Ten-year-old Bug (Beatrice) lives in late-1980s Venice Beach with her mama and older brother Danny. It’s summer, and all Bug wants to do is go to the beach with Danny and hangout with the colorful locals, just like they’ve done for the past two summers. Unfortunately, Danny has decided that he wants to be called “Daniel,” like his Salvadorian father, and that he needs his space, leaving Bug feeling hurt and confused.
To make things worse, Bug is stuck hanging out with their neighbor Phillip’s nephew, Frankie, from Ohio. He doesn’t even like the beach and his favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla. But when Bug finds out that Frankie is interested in catching the Midnight Marauder, a serial killer on the loose in Los Angeles, she decides the summer might not be so bad after all.
Frankie and Bug spend their time searching for clues and conducting stakeouts in the hope of uncovering the Midnight Marauder. But when Phillip is seriously injured in an attack, Frankie and Bug direct their sleuthing skills toward finding Phillip’s assailants.
While Phillip is recuperating from his injuries, Bug’s mama asks her sister, Aunt Teri, to come stay with them so that Frankie doesn’t have to go home before the end of summer. Aunt Teri, who has many opinions and prejudices, lets slip some clues about why Bug never sees her grandparents. Until now, Bug has always wondered why she, mama, and Danny took a bus from Visalia to Venice Beach and why her mama cried the whole trip.
In this lovely coming of age book, Bug learns some hard truths about the world as well as some sustaining truths. Yes, there are many people who treat others badly just because they are different, whether it’s color, race, sexual orientation, or gender identification. But each of us has an opportunity to do our part to make the world a more just place. And to do so, we must be true to ourselves, be good allies, and as Bug’s mama tells her, “judge people for who they are, not what they are.”
Frankie & Bug is Gayle Forman’s debut middle grade novel, and I hope there are many more to come. In addition to seamlessly weaving important issues into the story, Ms. Forman provides historic background about the 1980s, resources regarding the refugee crisis and immigration rights, as well as resources for trans/nonbinary/gender-nonconforming kids and their families.
Another compelling LGBTQ+ middle grade book for your consideration is Lily and Dunkin (Delacorte Press 2016) by Donna Gephart. It tells the story of friendship between two remarkable eighth graders (an especially difficult age): Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. Like Frankie & Bug, this book speaks to our very humanity.