Last week we looked at some YA titles that celebrated the “coming out” of gay and lesbian characters. “Young Adult” has traditionally been the accepted age category for exploring these themes, but since homosexuality is considered a civil rights issue rather than a privacy issue like abortion, the dogma is bound to extend to middle-grade fiction sooner or later. And so it has, though not in the same way. Gay themes are more likely to be a subplot at this age, or addressed indirectly. But two highly-praised novels of 2012 may signal a shaking of taboos in different ways:
See You at Harry’s, by Jo Knowles (Candlewick) and recommended for ages 10 and up, is mainly about a family tragedy: Charlie, the loveable and exasperating little brother of 12-year-old protagonist Fern, dies of a rare ailment triggered by an accident for which she feels responsible. It’s a moving exposition of how a family struggles to keep grief from tearing them apart. Besides a dorky dad, a distracted mom, and a snarky older sister, the older brother of the family, 14-year-old Holden, has recently accepted the fact that he’s gay. His siblings know it, but their parents don’t–will the revelation be crisis upon crisis? The whole subplot feels a bit tacked-on; I can see how it relates to the theme of family members learning to accept each other’s differences as they piece their lives together again, but the author raises other problems that aren’t addressed.
If Holden were engaged in a fumbling relationship with another boy at his school that would be one thing. But he’s become involved—just how involved isn’t clear–with Gray, an 18-year-old boy from a private academy, who has a fancy car and nice clothes and is attracted to Holden because . . . ? When their dad learns of the relationship, he claims to be most concerned about the age difference, but the kids brush off that concern: Dad is really upset about Holden’s sexual orientation. The author seems to brush it off, too, which is very odd. Would there not be a similar concern if Holden were a freshman girl, dating a senior boy? But no—if it’s gay, it’s okay. Holden’s friend Gray also displays a streak of phoniness, another sinister note that isn’t followed up. At the end it turns out to be much ado about nothing: he and Holden decide they’ll break up and just be friends—in fact, they’ll help each other find boyfriends. Presumably the relationship was beneficial to both, but it’s time to move on.
Riiight. This sunshiny picture planted in the head of a 12-year-old won’t stand up to real life, in nine cases out of ten. One can only hope that your average sixth-grader are too canny to buy it, but that’s a risky proposition.
Drama, by Raina Telgemeir, looks like fun: a graphic novel about putting on a play! Right up my alley. Unfortunately the title has a double meaning. As the story opens, Eucalyptus Middle School is getting ready to put on their annual full-dress musical production; this year it’s a cheesy Civil-War romance called Moon Over Mississippi. Callie is stage-struck from way back but unfortunately she can’t sing. So she serves her muse backstage—behind the scenes is where the magic happens, anyway. Her friend Matt does lights and Matt’s big brother Greg plays football and doesn’t seem to notice Callie’s huge crush on him, partly because of his obnoxious girlfriend Bonnie. But the show must go on, and the appearance of twins Justin and Jesse make it a lot more interesting. Justin is over-the-top gay (He loooooves musicals!!), while Jesse is more subdued. To Justin’s disappointment, the male lead goes to West and (to Callie’s disgust) Bonnie gets the female lead. Justin soon has a mild crush on the stage manager but Jesse seems to like Callie, and there’s an 8th-grade prom coming up, and West and Bonnie become an item and . . . See how we got the title “drama”?
All goes reasonably well until the last performance, which threatens to become a disaster when Bonnie gets in a snit and refuses to go on and her understudy is unavailable. So . . . Jesse dons a dress, sings the part, and brings down the house. Is he’s gay too, or just a cross-dresser? And how about that West? He might be a Q, or a Bi, but there’s a whole lotta sexual deviancy goin’ on—we’ve covered just about every letter in the LGBTQ spectrum, and these kids aren’t even in high school yet. They don’t get past smooching and cuddling, but since it’s a graphic novel, we see everything.
Where to start? For one thing, the proportion seems awfully high, even for the musical stage. The most comprehensive surveys show that the entire LGBT population is no more than 3.3% of the public at large. Here, it’s something like 50%. Second, I have big problems with the “bisexual” designation. It can’t be a true orientation, or else there goes the old argument that homosexuality is hard-wired (except when it isn’t). All it means to be bisexual is that you’re open to experimentation, and how many 12-year-olds can be expected to understand that? And the third thing: “drama” usually pertains to school-age intrigue between boys and girls. Shane likes Kayla who liked him last week but now is making eyes at Michael, who’s interested in Caity who won’t look at him since he cheated on her with Aimee . . . all that is distracting and silly enough, but now we must extend the silliness to Adam and Steve. It confuses the issue of sexual identity more than it already is at this age, making homosexual attraction a normal part of middle school “drama.”
Go back to the garden for a minute. Remember the original temptation: Did God really say . . . ? Is this really a sin? Are we beating up on these kids when we should be encouraging them? Letting them achieve their greatest happiness? Can a God so ready to say “Thou shalt not” be worth obeying?
Remember, it looked like just another tree, with very good-looking fruit. Once the suggestion was planted, they couldn’t stop wondering why God was keeping them from it. What could be the harm? They soon found out, and all human history has shown, the consequences of substituting our own order for God’s. At the moment we’re questioning what harm homosexuality does to us, and how can it hurt to accept the lifestyle on a par with any other. What harm? Nobody knows the answer to that, specifically. We just know the consequences of going our own way, and they’re pretty dreadful.
Don’t miss Emily’s review of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: Rosaria Butterfield’s journey out of lesbianism.