Just Like Everyone Else
by Sarah Hagger-Holt
"I've seen gay people before. Course I have. Loads of times. On TV. On the internet...But never in my garden, chatting to my mum...Not where they could see me, notice something I say or do or just the way I am, and know in an instant what I've told no one else..."
The third novel by an author who has, we believe, really captured the middle grade space with stories which centre LGBTQ+ lives. Following on from Nothing Ever Happens Here, Hagger-Holt's second novel, Proud of Me, won the Little Rebels Award in 2022. And, with this latest offering, she simply continues to go from strength to strength.
The middle grade readership denotes precisely the age where many children and young people begin to explore romantic feelings, first crushes, confusing accelerating heart beats and tummy fizzes (!) So this is also precisely when we need to give young readers confident, healthy and happy messages about their gender expressions, their sexual orientation or just simply reassure them that those bewildering fizzes are, in fact, entirely normal. Hagger-Holt does all of this and with real empathy and nuance.
Just Like Everyone Else is the story of 13-year-old Aidan, expert fell runner, big brother in Team Taylor, top buddy to Jack and possibly, perhaps, surely not, ...gay? Aidan's feelings about his nascent sexuality are spot on and his response will be, sadly, relatable to many young people. Fearful of his own surfacing feelings, he doesn't dare intervene in the homophobic tauntings of Jack. When his mum offers to act as surrogate to gay couple, Justin and Atif, he is overcome by embarrassment and a dread of exposure. When his face flushes at the sight of Will, he turns away. His proximity to anything or anyone 'gay', makes him anxious and close to phobic, as if a spotlight is heading right for him. And so, he works hard, very hard, at coasting, at never standing out, at passing as 'just like everyone else'.
Sarah Hagger-Holt really knows her subject. This is a world where rainbow laces are worn, Queer Eye is mainstream viewing and surrogacy for same-sex couples is possible. None of which, however, is to say that young people are free to discover themselves with ease. Jack's small acts of gender non-conformity make him a target for both pupils and teachers; Aidan's little sister, Bells, is quick to challenge everyday, 'casual' sexism; queer parenting still attracts a disapproving shake of the head; a young Muslim man thinks that only white people can be gay (after all, those are the only gay people mainstream media showed him). It's also a lovely touch that Aidan assumes he can't be gay because he doesn't enjoy the things poplar culture determines make up queer culture. As he asks Atif, "I'm into sport. Like, can you be gay and be into sport?" All of this wonderful, rich material contained within the 'classic' middle grade fiction fare of family, friendships, transitions and coming-of-age. Great discussion questions at the end too! (This reviewer's fave secondary character: marathon-runner-in-training and young person's bestest confidant, Auntie Jo). Age 8-12, Paperback 303pp