Cover Reveal: MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU by Barbara Dee
How do you write a book about sexual harassment without any sexual content?
This was my challenge in writing MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU. Ever since the #MeToo movement got rolling last year, I knew I wanted to write a middle grade novel about the “boys-will-be-boys” behavior which, if unchecked, eventually leads to the kind of sexual harassment we’ve been hearing about in the news. The book needed to be set in middle school–because according to education experts, middle school is where this behavior begins.
It usually starts small. An obnoxious joke, a comment about a girl’s (developing) body. A poke, a bump in the hallway. An unwanted hug. An inappropriate post online.
And my idea was: If we can get kids–all kids, girls AND boys– to read a novel from the perspective of a seventh grader who’s being harassed, maybe we can start the conversation earlier, in the room where it (first) happens. Maybe if boys read how the volatile combination of teasing/bullying/flirting feels TO A GIRL, they’ll empathize. And maybe if girls read about Mila, a girl who learns to take control of the situation, they’ll feel more powerful, less alone.
This topic felt urgent to me, given everything going on in our culture and politics. It also felt personal, as I remembered my own middle school experience–how every day I had to avoid the main stairwell, because that was where girls got groped. Looking back, I’m shocked that we never talked about the groping to any teacher, guidance counselor, school administrator, or parent. I guess it wasn’t only that we felt embarrassed; we also accepted the groping as inevitable. Gross and upsetting, for sure, but also “typical middle school boy behavior.” Of course, we knew plenty of boys who didn’t behave this way, but somehow we weren’t surprised by those who did.
And are things different now? Are girls who are being harassed in this way more likely to seek help from adults? Not necessarily, according to a middle school psychologist I interviewed as background for the novel. She told me that while she rarely hears about such incidents directly from girls themselves, she knows this behavior happens at school all the time, “under the radar.” Usually, she told me, it happens during those less supervised times of the day–at lunch, at recess, in the hallways. When girls do tell her about it, they’re confused and upset, often describing tensions that spill over into their own social circles.
Talking to this school psychologist convinced me that there was plenty of material here for a novel. But I still wondered if I could write it in a way that was distinctly middle grade–meaningful for kids, but also acceptable for vigilant gatekeepers. I’d already written middle grade novels about anorexia, a same-sex crush, and recovery from cancer–but I knew that a middle grade novel about the origins of sexual harassment would be especially tricky. I needed to do justice to this timely, sensitive topic, but in a way that would connect with easily embarrassed, sometimes immature middle grade readers. I also needed to reassure adults who didn’t want their kids reading YA-like subject matter.
So I decided to use uncontroversial, standard MG language (the edgiest words here are “butt” and “boobs,” and they’re used sparingly). I focused on microaggressions–unwanted hugs, chairs pulled too close, jokey comments–and Mila’s emotional reactions to those encounters. (Why her? Is she being “too sensitive”? Overreacting? Who can she tell without being told to “just ignore” the boys’ behavior?) As I always do when writing about a sensitive subject, I included plenty of humor. And subplots–stuff about band and karate, a bratty little sister, drama with friends. Also an unexpected connection with a teacher Mila reveres.
Will middle grade fiction like MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU end sexual harassment? Of course not. But if it helps kids to start talking to each other–and even better, listening–maybe it will move the needle a little.
Because seriously, folks, it’s time.
Barbara Dee is the author of nine middle grade novels which tackle sensitive topics. Everything I Know About You (2018) is one A Mighty Girl’s Best of 2018, and is a JLG selection. Halfway Normal (2017) which earned starred reviews from Kirkus and SLJ, is a 2018 CBC Notable Trade Book for Young People, a Finalist for the Mark Twain Award by the Missouri Association of School Librarians, and on state lists in Pennsylvania and Vermont. Star-Crossed (2017) is a 2018 ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, a 2018 Goodreads Choice Finalist, and on Best of 2017 lists by public libraries of Chicago, Seattle and Cleveland Heights.Maybe He Just Likes You, which explores the “boys-will-be-boys” origins of sexual harassment in middle school, will be published by Aladdin/S&S on 9/3/2019. Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.