Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

Writing About Gender and Sexual Orientation for Middle Grade Readers

At BEA this year, all the buzz was about GEORGE, a middle-grade novel by Alex Gino with a transgendered protagonist. But GEORGE isn’t the only recent  middle-grade fiction with a transgender theme. There’s also GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polonsky, a sweet and poignant story about a boy who knows he’s a girl. And next spring, Donna Gephart, well-known author of popular middle-grade titles (DEATH BY TOILET PAPER; OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN) is coming out with LILY AND DUNKIN (Delacorte, May 2016).

Even five years ago, such books would never have been published by traditional publishing houses. But it seems that as our culture rapidly becomes more accepting of LGBT people and issues, there’s been an implicit acknowledgement that kidlit fiction–and not just books shelved in the YA section–should reflect this reality. When a book like Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER can become a mega-bestseller, I think it suggests that we’ve underestimated kids’ interest in, and need for, middle-grade books dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

I’m currently writing STAR-CROSSED (S&S/Aladdin, Fall 2017), a middle-grade novel about a girl who develops a crush on another girl as they rehearse a middle school production of Romeo and Juliet.  It’s a departure for me; in my books I’ve always been careful not to push any boundaries. But I think that what GEORGE and NATE and GRAYSON have showed us is that middle-grade (or “tween”) fiction can explore themes of gender and sexuality in a way that feels authentic–and yet still remains age-appropriate.

So it’s been a great treat for me to chat with Donna Gephart, as she looks forward to next spring’s publication of LILY AND DUNKIN.

Why did you write this book now?

LILY AND DUNKIN  is a dual narrative of a big-hearted, nature-loving, word nerd transgender 13-year-old, Lily, and Dunkin, also 13, who has just moved to Lily’s neighborhood.  Dunkin is dealing with the move, an impossible secret and managing his bipolar disorder.  Somehow, this duo finds a way to help each other be their best, most authentic selves despite the obstacles they face.

When I began this book several years ago, it was a very different atmosphere when it came to talking about transgender issues as well as mental health issues.  Both were more taboo than they are today.  I decided to write the book despite that fact.  And because it takes a long time for a traditionally published book to come out, the tides have turned dramatically and thankfully, we’re having a more open national conversation about issues that must be addressed sensitively and compassionately.

Do you think standards for what’s “safe” in MG fiction are changing? 

I think the national conversation is changing.  When I wrote LILY AND DUNKIN, I needed to explain how Dunkin would have heard of the term “transgender.”  By the time I was revising it, I deleted that part.  Kids now have heard of the term “transgender.”  It’s my hope that with movies, TV shows and books featuring fully-realized transgender characters, everyone will understand more and fear less.  This tide of more exposure and more information can lead to much greater understanding and compassion.  And what safer way to share these characters than in the pages of a book?  It can be the starting point of meaningful discussions.  If a child has bonded with a transgender character or a character dealing with a mental illness in a novel, then when s/he meets a person like this in real life, s/he experiences recognition and a deeper understanding, instead of fear born from ignorance.

Do you expect resistance from adults who think of you as a “safe” MG author? 

I write with great respect for my young readers and I always tackle difficult subjects in my books — divorce, death of a parent, loneliness, bullying, etc.   Each of my novels has both the difficult and lighthearted, just like in life.  The topics in my upcoming novel are handled sensitively, accurately and with great love.  I’d be delighted to see it in the hands of many, many young readers because I think this book will make a difference in creating a climate of kindness.

How do we assure the gatekeepers that just because an MG book addresses certain topics, it’s still “wholesome”–and appropriate for all MG kids, even those who aren’t dealing with those particular issues?

Librarians and teachers are incredibly smart.  They want books in the hands of their students that will expand their minds and hearts and promote love and acceptance.  These are important kinds of books for all kids to read because we are all different in some way; it’s great to also notice the ways in which we’re similar:  We all need a feeling of belonging, of mattering and of being valued and loved.  That’s what my book is about.  And I can’t wait for it to make its way into the hands and minds and hearts of young readers.

