When I first got this book, I left it on my shelf and ignored it for a week. It just wasn’t something I was ready to crack open because I knew it would be a tough read. A friend had suggested it, and I’d seen the School Library Journal review headline declared “#metoo comes to the middle grades.” Which is why I struggled to open the thing.
I worried that it would hit close to home, or that it would be terrible. A developmentally appropriate book for tweens and young teens that explores sexual harassment seemed like too much to expect. But, in Maybe He Just Likes You, Barbara Dee sidesteps nearly all the possible problems and creates a compelling story that addresses the feelings, friendships and family issues surrounding sexual harassment.
So, I eventually opened the book and fell in.
This story hits so close to home it hurts, and that makes it wonderful and terrible at the same time. It follows the life of 7th grader Mila as she experiences increasingly overt sexual harassment at the hands of a group of middle school boys. It’s told in first person, which helps make her confusion seem more real, and shows the main character’s immensely sympathetic internal dialogue.
There are many things to like about this book. Characters are complex, real and flawed in ways that make them immensely believable. Her friends respond to her stories of abuse in widely different ways that change as the story progresses: Zara is self-absorbed, Max is quiet and distracted), Oma (supports Mila but avoids conflict). The adults in her life are caring and act in good faith, but are shown in ways that make Mila’s hesitance to tell them understandable (her mother is distracted with a job loss and divorce, the assistant principal coaches Mila’s harassers).
The incidents portrayed are “clean” enough that this book could easily sit on a 6th grade classroom shelf: hugging, invading space, touching Mila’s butt, rude comments, and a game assigning points for each interaction. The vividly portrays the aspects of power and self-doubt at play in situations of sexual harassment without including scenes that would prevent the book from inclusion in conservative school libraries. The short chapters keep the interest of reluctant and avid readers while keeping the plot moving. It all works together to make a book that will prompt uncomfortable discussions but is itself immensely readable and will reaches a wide band of readers.
For parents and teachers, this book provides a glimpse into the minds of tweens and teens experiencing harassment showing why kids don’t tell adults, and how peers often react. Mila’s confusion, embarrassment, and self doubt are so clearly and sympathetically articulated that if you’re like me, you will experience both a window into the past and a glimpse of what to watch for in the present.
Even if your child hasn’t experienced harassment, this book shows how her peer’s reactions affect Mila, and opens the door to conversations about preventing sexual abuse. These discussions are important, but we’re not having them. A study interviewed 18-25 year olds and found over half of the respondents had been sexually harassed, but that: “76 percent. . . reported that they never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others, [or] various forms of misogyny” Anything that gets us talking to our children more about this issue is a good thing.
Be forewarned though, the ending may feel a little pat to adult readers. Nonetheless, in crafting an ending that neatly resolves all the conflicts in the story, Dee shows how well she understands her young audience. She builds a resolution that shows adults taking Mila’s claims seriously, and give Mila space to be heard. But more importantly, she shows a myriad of ways that Mila gains her own voice and strength and teaches the tweens and teens in its target audience what they should demand for themselves should they experience this.
Read this book with your middle school child and talk about sexual harassment. It’s a tough discussion, but Maybe He Just Likes You is an engaging place to begin.
- Common Sense Media guide for talking about sexual harassment
- The publisher’s website includes discussion questions on the novel
- chat with the author at YAbookcentral
- Hot Chocolate Talk guide for talking to your child about preventing sexual abuse
- AAUW Harassment Free Hallways guide for adult and students
- Planned Parenthood has resources for discussing sexual assault with children