Middle Grade Author Barbara Dee Geeks Out About Shakespeare!

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Image: Melanie R. Meadors

Middle grade author Barbara Dee‘s new book Star-Crossed has been called “a fine choice for middle school libraries in need of accessible LGBTQ stories and a great option for students reading or performing Romeo and Juliet” by School Library Journal, and having read it, I whole-heartedly agree. The story also has a very engaging voice and a main characters tweens will be able to relate to. I asked Barbara Dee what made her geek out while she was writing Star-Crossed. Please welcome her to Geek Speaks…Fiction!

A chance to geek out on Shakespeare wasn’t the reason I wrote Star-Crossed. I wrote it because I’d been struck by the number of powerful, sensitive middle grade novels with LGBTQ+ themes–Drama, Better Nate Than Never, George, The Other Boy, Lily & Dunkin, Gracefully Grayson–and wondered why there wasn’t a book about a girl’s crush on another girl. Also, why wasn’t there a book about a kid considering that she might like both boys and girls? Since middle school is the time when kids question everything (including sexual orientation), I was sure there was a hunger for fiction on these topics. And then I remembered something Beverly Cleary once said: If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it. 

So I wrote Star-Crossed, about a middle school production of Romeo & Juliet, in which the girl playing Romeo realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. Why did I choose to set the story against this backdrop–and, in fact, develop a plot that parallels Shakespeare’s play? Mainly because, like my heroine, Mattie, I’m a Shakespeare geek. I’ve seen dozens of productions over the years–at NY’s Shakespeare in the Park, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, London’s National Theater, to name just a few venues. And for the five years I was a high school English teacher, my absolute favorite thing to teach was Shakespeare–Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It. (The Henry plays not so much. But all the others? Bliss.)

I knew right away that if I wanted to use a Shakespeare play to tell this story, it had to be Romeo & Juliet. My book would be primarily for kids in the 9-13 age range, most of whom had no previous exposure to Shakespeare. But they all knew the basic story of Romeo & Juliet, because it’s embedded in our culture–it’s West Side Story, Twilight, and a zillion other popular permutations. It’s about love, of course, and also secrecy, rebellion, impulsiveness, cliques–the stuff of middle school. Also, it’s about kids: Juliet herself is thirteen years old, an eighth grader herself (if she went to school).

Image: Simon and Schuster

But my challenge was that I didn’t know Romeo & Juliet all that well. Sure, I’d seen the movie versions and read it a couple of times, but I’d never taught the play, because, like Julius Caesar, it was part of the ninth grade curriculum at my school. (As a newbie teacher, I avoided ninth graders. What were they, exactly? Kids? Teens? I never taught them because to be honest, I found them mystifying.) If I’d never had the responsibility of explaining R&J to students, and also never formally studied it myself, wasn’t it crazy to base a whole novel on it?

Short answer: No. Romeo & Juliet is ridiculously accessible. You don’t have to be a scholar or a Shakespeare geek to pick up the play and just start reading. Unlike Henry V, say, it’s not speechy–in fact, a lot of it is simply conversational, with characters constantly interrupting each other, and sometimes themselves. It’s also full of jokes: Juliet’s Nurse and Mercutio are both hilarious. It’s a play that any middle schooler can identify with and comprehend, perhaps with just a little bit of help.

And I have to say this: writing Star-Crossed with a copy of Romeo & Juliet propped up on my desk was the most fun I’ve ever had at my computer. The play provided me with a basic structure to follow, almost an outline, leaving me free to riff on the ways my characters mirrored Shakespeare’s (or not). I wrote Star-Crossed in just a few months, never struggling with writer’s block–although sometimes I had to stop typing to catch my breath at the beauty of his language (“Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die/Take him and cut him out in little stars…”). I also found myself giggling at his more creative insults, both in R&J and in other plays, and couldn’t resist incorporating them into Star-Crossed (“puke-stocking,” “mildewed ear,” “mad mustachio purple-hued malt worm”).

I’m hoping that Star-Crossed promotes self-acceptance, inclusiveness, and kindness–as well as the need for diversity in kid-lit. And if it could also get kids reading Romeo & Juliet, I’d consider my mission as a Shakespeare geek accomplished.

About Star-Crossed:

Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.

As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

About Barbara Dee:

Barbara Dee is the author of Truth or Dare, The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys, Trauma Queen, This Is Me From Now On, Solving Zoe (2010 Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year) and Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life (Publishers Weekly starred review). In 2017, Aladdin/S&S will be publishing her next tween novels, Star-Crossed (March) and Halfway Normal (December). Barbara is one of the founders and directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. You can visit her on the web at www.BarbaraDeeBooks.com.