Maybe He Just Likes You: #MeToo Comes to Middle Grade, a guest post by Barbara Dee
MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU begins with a hug. It’s the seventh grade recess, and as Mila celebrates her friend’s birthday, suddenly the “basketball boys” are surrounding them, locking arms, singing “Happy Birthday” way too loudly.
Friendly, right? Sweet but extremely awkward– basically what you’d expect from middle school boys.
Except the hug continues a few seconds past the ending of the song. And Mila feels squeezed, like she can’t breathe.
Afterwards, there’s more unwanted contact–all targeting Mila, all of it happening when adults aren’t around. Bumping, grabbing, sitting too close. Then comments about her body. Jokes that aren’t really jokes at all. Finally a “scorecard” that turns contact with Mila into a team sport.
As the boys’ behavior escalates, Mila feels humiliated and confused. When she tells the boys to stop, they just laugh and continue. She doesn’t know how to ask for help; she doesn’t even know how to talk about it. Because what is this behavior, exactly? It’s not just teasing (as a male guidance counselor, lacking all the details, suggests ). It’s not just bullying, at least not like the kind Mila witnessed in elementary school. And she rejects her friend Zara’s argument that one boy is “flirting” because he “just likes her.” To Mila the behavior feels aggressive, even threatening. And shouldn’t flirting feel better than that? On both sides?
In her gut, Mila knows she’s encountering something new. But she doesn’t have a way to conceptualize what’s happening to her. She doesn’t know words like micro-aggression or sexual harassment. Or, for that matter, consent and boundaries.
And how would she? Those words are rarely included in the middle school curriculum–and I think it’s time for that to change. Because even if middle schoolers are squeamish and uncomfortable, even if in some ways they seem too “immature” for these topics, we can’t postpone talking about concepts like consent and boundaries until high school (or even college). As many recent studies prove, middle school is where sexual harassment begins. So if we’re going to stop the behavior, we need to address it at inception.
The difficult part is how. I’m not going to lie–writing MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU was one of my biggest challenges as a middle grade author. I’ve explored some sensitive topics before. Eating disorders in EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT YOU. Pediatric cancer in HALFWAY NORMAL. A girl’s crush on another girl in STAR-CROSSED. In all of those books, I felt I could treat the topic directly, as long as I wove in other plot threads and plenty of humor.
But the topic of sexual harassment is different, because for many gatekeepers, acknowledging the sexuality of middle schoolers is taboo. So I had to strike a very delicate balance with this book: I had to keep the harassment PG-rated, but at the same time do justice to Mila’s sense of violation. I had to make it clear that this was a particular kind of aggressive behavior that homed in on her growing sense of selfhood. And because Mila was a seventh grader struggling with the self-consciousness and confusion of puberty, it affected her in a way she couldn’t articulate–not to friends, teachers, or even her mom.
Also, it affected others. One thing I learned from interviewing a middle school guidance counselor for this book was that when sexual harassment happens in middle school, it violates not just the student being targeted, but the whole school community. In MAYBE, some of Mila’s harassment occurs in isolation, under the radar of both adults and other kids. But enough of the behavior is witnessed– confusing, embarrassing and threatening not just Mila, but also her friends and classmates.
If I were writing a YA, the harassment might reach a crescendo, some act that was clearly criminal. (I’m thinking about Deb Caletti’s beautiful, brilliant A HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD.) But the whole point of MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU is that this behavior does, in fact, occur in the safe, wholesome world of MG–and so for the purposes of this story, it needed to be resolved in a MG-appropriate way. Without spoiling too much of the ending, I’ll just say that Mila makes mistakes, but learns to stand up for herself, partly by studying karate. She discovers several surprising allies, both adults and kids. There’s a scene of restorative justice in which the boys come to understand Mila’s perspective. And the teachers take responsibility, initiating a schoolwide program about Consent, Boundaries and Sexual Harassment.
I never want to write one-note books, so like my other middle grade novels, MAYBE is also about family, and the constantly-shifting dynamics of middle school friendship. I hope it’s entertaining, even funny at times. I’ll confess that Mila’s bratty little sister made me laugh.
But the subject– sexual harassment in middle school–is one we need to take seriously. I’m hoping MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU starts that conversation.
Meet Barbara Dee
Barbara Dee is the author of several middle grade novels including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have received several starred reviews and been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.
About MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU
Barbara Dee explores the subject of #MeToo for the middle grade audience in this heart-wrenching—and ultimately uplifting—novel about experiencing harassment and unwanted attention from classmates.
For seventh-grader Mila, it starts with some boys giving her an unwanted hug on the school blacktop. A few days later, at recess, one of the boys (and fellow trumpet player) Callum tells Mila it’s his birthday, and asks her for a “birthday hug.” He’s just being friendly, isn’t he? And how can she say no? But Callum’s hug lasts a few seconds too long, and feels…weird. According to her friend, Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?
But the boys don’t leave Mila alone. On the bus. In the halls. During band practice—the one place Mila could always escape.
It doesn’t feel like flirting—so what is it? Thanks to a chance meeting, Mila begins to find solace in a new place: karate class. Slowly, with the help of a fellow classmate, Mila learns how to stand her ground and how to respect others—and herself.
From the author of Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed comes this timely story of a middle school girl standing up and finding her voice.
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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