One of the most impressive and much-needed movements in the last two decades of young adult fiction has been the inclusion of LGBT protagonists. Throughout the twentieth century, gay teenagers had to look outside of the young adult genre for literary representations of homosexuality in fiction, but since 1999, multiple authors have risked controversy, rejections from editors, and lack of book sales by writing about the contemporary experiences of gay teenagers in this country. Through the courage of such authors as David Levithan, Alex Sanchez, Benjamin Alire Saenz, and Emily M. Danforth, to name only a few, the gay young adult genre has been booming, with the releases in the year 2015 alone of at least twenty-five major YA novels. The young adult genre is being flooded with new LGBT titles each year, a great trend that will hopefully continue, but as promising as this news is, another genre for young readers is still, even in recent years, almost completely lacking of LGBT protagonists and content. Only one author — the award-winning Tim Federle — is currently pushing the boundaries for gay middle grade fiction, despite intense opposition, in his books Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate.
There is a long history of middle grade fiction that encompasses the work of many famous stories penned by authors who have presented a welcome dose of diversity. Such notable middle grade titles of the twentieth century include Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, and Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. The most popular middle grade fiction of the last twenty years is the Harry Potter series, although many could argue that only the first three books in the seven-book series are middle grade, and that books four through seven, which become progressively darker and introduce romantic themes, are more geared toward a young adult audience. Since the massive success of the young adult novel Twilight in 2005, more authors have turned to writing YA than middle grade, and in return, fewer classics of the middle grade genre have been recently produced, although a handful have broken through as popular reads for both kids and adults. R.J Palacio’s 2012 middle grade novel Wonder, about a boy trying to navigate the horrors of middle school while suffering from a major face abnormality, won the Mark Twain Award and has been a bestseller since its release, and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s 2013 middle grade novel Counting by 7s, about a twelve-year-old genius who deals with the unexpected deaths of her parents, won the Children’s Literature Council Award and has also been a success. Young readers of middle grade books want to soak up all the information they can, and so stories about all walks of life should be represented in these works — unfortunately, they’re nowhere close.
Middle grade fiction can be both literary and speculative, can feature protagonists with various goals and dreams, with different head and brain sizes, but where’s the LGBT content? Generally geared toward readers nine to twelve years old, the middle grade genre for the most part has focused entirely on heterosexual characters. The first reason for this is that in the children’s market, narratives about love and romance are typically explored more in young adult fiction. Many agents and editors believe that readers under the age of thirteen can’t handle love stories that go anything beyond a crush or a first kiss, and so any stories that focus on dating or sex are better suited for the YA market. If little to no romance is allowed in middle grade fiction, how are authors able to tell a story about a gay youth realistically and effectively? At least in young adult fiction, an author can tell a love story. In middle grade fiction, the author can barely touch on romantic themes, making it all the more difficult to incorporate LGBT material.
The second reason middle grade fiction typically features only heterosexual characters is that, since readers of middle grade fiction are so young, librarians around the country feel suited to ban any books they feel may be unsuited for their readers. While book censorship is an action many frown upon, it’s no hidden secret that librarians still in 2015 actively ban books they feel to be inappropriate, and for some reason, middle grade novels with LGBT content are typically the first to be condemned. This is not to say that no middle grade novels with LGBT content have ever been released — a few significant titles have been traditionally published in the last ten years. David Walliams’ 2008 middle grade novel The Boy in the Dress tells of a boy in sixth grade who starts dressing up in girls’ clothes because they feel more comfortable to him, although the novel never addresses if he’s attracted to boys or girls. Raina Telgemeier’s 2014 middle grade graphic novel Drama features a supporting character in the school’s drama club who happens to be gay. And in Rick Riordan’s mega-popular The Heroes of Olympus series, a minor character of the series comes out as gay toward the end of book four, The House of Hades.
However, the most significant traditionally published middle grade titles currently on bookshelves that feature a gay protagonist at the center of the narrative are Tim Federle’s 2013 debut novel Better Nate Than Ever and its 2014 sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate. Federle had initial struggles on the way to publication with his debut, Better Nate Than Ever. There was concern if readers as young as seven or eight would necessarily be ready to read about a main character who’s coming to terms with his attraction to other boys, but the book is so well-written — funny and engaging and inspiring and truthful — that ultimately Federle’s agent managed to secure him a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, and the response from both kid and adult readers, for the most part, has been extraordinary.
