An Eighth Grade Gay-Straight Alliance
by Daniel Micko
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction
Print Length: 224 pages
Reviewed by Toni Woodruff
A thought-provoking story about the harm that comes from radicalized bigotry and how a sense of community can go a long way
“’Bruh, I’m from Modesto. My life’s just like yours.”
A few teens fall into some trouble and learn some hard truths when they create a Gay-Straight Alliance club with no adult supervision. In this book, the characters navigate a world that is deeply unfair, a world that seems to punish both those who have done wrong and who are wholly innocent.
This novelexplores the dangers that come with bigotry and moral superiority through the eyes of middle school students.
“There’s silence, and I breathe a bubbled breath of relief. No one understands. Everyone is out for themselves, and nobody cares for my feelings. This is where I am – my world sucks, and nobody cares.”
Sydney and Jennings are two headstrong young women who create a GSA with a motley crew of their peers. Their goal is to liven up the GSA and make it more than a club just for talking about one’s feelings. Jennings’s vision for the club is for it to be a tribute to “bad girls in history,” such as Annie Oakley, Cleopatra, and Khutulun. Sydney and Jennings share a similar background in that they are both Muslim and first started stealing peaks at each other whenever they went to their shared mosque. Throughout the book, the two girls develop a budding romance that is often interrupted by their need to argue. Many of their arguments seem to stem from their fears of getting into a relationship and going public.
“I’m convinced that’s why she started the GSA. She wanted a new mosque to go to, a mosque that she could control and take action when the situation deemed necessary.”
Sydney and Jennings are forced to grow up much faster than they should because they witness that the adults in their lives can be dangerous or unreliable. Sydney’s mother is in love with a married woman, and she also deals with a bit of a gambling problem. The adults in Jennings’s life are even more extreme: one of her uncles was radicalized into believing that same sex relationships brought shame upon the family, so he killed one of Jennings’s queer cousins. When this uncle comes into town, Jennings, Sydney, and the whole GSA crew’s lives are at risk.
“I stop in my tracks. I heard it, and I don’t know what to say. Jesus, we’re still in that world. Another rite of passage. It’s not enough to learn to navigate; we also have to absorb the hate.
I loved how this book was able to capture how messy life can be and how there are no easy answers or solutions. It delicately handles the question of religion and allows the young girls to determine for themselves to what extent they should follow their religious practices. In the girls seeing how fallible the adults in their lives can be, the girls can see the adults’ errors and choose what the right things for themselves to do are.
“I get on my knees, and we pray. We sit for a while, and our thoughts are our own. Our mind is our own. Our space is our own. No one tells us what to do. We are in control.”
While the book does a pretty good job representing how eighth graders handle the stress and complexity of topics such as religion, queerness, and race, a few dialogue choices sometimes pull me out of the story, like characters saying “Oh snap!” in serious situations. There are also moments where we could have used information sooner. For example, we do not learn that Sydney or Jennings are Muslim until halfway through the book. Since GSA is so much about one’s identity, it seems that this identity would benefit coming in earlier.
“This town we live in has no memory of us or our way of life. We will decide what we want to do.”
An Eighth Grade Gay-Straight Alliance captures the real-world dangers against minority groups and explores the fear that young people experience every day in their homelives, their schooling, and their encounters with strangers. Life is messy, but the book highlights how, despite the dangers and the messiness, life is still worth living. What youth need are not clear answers all the time, but a community and friendship they can always return to.
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