STAR-CROSSED Cover Reveal by Barbara Dee
I’m a straight woman, long and happily married to my college boyfriend. But when I was in middle school, I had a crush on my best friend. Who was a girl.
There, I said it.
I couldn’t say it back in middle school, because…well, you just didn’t. Even if the crushee knew (and in my case, she did– and yes, it was mutual), we realized that none of our friends would understand. Same-sex crushes weren’t a thing you admitted back in the seventies, at least not at my middle school.
I like to think things are different now, that kids are more accepting, that sexual orientation isn’t taken for granted–but in the case of 9-13 year olds, I’m not so sure. Yes, kids will tell you that they’re in favor of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage in the abstract. But how many of them would giggle nervously if they realized that Girl A, sitting next to them at lunch, blushes whenever she passes Girl B from the soccer team? And how many kids with a same-sex crush would deny it, hoping to avoid teasing, bullying, possibly even rejection (subtle or not) by their own friends? I’m guessing way too many.
As Lin-Manuel Miranda said when he won the Tony for Hamilton, “Love is love is love is love.” To that I would add: “A crush is a crush is a crush is a crush.” I wrote Star-Crossed to show a bright, pretty, funny, book-loving girl experiencing her first crush on another girl. Is Mattie a lesbian? Maybe yes, maybe no; the tween years are all about questioning, and she’s not ready to define herself. She simply has a crush on beautiful, talented Gemma, the British girl playing Juliet in the eighth grade production of Romeo & Juliet. But of course, a same-sex crush in middle school has its own complications. And when Mattie has to stand in for the boy cast as Romeo, she’s now onstage, in public, in front of friends and enemies and parents, saying Shakespeare’s words of love to her crushee. For her, it’s both a dream come true and a nightmare.
Because Mattie doesn’t have (or isn’t ready for) the words to describe herself or her emotions, she needs a language. I chose Shakespearean English both because no one ever wrote more beautifully about love or infatuation, and because so many of Shakespeare’s plays are about role-playing, hidden identity, secret relationships. In fact, at first I had a hard time deciding which of his plays to choose as the backdrop of my story. A Midsummer Night’s Dream? As You Like It? Twelfth Night?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that only Romeo & Juliet would work. Middle grade readers know this play even if they haven’t read it or seen it performed; it’s embedded in our culture. My plan was to use the play as much as possible, plotting Star-Crossed on a track parallel to Shakespeare’s play: The Capulets and the Montagues became rival school cliques. Willow (Tybalt) throws a Halloween party but doesn’t invite Mattie, who sneaks in, disguised as Darth Vader. That’s where she meets and flirts with Gemma, who assumes that underneath the costume, Mattie is a boy. And so on.
I have to confess that it scared me a little to be writing a plot so dependent on R&J, mostly because I didn’t know it that well. I’d read it several years ago, and I’d seen it performed both in theaters and on the screen. (Is there a better movie adaptation than Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet? I doubt it.) But the thing is, I’d never taught it to students. When I was a high school English teacher, I taught Shakespeare all the time, but never this play. As many teachers will tell you, there’s nothing like teaching a text to make you know it inside and out.
Once I got over my hesitation, writing the manuscript with Shakespeare’s play propped up beside my computer was a blast, the most fun I’ve ever had with a book project. I especially enjoyed writing the scenes in which the kids interpret and passionately argue about the play with their teacher, the dynamic but increasingly frazzled Mr. Torres. And teachers, please take my word for this: Romeo & Juliet is PERFECT for middle school readers. The language is often shockingly easy, conversational and direct. It’s also really funny. Plus, as Mr. Torres tells his class, it’s about an eighth grade girl. Juliet is thirteen, “not yet fourteen.” You could even say that the two leads are passionately in crush–as opposed to love–with each other. (That’s not what I think, but it’s arguable.)
Of course, Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy. Star-Crossed is a comedy with a positive, affirming but somewhat unresolved ending. It’s a celebration of smart girls, theater and Shakespeare. But mostly it’s a celebration of middle school romance, whatever form it takes, whatever label you use (or not). And my middle school self thinks it’s high time for that.
Barbara Dee writes humorous fiction for tweens. She is the author of THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, TRAUMA QUEEN, THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE, all of which are published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Her newest book, TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin/S&S) launches on September 20. Her next book, STAR-CROSSED, will launch March 2017. Barbara is one of the founders and directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, now in its fourth year. A former English teacher and lawyer, she lives in Chappaqua, NY with her family, rescue hound, Ripley, and two naughty cats.
When we were discussing the concept for this jacket, we wanted to convey a sense of the Romeo and Juliet play and themes that are explored throughout the story, while showcasing Mattie and Gemma and their relationship. Rather than hiring a “traditional” illustrator, our art director, Karin Paprocki, reached out to a cut-paper artist, Yan Gabriella. Once we gave her the concept, she sent along an initial layout of how the cut paper would set, along with paper samples so we could see what colors she was thinking. Once she got the green light on concept and palette, she literally cut hundreds of pieces of paper to form the gorgeous end result that you see here. Karin and I are reminded of stained glass when we looked at the final product, and we adore it!
–Alyson Heller, Editor
Aladdin, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing