Sunday, March 15, 2020

Me, Too! Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee

"Circle of Friendship! Ooh, that's perfect, Mila!" said Zara.
"HAPPPYYY BIIIRRTHDAAAY!" Zara shouted. She pulled Omi inside the circle. "Birthday hug! Everyone in!

The four of us crowded into the O and threw our arms around each other. "Okay, this is great, but promise you won't sing "Happy Birthday!" Omi was giggling.

"Sorry, Omi. It's required by headquarters," Zara replied.

We were just up to "Happy Birthday, dear OOOO-mi!" when something brushed my shoulders. A hand.

Suddenly we were surrounded by the basketball boys--Callum, Leo, Dante, and Tobias. Now the song was over, but the hug was still happening, Callum's hand clamping the fuzz of my green sweater. I wriggled my shoulder, but Callum's hand was squeezing. And not leaving.

Something is different in seventh grade. Zara just shrugs at the too-long birthday hug and says it was sweet, but in band class Mila feels Callum's hand sliding across her shoulder. And a few days later, something else happens.
"Mila! Today's my birthday!" Leo smiled, a cute-boy sort of smile.
"We all hugged Omi for her birthday," said Dante. "Zara hugged Leo five minutes ago. On the bus."

"Okay, fine." I said, pretending to laugh. I walked over to Leo, threw my arms around him and squeezed once. "Happy birthday."

Then Mila finds out that it was not Leo's birthday at all. She feels weird about being tricking into the hug, but Zara says it's just boy teasing. Still, in the next few days one or the other of the basketball boys pushes too close to her on the bus. Tobias abruptly hugs her on the playground and the others cheer. Zara says it's just flirting. But then, at her locker, Mila realizes that the things that have happened are not just happenstance, or teasing, or flirting, or even bullying. Still she doesn't know a word to describe what she is feeling.
That was when I felt it. Someone's hand grabbing my butt.

And then Mila finds out that all the unwanted touching is part of a game among the basketball team, all of them keeping score of their points on their phones. Mila tries talking to a guidance counselor, who advises her to ignore the boys until they grow up a little. She tries to start a conversation with her mother, who is too upset over losing her job to really focus.

Teasing? Flirting? Bullying?

Finally, at the fall band concert Callum whispers something to her that makes Mila do something dramatic which exposes the whole game, and her band teacher gives the boys' behavior a name--sexual harassment. In her latest novel, Maybe He Just Likes You (Aladdin, 2019), noted author Barbara Dee takes on that behavior. It's not an easy subject to discuss, especially in a middle-school setting, but that may be the best time to address it, at the point at which young people become more aware of each other as more than classmates.

Barbara Dee deals sensitively with those first feelings about the opposite sex, the awkwardness of seventh and eighth grade boys and girls with dealing with each other. Dee sensitively reveals the different reactions among the girls without demonizing the boys, showing how Mila and Callum, with their mutual love of music, can move toward a respectful relationship. This latest book with its varied and well-developed characters and realistic family setting offers readers a way to begin thinking about that issue for themselves.

Says Publishers Weekly's starred review, "The novel’s all-too-familiar scenario offers a springboard for discussion among middle schoolers about Mila’s experience, as well as her confusion, fear, and reluctance to discuss her situation with authority figures. Easily grasped scenarios and short chapters help make this timely #MeToo story accessible to a wide audience." 

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