Barbara Dee’s sixth middle-grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2016. fall. STAR-CROSSED will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2017.

Re-Engaging Disconnected Readers

Amy Vatne Bintliff is a teacher and researcher who has taught language arts and reading in traditional and alternative programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has developed a wide array of programming for students who struggle with school. A passionate advocate for human rights and multicultural education, she believes strongly in listening to the voices of adolescents.

Amy VB

Amy is a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and the author of Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education (Peter Lang Publishing 2011).
bintliff cover

I sat down to chat with Amy, who is working on a new edition of the book, adding a new chapter about her recent work with middle school students.

What turns kids away from reading?

For many students, the hectic schedules that they lead turn them away from reading.  They are so busy with athletics, jobs, etc. that they just don’t build in the time.  And then when they do have time to read in class, they often feel sleepy.  That makes sense, right?  We know that most adolescents need more sleep. Feeling that they just aren’t good at reading also causes disengagement.  I find that many students get one MAP score or STAR score back that is low, and their self-esteem just tanks.  No matter how much I tell students that those scores don’t represent their complete lives as a reader, they internalize those scores and carry a feeling of defeat with them.  That turns students away.

Why do you think books with social justice themes are appealing to students and how do you use them in the classroom?

I began using human rights education and social justice education early on in my career partly because that’s where my own passions are.  But then I began really observing how active my students were when they were discussing or debating themes of injustice.  Nearly every young person I have taught has felt the sting of injustice in some way.  At the start of the year, we begin debating what is meant by the word “justice” and “injustice”.  We look at modern texts, such as opinion editorial pieces, plus brief excerpts by philosophers, such as Aristotle.  Then we read about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, Septima Clark, and others involved in social change.  We also each write a personal essay, journal or poem about times injustices have impacted us.  I also directly teach my students different frameworks depending on the text and student interest.  A few of the frameworks are:

Generally, students are presented with the frameworks and then have time to discuss them, choose an article, standard or stereotype that they want to explore more deeply, and present a group or individual project.

I then find some strong examples from literature, usually our class reads aloud to start with, so that we can explore with new eyes.  We then use the frameworks to analyze literature, current events, and our own responses to them.  Students begin to actively engage with text because they have a new vocabulary to back up their thinking.  When we get to Close Reading activities, students can say, “I found a gender stereotype here” or “What’s happening is going against the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.  They feel empowered.  They also feel moved by the very human stories involved in the work.  Finally, we create service projects that allow students choice.  For example, last year, my students chose to teach Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Standards to 4th graders.  The service portion of a reading classroom engages them and helps lessen the feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness often associated with reading about social justice themes.

What is the role of diverse books in engaging young people?

Diverse books allow students to create imagined dialogue with people outside of their normal daily interactions.  These imagined dialogues decrease fear and build connections.  It builds capacity, teaches background knowledge, and allows students to reflect on how they are similar or different from narrators or main characters.  Diverse books also teach students that one person’s story does not represent a whole race, gender, etc.  As a teacher, I reiterate that each time we explore a piece of literature.

 What are some of your favorite books to reach disconnected students? 

The graphic novels, March Book One and March Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell are fantastic!  Students who never read full books in the past completed both.  What I love about these graphic novels is that they tie to other social justice texts or current events.  Even though the books may take some students only a matter of days to read, there are many weeks worth of connections and discussions to stem from the graphic novels.  I love that the history re-connected not only struggling readers, but also students who generally weren’t enjoying traditional history texts.

march 2 March 1

I have had great success with the novel Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  There is so much to talk about in this book such as bullying, coming of age, poverty, and equality.

ninth ward

I also love poetry books.  Some of my favorites poets for middle school students are Naomi Shihab Nye, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Soto. Paul Janeczko’s book Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades has some good teacher resources.  Also, many of the poets have lesson plans on their websites.

Reading Poetry

In a classroom with students at a range of reading levels, how do you both challenge advanced readers and engage those that are struggling?

