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Because I write about sex for a living—and because I maintain an online database of sex ed resources for parents and other caregivers—publicists often send me stuff that is sex- and sex ed-adjacent. You know. PMDD devices. Lazy eye lifts (?). Every CBD product known to man. (Seriously. Stop sending me CBD pitches.)
On top of all these, there are also the middle grade novels with themes around sex ed or puberty or menstruation. In the past, I’ve rarely read them, as I don’t often include fiction in the Guerrilla Sex Ed database. But as my child has hit the tween years and has started to read chapter books (I mean, primarily Warrior Cats and Wings of Fire, but still…), I’ve taken to flipping through them, screening them to see if they might be appropriate for my child.
In doing so, I’ve realized what, deep down, I already knew: fiction has a lot to teach us, and some of those middle grade novels totes count as sex ed.
A publisher recently sent me Ali Terese’s Free Period, a middle grade novel about menstrual equity. It was absolute fire.
When I first cracked it open, I did so with the intention of possibly saving it for my 9-year-old. After all, some kids start menstruating at that age. But then I got super into it, and I realized this book deserves to be in my database of sex ed books…which means I should probably consider other fiction titles, too.
In the list below, I share info on Terese’s book and on other middle grade novels that sneak in sex ed. Because often, kids don’t want to feel as if you’re trying to teach them something. They just want to enjoy a good book.
If they learn something in the process? All the better.
Note: It was brought to my attention that an earlier version of this post included a title by an author who has made statements that are harmful to the transgender community. As someone who believes sexuality education must be inclusive of all genders — who believes this is integral to comprehensive sexuality education — I can’t keep this title in a list about books that share valuable sex ed lessons. The title has been removed.
Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
I actually want to highlight this entire graphic novel series, which also includes the titles Best Friends and Friends Forever. In this series, we follow the travails of Shannon, an awkward young girl who has a tough time making new friends. But at least she has her bestie, right? This series is too real in its depictions of mean girl shenanigans, first crushes, and crises of self-confidence. It has a lot of wisdom to impart on healthy friendships (a great foundation for later learning about romantic relationships), body image, self-esteem, and more.
Go with the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann
In this graphic novel, a group of high school sophomores stage a “menstruation revolution” in response to the lack of resources at their school. I read this one because I will never say no to an all ages graphic novel, and this one especially charmed me with its menstrual ed angle. For the longest time, it was actually the only fiction title in my sex ed database.
Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell
Oh, Cardboard Kingdom, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 1. You are a graphic novel my child and I can easily enjoy together. 2. You handle heavy topics in a way that makes them accessible to younger readers. 3. The casual diversity of your characters is an absolute delight. There are tons of important lessons in these books (there are now three of them in the series), among them are those that subtly center around questions of gender and sexuality.
Posted by John David Anderson
What fascinates me about this book is that it takes the slipperiness of online cruelty and makes it tangible. In this novel, cell phones are banned at school. Presumably, this new policy should curtail the bullying that’s been happening via text message and on social media. But then students find a new way to communicate, smacking sticky notes onto their peers’ lockers with messages—benign and otherwise—that anyone can see. Have your kiddo read this for lessons on bullying and the dangers of social media.
A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat
I know. This one’s a graphic memoir. But the narrative form is still an anomaly for many sex ed books aimed at this age group, so I wanted to include it. A beautiful glimpse at those awkward middle school years, Santat recounts a school trip that has him traveling throughout Europe alongside all the same classmates who loved to bully him at home. But over the course of this trip, he comes to experience a lot of firsts…including first love.
Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes
In this novel-in-verse, 12-year-old Joylin’s world is rocked when, out of nowhere, it seems to be extra difficult to do what she always did before: namely, play hoops with the guys and joke around with her best guy friend. For one thing, her body seems to be changing, and her favorite outfits are suddenly ill-fitting. For another, her best guy friend and her best girl friend are always flirting. And then there’s the crush she has on this new guy. With themes around friendship, first crushes, and changing bodies, this is a perfect read for those kids just entering puberty.
Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender
Caroline has always been considered an unlucky outcast for reasons I won’t get into here. But then, a new girl comes to town, and things seem to be turning around. There’s a lot going on in this rich coming-of-age tale, but for the purposes of this list, I want to mention that Caroline begins to develop a crush on her new friend, which is an exploration of burgeoning sexuality and queerness that I’d love to see more of in middle grade literature.
The Moon Within by Aida Salazar
In this verse novel (yessss…), Celi, the main protagonist, is dealing with a lot: Her changing body. Her first crush. Her best friend’s exploration of what it might mean to be genderfluid. All topics ripe for a book that’s sneaking in its sex ed. But at the center of this story is a ritual embraced by Celi’s community, in which those experiencing their first period have a moon ceremony. Celi wants nothing to do with it. But will she prevail?
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
Another novel in verse (will wonders never cease? I’ve been obsessed with this literary form since first reading Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X), this book centers around a middle schooler who is constantly fat-shamed by her peers. As a result, she tries to live her life by a number of unspoken rules, making herself shrink into a version of herself that the other kids might find more palatable. Unfortunately, her diet-happy mom isn’t much help. But thanks to having a support system of people who love her for who she is, she’s eventually able to embrace herself in all of her fabulousness. Bookmark this one for the lessons on bullying and body image.
Chunky by Yehudi Mercado
Another graphic memoir, this book also features a kid struggling with their weight. Through this narrative, readers will learn lessons about body image, self-esteem, and friendship. There’s also a lot in this book about finding oneself and learning to be true to who you are, struggles that can be especially fraught during those middle school years.
Code Red by Joy McCullough
A fellow Book Rioter recommended this one to me, and, as she said to me, the sex ed lessons aren’t exactly sneaky (lol). But the way they’re wrapped up in such a fun story makes me feel like this book is a perfect fit for this list. In this novel, middle schooler Eden gets into a fight with a fellow student who mocks her for the fact that her mom works for a company that creates period products. As punishment, she’s sent to volunteer at a food bank, where she learns about period poverty and is inspired to make a difference. Unfortunately, this work puts her at odds with her mom (capitalism!). Will it all work out in the end? I love that this book not only normalizes talk about menstruation but highlights a very real issue around access to period products. Brava!
The Pants Project by Cat Clarke
In this novel, 12-year-old Liv wages battle against his school dress code when it requires him to wear a skirt…even though he knows he’s a boy. In this sweet story, readers get to follow a transgender main character through struggles with bullying, gender identity, and low self-esteem. Much like the previous book, this one also shows how kids, too, can engage in social justice and inspire empathy, acceptance, and positive change.
Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker
This book features a transgender protagonist, a middle schooler living openly as a girl for the first time in her life. Fellow trans readers have raved over the book’s authentic depictions of trauma, gender dysphoria, and the growing pains that come with this stage of life.
Free Period by Ali Terese
And finally, here’s the book that inspired the list. It’s about a group of middle schoolers fighting to get the restrooms stocked with period products. I was instantly charmed by the badass main protagonists and the book’s overall sense of humor. But as I made my way through the entire book, what I was really blown away by was how such a fun story managed to pack so much punch, imparting lessons not only about menstrual equity but also about friendship and the various ways there are to engage in activism.
In case you hadn’t noticed, sex ed is important to me…particularly increased access to comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education. It’s why I’ve already written posts for Book Riot on Sex-Positive Books for Readers of All Ages, Children’s Books for Teaching Your Kids About S-E-X, and The Best Puberty Books for Your Growing Kiddo (among others).
As Danika writes, and I wholeheartedly agree, sex ed books don’t “groom” kids and teens; they protect them.
I hope you’ll use posts like these to build up your kids’ personal libraries, enabling them to absorb important lessons on identity, body autonomy, healthy relationships, and, well, being a generally amazing human. Books like these are essential. Books like these save lives.