In two new middle-grade novels about modern tweendom – with LGBTQ themes – feisty young protagonists face grown-up problems with strength and conviction.
Skateboard Sibby introduces readers to a self-assured 11-year-old girl who has been shuttled off to her nan and pop’s house in Halifax. Her father just lost his job in Charlottetown and her parents need to regroup. The girl, named Sibby, is quick to adapt to her new school and new friends. And has no problem asserting herself when it comes to an alpha-male schoolyard bully.
Written by first-time Halifax author Clare O’Connor, Sibby beautifully captures kid feelings, life, and language. Everything is either “sick” or “dope” and people act like “jerk-faces” or “freak shows.”
Sibby has zero tolerance for bullying and stays true to her passion for skateboarding despite it being a bit of a boys’ club. Possessed of a high EQ, she faces her fears head-on when accepting a skate-off and shows integrity when generously offering her competitors advice on how to get their video reviewed by a YouTube expert. By the end of the book, she even shows compassion toward her foe (when the bully’s grandfather dies).
With an observational touch reminiscent of Judy Blume, O’Connor unravels her characters’ quirks and feelings. Within Sibby’s klatch of new-found friends, we meet Charlie Parker Drysdale, the chatty next-door neighbour who wears only sweater vests and eats Tofurky for lunch; fashion-obsessed and self-possessed Esther; and Hannah, the shy but insightful classmate who gets teased for her glasses and smarts. This likable group’s flaws, obsessions, and hang-ups are true to preteen behaviours and will feel authentic for middle-school readers.
Jeannie, the nine-year-old protagonist of Sapphire the Great, is perplexed about all of the sudden life changes that have been thrust upon her – including the fact that her mom and dad have split up and she doesn’t know why.
What Jeannie does know is that she wants a pet hamster. She’s saved up all of her Christmas money and is getting impatient. Jeannie makes her point with a lot of SHOUTING (presented in upper-case dialogue throughout the book) at both her newly single mom and her eye-rolling older brother. Jeannie finally gets her adorable domestic rodent and zany antics ensue.
Written by award-winning Saskatoon author Beverley Brenna, and illustrated by Tara Anderson, Sapphire the Great is full of zest. The book’s chapters alternate between the perspective of Jeannie and that of her pet hamster, the latter being a four-legged philosopher who waxes poetic about freedom and existentialism.
Throughout the novel, the theme of gender-nonconformity is present without being explicitly broken down or didactic. Originally given a male identity, the hamster is later identified as a female. And a casserole-cooking neighbour woman named Anna is described as having “bristles on her chin”; later we learn that she used to go by William.
Both these books contain positive LGBTQ characters and themes. Sibby mentions Charlie Parker Drysdale’s “two moms” and, in Sapphire, Jeannie’s dad has a new boyfriend. Brenna’s novel also directly challenges young readers to think beyond cisgender norms. These original stories would be helpful classroom resources to provide an entry point for anti-bias and inclusive language and to open up important conversations on gender, self-identity, and inclusivity.