It all starts with an unwanted hug that takes seventh-grader Mila by surprise, on the school playground, when the basketball boys decide to join in on a friend’s birthday celebration. It keeps going: unwanted hugs, comments, even touches; barely disguised chuckles and cheers among the basketball boys. Mila knows it’s wrong. She feels uncomfortable, she feels it in her skin, but her friends think she’s being dramatic. The teacher she tries to talk to brushes it off. And it keeps going, because she doesn’t want to mention it to her mom: she’s got enough problems, raising two kids on her own and having a lousy time at work. When Mila steps into a karate class, though, and makes an unexpected friend, she starts to recover her confidence and realizes that she owns her own power, and if no one will help her, she’s going to take matters into her own hands.
Maybe He Just Likes You. Who hasn’t heard this phrase, growing up? It’s been the excuse, as old as time, for behaviors from hair-pulling to unwanted brushes across parts of our bodies; smirks and hapless shrugs with half-chuckled, half-muttered, “Sorrrrrry” responses. It’s been the excuse, putting it on young girls and women to endure the snickers and comments as we walk down the halls of school, play outside, walk into the workplace. Barbara Dee’s book introduces us to Mila, a seventh grader who finds herself the object of a group’s attention; their power play. She asks for help, and gets brushed off. Her friend, Zara, seems almost jealous of the attention she’s getting, not understanding that attention like this is unwanted, unasked for. She’s gaslighted by her tormentors, who tell her to “lighten up”; that she blows things out of proportion; that she can’t take a joke. Just as Mila begins to withdraw into herself, she starts taking a free karate class, and discovers a classmate who notices that something’s been going on, and encourages Mila to stand up for herself. Karate practice, plus this new, unexpected friendship, gives Mila clarity and the ability to bring attention to the behavior, and discovers that she is not the only one the boys have targeted.
Mila is a strong, smart character in whom readers may see themselves. Barbara Dee creates a painfully real story with Maybe He Just Likes You; a story that has taken decades to come to light, but isn’t backing down anymore. Mila’s first person narration makes it much easier to envision ourselves in Mila’s shoes, and Barbara Dee’s strong, clear voice makes Mila’s creeping discomfort and anger palpable, causing us to curl our fingers and grit our teeth. I wanted to cheer for her, I wanted to scream for her, I wanted to yell and demand that her educators take notice of what was going on – and wanted to sink into my seat with relief when someone finally does.
Sexual harassment has spent too long feeding on our silence. With the #MeToo movement, and now, a #MeTooK12 movement, kids are learning about respect, consent, and boundaries. Let’s support them. I hope that Maybe He Just Likes You will come with an educator guide with sexual harassment resources and lesson plans for K-12 educators. I have found some on the Web: Institute for Humane Education; Equal Rights Advocates; Harvard University’s “Making Caring Common” Project; and Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.
This is a middle school/upper middle grade novel, and needs to be read by adults, teens, and tweens. Booktalk and display with books like Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali. There are more and more books available for YA on this topic; I’m glad that middle grade/middle school is getting their moment, too. School Library Journal has a great article from 2018, “Beyond “No Means No”: Resources on Consent“, and a Teen Librarian Toolbox article from 2014 spotlights two works by Jacqueline Woodson that can fall into either middle grade/middle school or YA. Author Barbara Dee writes about her inspiration in this Nerdy Book Club post.