I hadn’t planned to write a MeToo story for middle grade readers.
I was waiting for my editor to get back to me with editorial notes for another middle grade novel I’d written, MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK. My longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, had offered me a two-book deal–FISH TANK plus whatever else I wrote next. Of course I was delighted with this deal, but also a little worried, because in winter 2018 I had no idea what that second book would be.
But as I waited for the editorial notes for Book #1, I had a lot of time to follow the news.
And all the news was about Harvey Weinstein and other famous men accused of sexual harassment–or worse–towards women with less power in the workplace.
Where did this behavior come from, I wondered. It couldn’t have started when these men were full-grown adults. It had to have an origin in boyhood, right?
I did some research online, reading articles by education experts that pinpointed sexually harassing behavior as originating in middle school. Seventh grade, these experts said. When I mentioned this to several teachers, they told me that actually, they saw it earlier–in fifth grade. Even in second and third.
I started thinking about own my middle school experience, how I’d taught myself to avoid taking the main staircase, which was where girls got groped. I thought about my daughter, who one day had asked me to drive her home from middle school, because she “didn’t like the bus.” At the time she didn’t tell me why, but later I learned that certain boys were “misbehaving” in a way that made her feel powerless and uncomfortable. And with only a driver on the bus to supervise, there was no adult to witness it, she thought.
I spoke to moms of current middle schoolers, who confided that their daughters had similar experiences. One of these moms suggested I interview a middle school psychologist in a nearby town who might be willing to speak candidly. So I reached out.
This school psychologist told me that sexual harassment happened in her middle school all the time. But typically “under the radar” of adults, she said–in the lunchroom, on the bus, at the lockers, where no adults are present. Usually she heard about it indirectly, not from the target of the harassment, but from the target’s friends, who were often confused and upset. She also heard about it when kids came to her about “friendship problems”–and with a little digging, discovered that one girl’s harassment was at the root of tensions within the group.
So by spring, I knew there was plenty of material for a middle grade novel. But was there one on this subject already on the bookshelf? There had to be, given the pervasiveness of the problem.
It shocked me to discover that there wasn’t a middle grade book about sexual harassment–or the middle school version of it, which included unwanted hugs, sitting too close, mean jokes about girls’ bodies. Of course, such microaggressions didn’t rise to the level of Harvey Weinstein-style assault. But for a girl going through puberty, self-conscious about her developing body, this behavior could be painful and humiliating. And when her protests were ignored or mocked, a girl’s self-esteem could plummet in dangerous ways.
I started writing, telling myself that I was merely scribbling notes for Book #2 in the two-book deal, and that I’d turn to Book #1 as soon as I had my editor’s notes.
But Book #2 was getting written fast–so fast it felt like it was pouring out of me. I even had a title–MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU–which helped me to focus on the story I wanted to tell. And as the spring turned to summer, and Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, I realized that this book needed to come out as soon as possible.
I called my editor, Alyson Heller at Simon & Schuster, to ask if we could flip the order of the two books in my contract–if MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU could be published ASAP, a whole year before MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK.
To my great relief, she agreed, even though that meant S&S would have to accelerate its production schedule for a book they hadn’t read and that I hadn’t even finished.
But I quickly did. It was surreal revising and doing copyedits for MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU while watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford on television–but I was able to include her testimony about the sting of “the laughter” in MAYBE’s climactic scene. (I doubt many kids will pick up on it, but there it is.)
I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for this book, the deeply emotional reactions it’s produced, the stories I’ve heard. I can’t say I’m happy to have written this story. It wasn’t easy to tell (despite the hopeful ending). But I am happy that this is a time when a book like MAYBE could have been written. And published. And read.
And I really hope the subject matter is discussed openly, in schools and around the kitchen table. Because as the #MeToo movement shows, exposing behavior to daylight is the only way to effect change.
Published October 1st, 2019 from Aladdin
About the Book: For seventh grader Mila, it starts with an unwanted hug on the school blacktop.
The next day, it’s another hug. A smirk. Comments. It all feels…weird. According to her friend Zara, Mila is being immature, overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?
But it keeps happening, despite Mila’s protests. On the bus, in the halls. Even during band practice-the one time Mila could always escape to her “blue-sky” feeling. It seems like the boys are EVERYWHERE. And it doesn’t feel like flirting–so what is it?
Mila starts to gain confidence when she enrolls in karate class. But her friends still don’t understand why Mila is making such a big deal about the boys’ attention. When Mila is finally pushed too far, she realizes she can’t battle this on her own–and finds help in some unexpected places.
About the Author: 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’s 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.
Thank you, Barbara, for writing about this for middle schoolers! It is a topic that needs to be talked about; we’re glad this book exists!