Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, 288 pp, RL5
Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee
Purchased from First Book
Published in 2016, Star-Crossed follows twelve-year-old Mattie as she navigates the waters of eighth grade, from crashing a party she didn't get invited to, to the all-grade production of Romeo and Juliet to understanding and embracing her feelings for British transplant Gemma. While studious, quiet Mattie surprises her friends by auditioning for a part in the production, she delights her English teacher, Mr. Torres, who recognizes her gift for understanding literature and memorization. When popular guy (and crush of many) Liam wins the roll of Romeo but struggles with the part, Mr. Torres asks Mattie to help him learn his lines and she is happy to do so, as it means more time with Gemma, who is playing Juliet. When Liam drops out of the play and Mr. Torres asks Mattie to step into the role of Romeo, much to Gemma's approval.
Thinking about all the things she likes about Gemma, Mattie wonders if, when added up, they "equal a crush." It's exciting to follow Mattie as her crush grows. From noticing the way that Gemma's scent makes her "head all swimmy," to the way she looks for Gemma in the halls, "zooming" when she finally spots her, and especially the way she feels when Gemma says Mattie's name, pronouncing the ts in her name "as if she were cutting them out in little stars," Dee's writing soars. While Mattie has moments of worry about what her classmates might think/do/say if they find out she likes a girl, Dee keeps Mattie's world largely tolerant and free of homophobia. And, she has Mattie tell her friends that she has not ruled out the possibility of getting a crush on a boy in the future. When rehearsing Romeo's line comparing his own lips to blushing pilgrims, a student asks, "Isn't that kind of gay?" Mr. Torres's response is swift and clear, letting him know that, "People may choose to identify themselves as gay, and it's a word of pride. But the way you're using the word, it's just an insult, and there's no room for that in this production, or in this school. Understood?" Mattie's best friend, Lucy Yang, sees her feelings for Gemma, but promises Mattie she wait for her to share this with their friend Tessa. Mattie confides first in her college-age sister, later sharing her feelings with Mr. Torres when she finds it challenging to act as Gemma's love interest. Mr. Torres encourages Mattie to take her feelings for Gemma and use them to inform her acting. Dee even has Mattie and Gemma share stage kisses. The final page of the novel finds Gemma thanking Mattie for being her, "one true Romeo," and giving Mattie, who finally shares her true feelings with Gemma, a kiss on the cheek.
This is the sweetly perfect, gentle romance that I wanted my daughter to read 15 years ago when she was in middle school and starting to get crushes. I wish she had had a book like Star-Crossed to show her that there were other kids out there feeling what she was feeling. I am very impressed that this novel was published four years ago, although not surprised to hear that it faced backlash. In an interview with School Library Journal from 2017, Dee shared the homophobia she confronted during school visits, being asked NOT to talk about Star-Crossed to sixth grade classes. While Dee celebrated when books like George, Lily and Duncan, Gracefully Grayson and Better Nate Than Ever, were published, she wondered, "why there wasn't middle grade fiction about a girl's crush on another girl?" and was inspired. Happily, four years after Star-Crossed hit the shelves, there are books like Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt, Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles, and many more titles that you can peruse at LGBTQ Reads on their list of middle grade reads that is sorted by queer cis-male protagonists, queer cis-female protagonists, transgender girls, transgender boys, intersex characters and non-binary main characters AND denotes BIPOC main characters!