A Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2019
Barbara Dee explores the subject of #MeToo for the middle grade audience in this heart-wrenching—and ultimately uplifting—novel about experiencing harassment and unwanted attention from classmates.
For seventh-grader Mila, it starts with some boys giving her an unwanted hug on the school blacktop. A few days later, at recess, one of the boys (and fellow trumpet player) Callum tells Mila it’s his birthday, and asks her for a “birthday hug.” He’s just being friendly, isn’t he? And how can she say no? But Callum’s hug lasts a few seconds too long, and feels...weird. According to her friend, Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?
But the boys don’t leave Mila alone. On the bus. In the halls. During band practice—the one place Mila could always escape.
It doesn’t feel like flirting—so what is it? Thanks to a chance meeting, Mila begins to find solace in a new place: karate class. Slowly, with the help of a fellow classmate, Mila learns how to stand her ground and how to respect others—and herself.
From the author of Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed comes this timely story of a middle school girl standing up and finding her voice.”
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Pebbles PEBBLES
Every day that September, the four of us escaped outdoors. The weather was warm (a little too warm for fall, if you thought about it), and the cafeteria smelled gross, like melted cheddar cheese and disinfectant. So when the bell rang for lunch, we each grabbed something fast—a container of yogurt, a bag of chips, an apple—and ran out to the blacktop, where you could play basketball or run around, or just talk with your friends and breathe actual oxygen for thirty minutes.
Today was Omi’s twelfth birthday, and we’d planned a surprise. While Max distracted her inside the cafeteria, Zara and I would run out to the blacktop and make a giant O out of pebbles. The O was my idea: her actual name was Naomi-Jacinta Duarte Chavez, but we called her Omi for short.
And the thing about Omi was that she collected things from nature—seashells, bird feathers, stones in weird shapes and colors. So first we’d give Omi a birthday hug inside the O, and then we’d give her a little red pouch of chocolate pebbles—basically M&M’s, but each one a different pebbly shape and color. It wouldn’t be some generic babyish birthday celebration, with cupcakes for the whole class, like you did in elementary school. Just something personal and private, for our friends.
But what happened was, the exact second Zara and I stepped outside, Ms. Wardak, the lunch aide, blocked us. Usually she ignored us, and we ignored her back. Although not today, for some reason.
“Why are you girls out here?” she demanded. “You’re supposed to go get lunch first.”
“We know, but it’s our friend’s birthday,” Zara said. “And we wanted to make her name out of pebbles.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Ms. Wardak’s whistle bounced on her chest.
“Just her first initial,” I said.
“Out of pebbles?” Ms. Wardak asked. “That’s a birthday present?”
Suddenly I was feeling a little sticky inside my fuzzy green sweater. We didn’t have time for this conversation. And we definitely didn’t have time to explain seventh graders, if Ms. Wardak didn’t understand things.
“It’s not the whole present,” I said quickly. “Just one little thing we wanted to do. And please, we really do need to hurry. Because our friend is coming out here any second, so.”
Ms. Wardak sighed, like she didn’t have the energy to argue that normal humans liked their presents pebble-free, and in boxes. “Fine. Just be sure you clean up the mess afterward, girls. I don’t want any basketball players to trip.”
“Oh, we won’t be anywhere near the basketball hoop,” Zara promised. “That’s kind of the opposite of where we’ll be. We’re usually over where it’s more private—”
I tugged her sleeve. Sometimes Zara didn’t keep track of time very well. And anyway, I couldn’t see a reason to share our lunchtime habits with Ms. Wardak.
We ran over to the far edge of the blacktop, where a strip of pebbles divided the ground into School and Not-School. Often during lunch my friends and I hung out here and just talked. Or sang (mostly that was Zara, who world-premiered her own compositions). Or pebble-hunted (mostly that was Omi, although sometimes me, too). One time Max and I joined a game called untag on the blacktop—not elementary school tag, but a whole different version, with crazy-complicated rules. Although usually we hung out just the four of us, because I had band right after lunch, and we wouldn’t be together the rest of the afternoon.
“Hey, Mila, look at this one—it’s literally purple!” Zara shouted at me as she crouched over the pebbles. “And ooh, this one sort of looks like an arrowhead! Or Oklahoma!”
“We don’t have time to pick individually.” I scooped up a handful of pebbles and started laying them out on the blacktop. “Come on, Zara, just help make the O.”
“All right, all right,” she pretend-grumbled. “How big?”
