The word “crush” is so closely tied to tweens that its use later in life is usually self-deprecating. “When you’re an adult,” says middle grade novelist Maggie Horne, confessing that you have a crush means “you’re poking fun at yourself. Or you mean it in a way that’s quite sweet—‘I like this person so much, it makes me feel young.’ ”

For middle schoolers, though, a crush is serious business, and that holds true regardless of orientation or gender identity. Queer middle grade authors are finding a particular meaning in showcasing these tender feelings among LGBTQ characters in their forthcoming books.

Secret identities

What sort of queer representation did the authors interviewed for this piece find in their own middle school reading? When asked, the answer was nearly unanimous: “none.” A few named queer-coded characters whose identity is never addressed outright—Marcy and Peppermint Patty, Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew’s “boyish” friend George.

Horne remembers searching for queer content in the middle grade stacks and reading author bios for subtext: “When they said, ‘She lives with her family,’ I’d think, gotcha, she lives with a lady.” In Horne’s second middle grade book, Noah Frye Gets Crushed (HarperCollins, May), 12-year-old Noah, who fears getting left behind by her boy-crazy friends, conceals her feelings for another girl by faking a crush on a guy.

The protagonist of Deke Moulton’s Benji Zeb Is a Ravenous Werewolf (Tundra, July) is hiding more than a crush; Benji is part of an extended family of Jewish werewolves, caretakers of a wolf sanctuary who carefully conceal their supernatural identities. Benji’s feelings for Caleb, the bullying son of an angry local rancher, are complicated when Caleb’s secret is revealed—he too is a werewolf, and he needs Benji’s help to get control over his shifting. It’s overwhelming, kind of like a crush.

“You’re bombarded with these super-intense feelings,” Moulton says. “You’re head over heels, you’re obsessive, and you don’t know how to handle them.”

In Tori Sharp’s graphic novel, Stand Up! (Little, Brown Ink, Oct.), Clay and Kyle are two queer neurodivergent kids who have always worked behind the scenes on school plays. To showcase their underappreciated comedic chops, the pair start a podcast; Clay, meanwhile, auditions for their middle school production of Gals and Dolls, which puts her in close proximity to her crush, Dania.

Sharp, the youngest in a family of theater kids, draws a comparison between performance on- and offstage. “Being afraid of something isn’t necessarily an indication that you shouldn’t do it,” she says. “A lot of the time, fear is telling us that something is important to us. This can apply to getting onstage and performing or being in a relationship.”

The protagonists of Erin Becker’s debut, Crushing It (Penguin Workshop, Aug.), are a pair of eighth grade soccer team frenemies who, unbeknownst to them, are growing closer through the poetry they pseudonymously share with each other online. “Crushes can play a powerful part in our stories,” Becker says. “Falling for someone can help give you space to be a new version of yourself. These characters don’t quite fit in with family, friends, or teammates, so in this chat space they can try out new identities and parts of themselves.”

Thank you for being a friend

Adult romancelandia has the friends-to-lovers trope; in middle grade novels, friends and classmates become the object of crushes, no matter how inconvenient or seemingly unattainable.

Author-illustrator Kirk Scroggs has written 20 books for kids; the forthcoming graphic novel series launch PetWizards (Union Square, Aug.) is his first to star a queer character. Seventh grader and glam rock enthusiast Finch Eaglehawk comes from a long line of humans with a secret psychic link to particular animals, but where his great-grandfather Joe could command sharks and his cousin Bobby’s domain is dogs, Finch got stuck with “et cetera”—think naked mole rats and hissing cockroaches. With the help of his friends Aberdeen and Erica, he sets out to gain control over birds and win the heart of his crush, football player and school musical star Ken Chu.

Scroggs says he wants to avoid “sad queer characters” in his writing and likes the idea of kids being able to see themselves as “just part of the action, part of the fun.” He adds: “When I was a kid, I yearned to see any other gay kids in books. I’m so glad it’s happening now.”

