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New Books for Tweens Tackle Sexual Harassment in Middle School

Two new books for tweens explore the little-discussed but widespread problem of sexual harassment in middle school.

The rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017 brought much-needed attention to the widespread problem of sexual harassment of adult women. There has been little discussion, however, about the harassment of tween and teen girls by their peers, and how the way we respond to that harassment shapes what girls and boys think is socially acceptable. With a nationwide study finding that 56% of girls in grades 7 to 12 report experiencing sexual harassment at school, authors have recently began to explore this important topic in their works for middle grade readers. And, whether read together at home or at a book club or in a classroom, such books provide an excellent opportunity for parents and educators to start timely and essential conversations about harassment and boundaries with tween girls and boys. 

Author Barbara Dee says she felt compelled to write about sexual harassment after following the many #MeToo stories in the news. "I began wondering: Where does this behavior come from? When does it start?" she says. "The answer I kept finding was 'seventh grade' — but I didn't see any middle grade fiction on this topic."  So she decided to write one and the result was Maybe He Just Likes You. "The title came to me early in the writing process, and helped to focus the story," Dee says. "Those words... are so familiar and so dangerous."

In the book, Mila is confused when some of the boys give her an unwanted hug on the playground — a little too long and a little too tight. But they're just being friendly... aren't they? Except then there is more unwanted contact, and jokes that she doesn't find funny, and even a scorecard that turns touching her into a game. When she tells them to stop, they laugh. But Mila isn't even sure how to talk about what they're doing: she can't articulate to others, particularly adults, why it feels so wrong. Even one of her friends tells her the boys are "just flirting," while another friend tells her that she should report them to the administration for bullying. The whole situation leaves Mila feeling unsure, scared, and alone.

Although Dee was eager to explore the topic in a middle grade novel, she knew it would pose some challenges. "For many gatekeepers, acknowledging the sexuality of middle schoolers is taboo," she points out. "I had to strike a very delicate balance with this book: I had to keep the harassment PG-rated, but at the same time do justice to Mila’s sense of violation.... The whole point of Maybe He Just Likes You is that this behavior does, in fact, occur in the safe, wholesome world of [middle grades] — and so for the purposes of this story, it needed to be resolved in a MG-appropriate way." She also wanted to highlight how witnessing what happens to Mila affects other students: "One thing I learned from interviewing a middle school guidance counselor for this book was that when sexual harassment happens in middle school, it violates not just the student being targeted, but the whole school community."

In the end, as Mia's confidence grows from karate classes, she feels ready to speak up — and when an especially cruel comment is the final straw, she's able to raise her voice and make sure the adults listen. Crucially, Dee says, the ending includes both consequences for her harassers that help them develop empathy for Mia's point of view, and adults acknowledging how their failure to discuss consent and boundaries played a part in what happened to her. "Even if middle schoolers are squeamish and uncomfortable, even if in some ways they seem too 'immature' for these topics, we can’t postpone talking about concepts like consent and boundaries until high school," Dee asserts. "If we’re going to stop the behavior,  we need to address it at inception."

Another new title shows how boys who aren't corrected can get caught up in misogynistic, boundary-breaching culture. Cathleen Barnhart says she wanted to tell "the story of one seventh-grade girl’s first #MeToo experience, told in alternating points of view by the girl, Sammie, and by her best friend, David, who’s on the other side of that experience." She describes her book That's What Friends Do as "a story about learning to listen to your own, inner voice, and to be true to who you are... [about] the misunderstandings that lead to the #MeToo moment and the missed opportunities for communication and healing afterwards."

In That's What Friends Do, Sammie and David have been best friends for years — but recently David has developed a crush on Sammie and he doesn't know how to tell her about his new and confusing feelings. When David's mother makes him spend extra time with a new boy in town, Luke, David is impressed by how easily Luke seems to "flirt" with girls, but feels like he's competition when Luke targets Sammie. Meanwhile, Sammie is feeling like David has left her behind, and she's upset that he doesn't understand that she finds Luke's aggressiveness disturbing, not flattering. Worse, Luke eggs David and the other boys on try to touch Sammie in ways that make her uncomfortable. When David crosses Sammie's boundaries in a particularly dramatic way on the school bus ride home, Sammie will not only have to figure out how to raise her voice about the problem, but also figure out if it's possible to remain friends with him afterwards, while David will have to untangle how he can properly apologize for what he's done.

Barnhart wanted as many kids as possible to see themselves in the pages of That's What Friends Do. "This is the lived experience of so many middle school girls and boys," she says. "Even someone who hasn’t had a #MeToo experience might have a friend who has.... I hope some kids say 'that’s me,' to either Sammie or David’s experience, and that the self-recognition gives them strength and courage." But she also hopes that adults will learn from the book about how to talk to kids about consent and boundaries, and equally importantly, how to see a situation through another person's eyes: "Books give children (and adults) a way to see a different path, other solutions to problems, other ways of behaving, and empathy."

Books About Teaching Boundaries and Respect at Every Age

Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect

Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect

Written by: Jayneen Sanders
Illustrated by: Sarah Jennings
Recommended Age: 4 - 7

It's important for kids to understand that bodies have boundaries, and that everyone has a right to their own personal space. Jayneen Sanders, an experienced early years educator, provides simple and familiar scenarios — from giving a hug to pushing to get to the front of a line — to illustrate how "body bubbles" surround everyone and how to figure out when and if it's okay to cross those boundaries. Throughout, she empowers kids to speak up if their body boundaries have been crossed. Notes at the end include suggestions for adults reading the book with kids to further the discussion, building an understanding of respect and consent that will serve them throughout their lives. For another of Sanders' books that empowers kids to assert their boundaries, check out My Body! What I Say Goes! for ages 3 to 7.

That's What Friends Do
New!

That's What Friends Do
New!

Written by: Cathleen Barnhart
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Samantha and David have been friends and Little League teammates for years, but recently David has realized he has a crush on Sammie — only he's not sure how to tell her. When a new boy named Luke hangs out with them, David envies how easily Luke flirts with Sammie, while Sammie doesn't understand why David can't see how uncomfortable she is. And when David badly violates Sammie's boundaries, it feels like it might be the end of their friendship — unless he can figure out a way to make things right. Told in dual perspectives, this important book will generate conversations about rape culture, consent, and positive relationships.

Maybe He Just Likes You

Maybe He Just Likes You

Written by: Barbara Dee
Recommended Age: 10 - 14

When Mila wears a fuzzy green sweater to school one day, and suddenly, several boys insist on hugging her, even when she doesn't want to. Before long, there are smirks, comments about her body, and more unwanted touching that leaves Mila feeling confused, frustrated, and a little scared. But when she talks to her friends about it, one tells her that she's being immature for overreacting to the boys "just flirting" – after all, she says, maybe he just likes you. Fortunately, a few new friends and a confidence boost from karate classes help her figure out how to set boundaries, stand up for herself, and seek out the adult support she needs to put an end to the harassment. Timely and important, this empowering book draws a clear line between wanted, reciprocal flirtation and Mila's experience, and explores issues of sexual harassment in a manner relatable to middle grade readers.

SHOUT

SHOUT

Written by: Laurie Halse Anderson
Recommended Age: 14 and up

In this searing and raw poetic memoir, bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson uses her life story to take an unflinching look at how little our culture has changed since she wrote her groundbreaking novel about sexual assault, Speak, twenty years ago. Anderson describes her own sexual assault when she was 13, her father's struggles with PTSD, and more. Anderson's emotionally gripping poems also remind readers that the greatest power in the world comes when you reclaim your own voice; "the rules they fed you/ were the wrong rules," she declares, rallying them to step up, speak out, and make the world different for a new generation of survivors.

Girl Made of Stars

Girl Made of Stars

Written by: Ashley Herring Blake
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Mara has always had an especially close relationship with her twin brother Owen, the only person who helped her stop withdrawing after a traumatic experience. Then Hannah, her best friend — and Owen's girlfriend — accuses Owen of rape, and Mara's world is turned upside down. Mara refuses to dismiss Hannah's accusation the way so many others, including her fiercely feminist mother, do, but believing Hannah means accepting that the brother she loves has done something terrible. Powerful and timely questions about consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault take the fore in this novel; resources for survivors are included at the back.