“I don’t know, big enough for the four of us to stand in, so it’s like an O for Omi. And also a Circle of Friendship.” I’d thought of that just now; although I couldn’t decide if it was cute or stupid.
Zara loved it. “Circle of Friendship! Oooh, that’s perfect, Mila!” She began singing. “Cir-cle of Friennndshhhii—”
“Eek, hurry! I see them coming!”
Max and Omi were scurrying toward us, dodging a basketball. I hadn’t seen it happen, but somehow, over the past minute, a game had started on the other end of the blacktop. The usual boys—Callum, Leo, Dante, and Tobias—crashing into each other. Banging the ball against the blacktop: thwump, thwump. Shouting, laughing, cheering, arguing.
“Over here!” I could hear Callum shouting at the others. His voice was always the one that reached my ears. “Here! Throw it to me!”
We finished the O just as our friends arrived.
“HAPPPYYY BIIIRRTHDAAAY!” Zara shouted, opening her arms wide. “Look, Omi, we made you an O! For your initial, and also a literal Circle of Friendship! Which was Mila’s idea,” she added, catching my eye.
Omi clapped her hands and laughed. “I love it, you guys—it’s beautiful! Thank you! I’ll treasure it always!”
“Well, maybe not always,” I said, grinning. “It’s just a temporary work of art.”
“Yeah, you know, like a sand sculpture,” Max said. His big blue eyes were shining. “Or have you ever seen a Buddhist sand mandala? They use these different colors of sand—it’s incredibly cool—and then they destroy it. On purpose.” Max’s mom was a Buddhist, so he knew all sorts of things like that.
“Huh,” Zara said. “Fascinating, Max, but a little off topic.” She pulled Omi inside the O. “Birthday hug! Everyone in!”
The four of us crowded into the O and threw our arms around each other. Because I was shorter than everyone else, I found myself in the middle of the hug, staring straight into Zara’s collarbone. I’d never noticed it before, but she had a tiny snail-shaped freckle on her neck, two shades darker than her light brown skin.
“Okay, this is great, but promise you won’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’!” Omi was giggling.
“Sorry, Omi, it’s required by headquarters,” Zara replied.
She began singing in her strong, clear alto. Still hugging, Max and I joined in, a bit off-key, but so what. We were just up to “Happy birthday, dear Oooo-mi” when something brushed my shoulders. A hand.
Suddenly we were surrounded by the basketball boys—Callum, Leo, Dante, and Tobias. They’d locked arms around us and were singing along. Well, sort of singing.
“Happy birthday to yooouuu,” Callum shouted into my hair. His breath on my neck made me shiver.
Now the song was over, but the hug was still happening, Callum’s hand clamping the fuzz of my green sweater. The basketball boys smelled like boy sweat and pizza. I told myself to breathe slowly, through my teeth.
“What are you doing, Leo?” Zara laughed, a bit too loudly. Or maybe it just felt loud because she was so close. “Who said you could join the hug?”
“Don’t be nasty—we just wanted to say happy birthday,” Leo said. “Not to you, Zara. To Omi.”
Zara flinched. It was a quick-enough flinch that maybe I was the only one who noticed. But then, I knew all about Zara’s giant crush on Leo, who had wavy, sandy-colored hair, greenish eyes, and just a few freckles. He was cute, but in a Hey, don’t you think I’m cute? sort of way.
I wriggled my shoulder, but Callum’s hand was squeezing. And not leaving.
Now I could feel my armpits getting damp.
“Well, thanks, but I’m kind of getting smooshed here,” Omi called out. “So if you guys wouldn’t mind—”
“Okay, sorry!” Leo said. “Happy birthday, Omi! Bye!”
All at once, like a flock of birds, they took off for the basketball court.
Immediately my friends and I pulled apart, and I could breathe normally again.
“Okay, that was weird,” I said, brushing boy molecules off the fuzz of my sweater.
“Oh, Mila, don’t be such a baby,” Zara said. “They were just being friendly.”
I snorted. “You think getting smooshed like that is friendly?”
“Yeah, Zara,” Max said. “You’re only saying that because you like Leo.”
Zara gave a short laugh. “All right, Max, I agree, the whole thing was incredibly awkward, but I thought it was kind of sweet. Didn’t you, Omi?”
“I don’t know, I guess,” Omi said. “Maybe.” She shrugged, but she was smiling. Also blushing.
Max’s long hair was in his face, so I couldn’t see his eyes. “Well, they wrecked the O,” he muttered.