I think one of the key things is to engage students with concepts and philosophies that are challenging no matter what their reading level.  If the theme of a story, such as injustice, is carefully selected, students can work with partners, or solo, on the text.  You then need to create space for dialogue so that all students have equal opportunities to share their thinking.  I also help students select books that match their interests and push students to new levels when they are ready.  My reading students select their books of choice and I build in time for independent reading in a comfy part of the classroom.  I work with three rotating stations:  guided reading where I teach new strategies, a writing station and an independent reading station.

In your video (embedded below), you talk about including physical activities in the reading classroom. Can you elaborate on that?

Movement is essential when working with reading students!  I have a whole array of brief “brain games” that I use between station rotations.  I play the game with them, so we build trust by laughing, setting game goals, and getting blood flowing to the brain.

Where can our readers find out more?

Teaching Tolerance’s Appendix D–A tool for selecting diverse texts

The Advocates for Human Rights—Free resources and lessons

The Howard Zinn Education Project—History resources that are great to use with historical fiction

Booklists from Teaching for Change and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

The Real Life of the Middle-Grade Reader

I love writing for the middle-grade reader.

There’s something very appealing about this audience. They’re old enough to understand humor and even sarcasm (in fact, some eleven-year-olds I know are Kings and Queens of Sarcasm).  By age nine, many children have mastered the mechanics of reading and they’re ready for challenging new vocabulary and themes that stretch their minds.

And best of all, middle-grade readers aren’t ready for all the angst, sexual issues, cussing, and violence that those Young Adult authors have to face head on when writing for teens. Right? I mean, the middle-grade genre is all about best friends and dogs and family vacations and…


If you dig, even not too deeply, you’ll probably find an interview in which I’m quoted saying something very similar to the previous paragraph. But I now know that when I had those thoughts, I was thinking about the middle-grade books of my youth, not today’s middle-grade kids.


My local school district has an “Intermediate” building for 5th and 6th graders. Last time I was there, I was surprised that most of the library books I saw being toted around by these ten- to twelve-year-olds were YA titles. They were devouring “The Hunger Games” and going ga-ga over “The Fault in Our Stars.”  Why weren’t they reading middle-grade books? Why weren’t they reading my books? Aren’t these the very students I (and other middle-grade authors) write for?

To find the answers, I think we have to look more closely at today’s nine- to twelve-year-old.  Here are some interesting facts* about the MG audience. Our MG audience:

In middle childhood, children might:

  • form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • feel very emotional about those friendships
  • encounter higher levels of peer pressure
  • notice bodily changes and have unanswered questions about their bodies
  • begin to develop body image issues such as eating disorders
  • feel the pressure of harder classwork and academic challenges
  • begin to see themselves apart from their family unit
  • experience fears such as: fear of disappointing parents or parents finding out about negative behaviors or thoughts
  • experience anxiety over their social standing
  • become more aware of community threats and dangers such as violence

Whoa. That’s a heavy list for kids who haven’t even hit their teens yet. But it’s reality and it’s our audience. These are the children for whom we write.

So, what does this mean? No more dogs and best friends and family vacations? Of course not. But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t shy away from the reality that is life for today’s middle grader. Sometimes parents go to prison. Aunts and uncles can be alcoholics. Preteens think about their sexuality. Gangs and violence don’t suddenly appear after age 13. Nine- to twelve-year-olds sometimes live in homes or communities that are dangerous.

It’s okay to address the tougher side of preteen life. As storytellers, we can choose the right measure of tact, honesty, and humor to soften the blows of middle grade reality.


What are your current favorite middle grade titles? I’d be willing to guess that beneath the general premise there are some serious issues which today’s middle graders understand all too well.

What do you think? Share your comments below!

*facts listed above come from:



Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She shares The Mark Boney Promise with young people at school and library visits in an effort to bring more kindness to classrooms everywhere.  Find Michelle at www.michellehouts.com. On Twitter and Instagram @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.