This is the first time I am attempting Middle Grade Monday, as I was encouraged by my dear friend Vikki VanSickle. We discuss middle grade a lot, and I always appreciate Vikki’s recommendations when she finds a new middle grade novel to squee over. I thought for my first post for this Middle Grade Monday, I’d look at a topic that has kind of hit me in the face recently, and that is LGBT representation in middle grade fiction, particularly in the books We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen (2015) and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun
by Jacqueline Woodson (1995).
One thing that I found interesting about both We Are All Made of Molecules and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun was the approach to the protagonists having homosexual parents. In We Are All Made of Molecules, Ashley’s father comes out as being gay and end ups moving outside the family home and into the guest house in the backyard. Ashley spends a lot of the novel struggling with he father’s newfound sexual identity and blames him for the divorce because of this. Interestingly, Stewart, Ashley’s step-brother, is the one who ends up be-friending Ashley’s father, ultimately treating him as though his sexual preference shouldn’t matter. It’s an interesting parallel in the novel, as Ashley worries frequently that her classmates are going to find out about her gay father and start treating her like she’s a “gay lover.”
I could empathize with Ashley in this situation, even if I didn’t agree with her behaviour. She spends a lot of the novel questioning if she’s going to be come “like him” and feels as though because her father is gay, her social world is completely over. She blames him for everything going wrong in her life because she cannot accept that her parents aren’t together anymore, and that her father is a gay man. It’s interesting, therefore that it’s Stewart who forges a relationship first with Ashley’s father — but Stewart being an outcast in the story I feel is why their connection is so instantaneous, Stewart has nothing to judge Ashley’s father on and therefore is able to listen and share his feelings in an honest and open way. What I loved even more in We Are All Made of Molecules is how long it takes Ashley to befriend her father again. It felt very realistic given the situation and how long it takes her to learn to accept others (including Stewart), and it makes for some wonderful character development.
Similarly, I read From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson, a book that was already tackling what We Are All Made of Molecules did back in 1995. In Woodson’s novel, Melanin Sun’s mother also has a sexual awakening and attempts to tell her twelve year old son that she is a lesbian who happens to be in love with a white woman. Melanin has so much angry towards her mother, stating that she has ruined their family by not essentially being hetrosexual. Moreover, he outright asks his mother why she can’t “be like everyone else,” making the assumption that everyone is hetrosexual. What I loved in this particular novel is that Woodson doesn’t shy away from the topic, but she still fuses strong family values into the narrative as her way of approaching the topic. Melanin thinks that because his mother is a lesbian that there is something wrong with his family, that she won’t love him anymore, and that he might “become gay.” The resolving conversation is what won me over in this novel, as his mother states that gay or straight, love is love and it shouldn’t matter who Melanin Sun wants to become in his life and that you shouldn’t be constrained to your sexual identity. Since Melanin and Mama grew up in a single family household, he has a harder time accepting Kristin, his mother’s lover because she is a white privileged woman. He even goes as far to say “What would people think of a black woman dating a white woman?” to which Mama states that “it shouldn’t matter.” However, Melanin refuses to get to know Kristin because of what he has pre-conceived as the truth, which is the other problem.
I really loved when Mama tells him that he shouldn’t pass judgement on someone he doesn’t know and that he needs to try and accept Kristin. Woodson does this phenomenal job by the end of the novel in making Melanin see the error in his ways, and while he hasn’t totally accepted them by the end of the novel, you can see that he has somewhat changed his tune.
Both of these novels explode children having homosexual parents in such a realistic and valuable way. While both Melanin and Ashley has the same response to their parents newfound sexual identity, it’s interesting how both novels have very similar outlooks on this subject matter. Both authors do a great job of exploring the topic on a level that a middle grader can understand and comprehend, while being able to see a clear resolve to the situation. Both novels open a dialogue for children and parents to discuss the topic, which is ultimately why they both work so well. I definitely would recommend checking out both these middle grade novels if this is a topic that interests you. We need more approaches to LGBT in middle grade, and I feel like both We Are All Made of Molecules and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun successfully investigate this topic with such an open eye.
If you have any recommendations for other middle grade novels that focus on LGBT issues, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!