He was right: the pebbles were scattered everywhere. No more Circle of Friendship, or O for Omi.
“Dang,” I said. “Well, we did promise Ms. Wardak we’d clear off the pebbles. So we should put them back now anyway.”
“Who’s Ms. Wardak?” Omi asked.
“You know. The lunch aide.” I started kicking the pebbles over to the edge of the asphalt, and so did Max.
“Oh, who cares about her, Mila,” Zara said impatiently. “She’s not even a teacher, and she doesn’t pay attention.” She grabbed Omi’s hand. “We have another present for you, and it’s so much better! Look!”
Zara reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the little red sack of chocolate pebbles.
Omi screamed. “Omigod, you guys, I love these! How did you know?”
“Because we’re your best friends and we do pay attention,” Zara replied, beaming.
I almost added that they were my idea. But I decided that wouldn’t be best-friendly.
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
Maybe He Just Likes You
By Barbara Dee
About the Book
For seventh-grader Mila, it starts with some boys giving her an unwanted hug on the school blacktop. A few days later, at recess, one of the boys tells Mila it’s his birthday, and asks her for a “birthday hug.” He’s just being friendly, isn’t he? And how can she say no? But Callum’s hug lasts a few seconds too long and feels . . . weird. According to her friend Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like? But it doesn’t feel like flirting—and the boys don’t leave Mila alone. On the bus. In the halls. During band practice. Thanks to a chance meeting, Mila begins to find solace in a new place: karate class. Slowly, with the help of a fellow classmate, Mila learns how to stand her ground and how to respect others and herself.
1. How did reading this book make you feel? Were you mad, sad, worried, uncomfortable, or embarrassed about the things that happened to Mila? Did you wonder what you would do if you were Mila—or if you were one of the boys?
2. What about the unfolding of events most surprised you?
3. After the first “birthday hug,” Mila replays the scene over and over, trying to decide what she should have done. “Why hadn’t I just walked out of the room? Or even thought of a lame comeback?” Do you think she should have done one of these things? Do you think there are other options she could have tried? Why do you think her initial reaction is to blame herself?
4. Mila gets lots of advice about her situation from friends and adults. Mr. Dolan and Zara tell her to just ignore the boys. Her mom advises self-control. Omi tells her never to be alone at school. Do you agree with any of this advice? What do you think you would tell Mila to do?
5. Mila says, “Zara was a fun, caring friend, but she was capable of meanness.” How can someone be both mean and caring? Do you have any friends like that? Do you think friends should ever be mean to each other? Explain your answers.
6. Why do you think Mila doesn’t tell Zara about that first “birthday hug”? In what ways can “close friends be totally different,” as Mila says? What do you think it is about Zara’s and Mila’s personalities or experiences that causes them to view things differently?
7. When Mila decides to visit the school counselor to talk about what’s going on, she ends up in Mr. Dolan’s office. What do you think about the way he handled the situation? Do you think Mila would have gotten a different reaction if she had been able to talk to a female counselor? What are some gender stereotypes that might affect someone’s interpretation of the situation?
8. After Mila kicks Callum, she and the boys end up in the assistant principal’s office. The boys tell him that she is “too sensitive” and that they were just teasing. Do you think the boys believe that it’s “just teasing,” or do they know that what they are doing is wrong? Do you think all the boys think the same thing? Explain your answers using evidence from the book.
9. Think about the different feelings Mila has about the situation: she is afraid to be alone with any of the boys; she is ashamed when Ms. Fender changes her band position; she gets mad after she finds out about the scorecard. How does being ashamed differ from feeling afraid? Do you think that when Mila gets mad, that makes her feel stronger or more upset? How might you act if you were feeling any of these emotions? Explain your answers.
10. Zara blames Mila for what’s happening. She says, “‘No one can hug you if you don’t let them.’” Even Samira tells Mila that she doesn’t “‘have to put up with stuff like that.’” Why do you think Samira and Zara view the situation that way? Do you agree with them? Is it fair for others to make these comments when they aren’t the ones experiencing the unwanted attention?
11. Describe how Zara and Mila’s relationship changes as Mila continues to receive unwanted attention from boys in her class. Why do you think that girls stop “sticking together” when it comes to issues with boys? Why is it that sometimes it’s “girls against boys” and sometimes it’s not? Have you ever argued with a friend over a romantic interest? If so, what happened?