Tight-knit friend groups can be as central to middle school emotional life as crushes, if not more so, and authors like Preston Norton take care to portray those relationships as thoughtfully as their romantic counterparts. “I wanted to include some intimate portrayals of boy friendships—it’s not just boogers and farts,” Norton says of his fourth book for middle grade readers, The House on Yeet Street (Union Square, Aug.). Thirteen-year-old Aiden processes his crush on his best friend, Kai, by writing a story reimagining Kai as a merman. Well aware that its discovery would lead to fatal levels of embarrassment, he chucks the story into the one place his friends will never go: the neighborhood haunted house. When the group decides that, in fact, the dilapidated Victorian is the perfect spot for a sleepover, Aiden goes in first to retrieve his notebook and meets his work’s biggest fan, who may be a ghost.

Terry J. Benton-Walker’s Alex Wise vs. the Cosmic Shift (Labyrinth Road, Sept.) picks up the adventures of the title character, a queer middle schooler and reluctant hero he introduced in 2023’s Alex Wise vs. the End of the World. He may have vanquished Death and saved his sister in book one, but he still doesn’t think he’s cut out for heroics. Plus, he’s contending with his burgeoning feelings for demigod Liam, a friend who’s becoming something more.

“Friendships are safe spaces for us,” Benton-Walker says. “These crushes develop with someone you know on a deeply personal level, where it’s easy to be vulnerable and talk to them.”

Sometimes crushes don’t pan out, and Nicole Melleby, for one, wants readers to know that’s okay. She sends the protagonist of Winnie Nash Is Not Your Sunshine (Algonquin, Apr.) to spend the summer with her grandmother at her Jersey Shore senior community during a family crisis. Among the secrets Winnie’s keeping: she likes girls. She meets pretty Pippa Lai, who’s visiting her own grandmother at the community, and ultimately realizes they’re better as friends.

“Winnie is fully in touch with her own feelings,” Melleby says. “Not every crush needs to become something. She’s my first fully self-aware character.” PW’s review called Melleby’s sixth middle grade title a “summery, heartfelt tale of change and transformation.”

Living out loud

Amid the perils of middle school—the drama, the bullying, the hurt feelings—authors also emphasize the importance of allowing their characters big emotions like joy, even to the point of embarrassment.

“A crush is cringe by definition,” says former literary agent V.P. Anderson, who wrote her graphic novel debut, Blood City Rollers (Labyrinth Road, Apr.), as a stress reliever when she lost her derby community during Covid lockdown. “It’s about the yearning, the pining, the obsession, the unrestrained joy. It’s a very queer vibe; if we were all allowed to embrace the cringe we’d be a happier world.”

In the book, a figure skater who’s been sidelined by an injury is recruited by the gorgeous captain of a vampire derby team looking for a human jammer. PW’s starred review praised the graphic novel, a debut for Anderson and for illustrator Tatiana Hill, for “striking a refreshing balance between spectral sports romp and queer found family narrative.”

Michael Leali, who has written two previous novels starring queer middle schoolers, likewise expressed appreciation for the thrills of first love. “It’s one of my favorite things about middle grade—the innocence of a child attempting an adult thing for the first time. There’s this lack of being jaded or apprehensive, a certain willingness to take risks. I didn’t get to explore expressing my crushes in middle or high school, so getting to do that through my writing feels like giving my younger self a chance to experience it.”

The protagonist of The Truth About Triangles (Harper, May), 12-year-old Luca Salvatore, was raised to be a people pleaser and a perfectionist, traits Leali says he shares. Luca tries to save his family’s failing pizzeria by pitching it to be featured on the culinary TV show Pizza Perfect, all while navigating chaos at home and a burgeoning crush on Will, the new kid at school.

How It All Ends by Emma Hunsinger (Greenwillow, Aug.) takes inspiration from the author-illustrator’s 2019 New Yorker piece, “How to Draw a Horse,” about her seventh grade crush on a “horse girl,” whom she imagined herself heroically saving from a house fire. It’s her first book for middle schoolers; 2020’s My Parents Won’t Stop Talking!, written with her wife, fellow cartoonist Tillie Walden, is a picture book.

Like other authors who spoke with PW for this piece, Hunsinger acknowledges the liminal, all-consuming nature of middle school infatuation. “What’s so special about being a 12- or 13-year-old with a crush is that it’s the first time you’re feeling this way with some understanding of what you’re feeling,” she says. “The first of anything is so intense, so shocking, simultaneously scary and exciting—it’s why we like roller coasters, too.”

Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the memoir Never Simple.

Read more from our LGBTQ feature:

New LGBTQ Fiction in Translation

Works by queer authors from Argentina, Catalonia, Syria, and beyond speak to U.S. readers