Published in February 2013, Better Nate Than Ever tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a Broadway star. Nate Foster is only in the eighth grade, but he knows he wants to be on Broadway. Unfortunately he doesn’t live in New York; he lives in Jankburg, Pennsylvania. So he devises a plan, with help from his pal Libby, to get on a bus, head to New York, and audition for what he thinks is the perfect role — Elliot, in the new Broadway spectacular E.T. The Musical. He has to work hard to get the part, and deal with varying obstacles, like taking forever to find the audition room, getting mistakenly sent home when the director actually wanted to see him again, and surviving endless callbacks. Nate also starts to notice something about the other boys, something he’s been trying to hide but no longer can. Better Nate Than Ever is about following your dream, no matter the obstacles, no matter the expectations. As funny and silly at times this book is, Nate’s central desire is one to take ultra-seriously because it’s one the reader knows will save his life, in a time when he may feel so alienated from everything around him that he might not want to go on.
Better Nate Than Ever has received mostly praise from critics and readers. Many of the reviews comment on the effective narration and humor of the narrative, and many also make reference to the homosexuality subtext in the book. The only readers who have been critical of the book are parents who disagree with Nate being homosexual in a novel aimed at children. Readers like these are the root of the problem I have addressed in this essay, because when enough parents vocally disapprove of homosexuality being incorporated in middle grade fiction, the books won’t sell, and agents won’t be able to sell such titles to New York publishers, no matter how subtle the gay subtext may be.
The LGBT themes are subtle in Better Nate Than Ever, and they only play a small role in Nate’s growth. While at the beginning of eighth grade, Nate isn’t entirely sure if he’s a homosexual or not, it’s obvious from the beginning that he is gay, and I loved the way Federle handled this aspect to the character. Although the LGBT youth are coming out earlier and earlier these days, sometimes even before middle school, Nate is initially undecided on his preference, with Federle even giving him an aside in parentheses where Nate tells the reader he’s undecided. In addition, there is a tender moment toward the end where Nate sees two boys kissing that makes an impression on him. Federle wisely never makes a big deal out of Nate’s sexuality, but he also never hides it, either. If he made homosexuality the point of Nate’s existence on every page, I could understand the concerns of parents handing this book over to their son or daughter, but Federle merely touches on the topic, making for any resistance from parents in online reviews and forums undeserved.
As much as Federle had to keep Nate’s sexuality mostly on the down-low in Better Nate Than Ever, though, the reasonable success of the book with readers allowed Federle to push the boundaries of sexuality further in his 2014 sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate, which received just as much praise from critics and readers as Better Nate Than Ever. In this follow-up novel, Nate doesn’t just find love; he gets to see all his dreams come true when he’s officially cast as Eliot in E.T. The Musical. While Better Nate Than Ever mostly deals with the auditioning process of Broadway shows, Five, Six, Seven, Nate shows the fascinating process of everything it takes to put on a major theatre production. Nate has to deal with other child stars who pretend to be more important than the lead of the show, he tries to befriend his understudy who may or may have a deeper romantic interest in Nate, and he wants to do right by the show’s director, even though he can’t remember Nate’s name. While the first book’s ticking time bomb was whether or not Nate would be cast in the show, the ticking time bomb of the second book is the opening night performance, which Federle keeps reminding the reader is coming closer and closer as the novel plugs along toward its warmhearted conclusion.
One could also argue that there’s a second ticking time bomb in Five, Six, Seven, Nate, and that’s the question of whether or not Nate will act on his feelings toward another boy in the show. While the LGBT themes are mostly subtle in Better Nate Than Ever, Nate’s sexuality is explored in even more details in this sequel, especially when he takes interest in his understudy of the show, Jordan. When Jordan finds Nate after the first preview of the show to congratulate him, the first gay kiss in traditionally published middle grade fiction takes place. Federle gives this pivotal moment at the end of Nate’s journey the perfect blend of sensuality and sweetness, this same-sex kiss receiving the same kind of detail in the prose that would be dedicated in other books to a kiss between a boy and girl. Federle could leave the homosexuality theme of the book here, with two thirteen-year-old boys merely sharing a first kiss that doesn’t necessarily guarantee any kind of future relationship, but instead he ends the entire book on a final chapter of text messages Nate and Jordan are sharing weeks after the show’s first preview. They partake in some cute banter for a few pages that ultimately ends with the two setting up a time to meet, with Jordan calling it, officially, a date. For Nate and Jordan to not only share a kiss but to also look toward a potential relationship together makes Five, Six, Seven, Nate the ultimate breakthrough in gay middle grade fiction.
The truth is that some LGBT youth develop romantic feelings for others of the same sex before the teen years even begin, and for little to no books of the middle grade genre to express the important idea that homosexual feelings are normal and okay is ludicrous. So thank God for Tim Federle, who could’ve chosen to make his protagonist Nate a heterosexual and possibly sell more copies and endure fewer headaches in the process, and instead made his main character gay and proud, and willing to kiss the boy he has a crush on. Federle will always have a few enemies for choosing to explore homosexual love in books aimed at kids as young as eight or nine, but his courage not to back down from opposition allows for more authors to break through the heavy armored gate, and — finally, better late than never — bring more gay middle grade fiction to the masses.