies and shows positive coming-out moments that rang true for me. One friend notices Mattie’s crush before Mattie does, others are pretty chill about it, and the only one who’s upset is a friend who wishes she’d been told earlier. And I love that there didn’t have to be a huge coming-out scene like there usually is to provoke drama in a high-school story. Mattie controls who she tells and at what pace. (Obviously that chill experience doesn’t happen for everyone, please be safe and never feel like you have to come out if you’re not ready. But for me, with a few minor exceptions, the reactions were a non-issue.)
It’s not just good representation, it’s a charming and well-written book. I thought about the characters like friends, even when I put the book down. The play works well as a plot device (although some kids may struggle with the level of story-within-a-story detail). Various crushes amongst the students make up most of the plot, but they’re not presented as the only or primary concern. Mattie’s relationships with her friends take up as much or more time, not to mention her enemies, plus her siblings and mom and schoolwork. And I say “enemies,” but I loved how that was handled. It starts off looking like a typical clique-y storyline, but there’s a point where Gemma says something like “She doesn’t hate you. She’s just not your friend.” and it put the whole thing into perspective. The queen bee isn’t Draco Malfoy, she’s just another girl who has a “team captain” personality and isn’t particular friends with Mattie, and that’s okay. Plus, the crushes are indeed crushes, named as such. It’s entirely appropriate for the age group, and while there’s some discussion of love as it relates (or doesn’t relate) to Romeo and Juliet, the crushes between characters are very sweet. They’re taken seriously, the kids’ whole inner lives are and that’s awesome, but not more seriously than they should be at that age.
I’m just so, so happy, not only that this book exists but that it’s so good. The only other queer middle-grade book I can wholeheartedly recommend is The Manny Files by Christian Burch (reviewed here), which has slightly younger character and audience, and the little boy is implied to be queer but not yet identified as such. They’re both very happy reads though and I’m happy to recommend them. I’ve heard about a few more queer MG books that’ve been recently released or are coming soon, so hopefully I can add to this list in the future!