You Too? 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories

You Too? 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories

Recommended Age: 14 and up

The #MeToo movement prompted many women to reflect on their past experiences — and vow that they would do everything they could to prevent the girls of today from living through the same. Author Janet Gurtler created this thoughtful and raw collection to teach teens that sexual harassment, assault, and degradation are not normal, and that if they have survived them, they are not alone. With essays from Beth Reviszi Lee, Ellen Hopkins, Saundra Mitchell, Jennifer Brown, Cheryl Rainfield, and many more, this painful but important read serves as a reminder that, together, we can work for change.

I Have The Right To

A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope

I Have The Right To

A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope

Recommended Age: 15 and up

As a freshman at a prestigious New Hampshire boarding school, Chessy Prout was sexually assaulted as part of a ritualized game of conquest — and when she reported the assault and took her attacker to court, her school community turned on her. She was guaranteed anonymity if she chose, but instead she revealed her identity, challenging those who blame faceless victims to confront their prejudice, and demanding that institutions stop turning a blind eye to rape culture under their roof. This empowering story of survival turned into advocacy is a painful but critical read.

The Nowhere Girls

The Nowhere Girls

Written by: Amy Reed
Recommended Age: 15 and up

When Grace Salter moves to a new town, she's shocked to discover words scratched into the walls of her room — anguished messages that she can't forget. To find out what happened, she approaches two of her new school's misfits, Rosina, a queer Latinx punk rockers, and Erin, a Star Trek-loving girl with Asperger's. Rosita and Erin tell her the truth: the previous occupant of her room, Lucy Moynihan, accused three sports stars of gang raping her... and she was run out of town for it. Furious, Grace decides to create an anonymous group of girls who will resist the misogynistic culture of their school. The Nowhere Girls may start with only three voices, but they hope it can be the change their school desperately needs. This searing novel, told in alternating voices, explores attitudes to teen girls and sexuality, and the power of girls to rise up together.

Sexploitation

Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World

Sexploitation

Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World

Written by: Cindy Pierce

Kids are increasingly immersed in highly sexualized content — and that gives them a broad and often distorted depiction of what is acceptable in sexuality and relationships. Cindy Pierce, a sex educator and comic storyteller, show parents how they can talk about sexuality, pornography, and relationships with kids, establishing themselves as reliable, accessible sources of information when kids (accidentally or on purpose) see material that they find upsetting or confusing. The overall tone is one of optimism and confidence: parents can discuss these issues with their children, and those discussions can — and do — make a difference.

For Goodness Sex

Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health

For Goodness Sex

Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health

Written by: Al Vernacchio

With sex education today often leaving young adults ill-equipped to make safe decisions, they often turn to peers, the Internet, and the media, where they receive problematic messages about sex: boys are studs, girls are sluts; real sex should be like porn; hookups are better than relationships. In this book, sexuality educator Al Vernacchio offers a progressive and realistic approach that challenges traditional teaching models and instead embraces 21st century realities by promoting healthy sexuality, values, and body image in young people. Filled with real-life examples from the classroom, exercises and quizzes, and a wealth of sample discussions and crucial information, For Goodness Sex offers the tools and insights adults need to talk young people and help them develop healthy values and safe habits.

Written by: Peggy Orenstein
Recommended Age: Adults

Best-selling author Peggy Orenstein's book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape started an important conversation about the pressures girl and young women face, and their right to seek agency and pleasure in their sexual relationships. But Orenstein knew that was only half the conversation. Boys & Sex is the other half, exploring how boys and men are taught stereotypes and toxic masculinity that affects how they navigate their relationships and interact with the girls and women in their lives. After speaking to boys across the country, as well as academics and experts, Orenstein presents their experiences in an unflinching but thoughtful way that encourages us to create a new vision of manhood and male sexuality — one that leads to better lives for both boys and girls.

Price: $5.07

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Recommended Age: Adults

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey weren't the first reporters to hear tales about Harvey Weinstein's treatment of women; rumors had circulated for years. Their 2017 investigation — which would win the Pulitzer Prize — involved confidential interviews with actresses and employees, which not only revealed allegations, but also the web of payouts, nondisclosure agreements, and legal threats that kept women silent. And even that didn't prepare them for the cultural response to their New York Times story, which galvanized the #MeToo movement as women around the world told their own stories of harassment and abuse. In this thrilling story of the power of investigative journalism, Kantor and Twohey tell their story and reflect on how they hope it will change the world for future generations of women.

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