12. When Mila gets to school early, Ms. Wardak won’t let her wait outside her homeroom, and Mila wanders around looking for a safe place. Does your school have safe places? If so, do you think all your classmates know that they are available? If not, what might you do to try to secure a safe place?
13. Another unsafe place for Mila is the bus. Have you ever felt that when adults aren’t watching, especially on the bus or in the hallways, there is room for unwanted things to happen? Who might you talk to if something does happen to you, or if you witness it happening to someone else?
14. Mila wonders, “What are the boys seeing?” She changes the way she dresses. She kicks Callum and snaps at her mom and her teachers. She thinks “it was as if lately I’d been losing track of myself.” What do you think she means by that? Why do you think her behavior has changed? Are any of these tactics effective? What might be good coping mechanisms for Mila?
15. Zara says that the boys are just flirting with Mila. Max tells her that they are bullying her and gets mad when she won’t take his advice to tell on the boys. Do you agree with Zara or Max? What do you think makes the situation so complex? Do you think there is anyone who fully understands what’s going on?
16. Mila sees a different side of Tobias when he is with his little brother and sister at the park. She thinks, “Maybe all the basketball boys have non-jerk sides . . . so why is it different when it comes to me?” Have you ever witnessed someone in a different context or location, and been surprised by any of their actions? Why do you think someone might act differently in certain situations or when surrounded by certain people? Do you think boys can be nice to each other and their families, and still treat girls badly? Explain your answers.
17. After Mila starts karate classes, Samira notices the difference in her, saying, “I think it’s such a good idea that you’re taking it.” Do you agree with Samira? Discuss the ways that karate helps Mila. Do you do any activities that help make you feel better in other parts of your life?
18. After reading the book, think back to the boys’ actions in the beginning. Why do you think the boys started treating Mila this way? What do you think they wanted out of the interactions? Why do you think they continued to act? Do you think if they had a conversation about sexual harassment at the beginning of the book, they would have made the same choices?
19. Think about respect. How do you show respect for others? What level of respect do you expect and accept from others? How do you know if something is off-limits, or if it would hurt someone? Identify scenes from the book where people are respected or disrespected, and discuss how you would support or change these interactions to make everyone feel respected.
20. At the fall concert, Dante teases Callum by saying, “‘You should wear skirts more often.’” Why do you think boys’ insults to one another often revolve around being “girly”? How might this affect the way they view or interact with girls, or how girls feel about themselves?
21. When Liana tells Mila what happened to her at the pool, she feels “all these emotions swirling around like crazy.” How did you feel when you found out that Mila wasn’t the only target? Why might it be helpful for Mila to have someone to talk to who knows what she’s going through?
22. When Mila discovers that Ms. Fender is a good listener, she tells her everything and finally feels like she’s being heard. Why do you think it’s important to feel believed and heard? Do you have someone in your life whom you trust to listen to you?
23. Why do you think Callum comes to karate class at the end of the book? Does it change any of your perceptions of him? What do you think that means for him and Mila?
24. Do you believe that the boys’ behavior will change? Do you have any suggestions about how this can be accomplished? Do you think Mila will ever feel safe around them again?
1. Find a notebook, journal, or paper and pen. Use them to answer these questions: How would you know if you or a friend were being sexually harassed? What actions could you take if you found yourself in Mila’s situation? Then work with a partner to discuss the similarities and differences between your answers, and brainstorm additional signs of harassment or actions you could take to stop it. Think about Mila’s experiences. Why do you think sexual harassment can be so challenging to acknowledge and address?
2. Look up the definitions of these words and phrases, and write a report demonstrating that you understand what they mean:
3. Design a poster for your school, educating students on sexual harassment. List ways that students can identify sexual harassment, and also actions they can take to end the harassment.
4. Research female empowerment groups or organizations in your community or nationwide like #BUILTBYGIRLS, WriteGirl, or Girl Up. How do they help girls feel more empowered? How might these attitudes or behaviors translate to your daily life?
5. Choose one of the harassment scenes from the book and write a skit that can be performed in your classroom. Try portraying the scene a few different ways, where the person playing Mila tries different tactics or techniques. How does that change the harasser’s response? How does the scene change with different reactions from onlookers?
6. Find out if your school has a sexual harassment policy. If so, write about its strengths and weaknesses. Can you suggest any additions? If not, draft a policy with your classmates.
7. Choose one of the characters from the book, and write a conversation that they might have with another friend, sibling, or classmate about what is happening to Mila at school.
Guide written by Bobbie Combs, a consultant at We Love Children's Books.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.