Twelve-year-old Mattie wrestles with her crush on Gemma as they participate in their school production of Romeo and Juliet in what School Library Journal calls “a fine choice for middle school libraries in need of an accessible LGBTQ stories.”
Twelve-year-old Mattie is thrilled when she learns the eighth grade play will be Romeo and Juliet. In particular, she can’t wait to share the stage with Gemma Braithwaite, who has been cast as Juliet. Gemma is brilliant, pretty—and British!—and Mattie starts to see her as more than just a friend. But Mattie has also had an on/off crush on her classmate Elijah since, well, forever. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls?
If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things offstage are beginning to resemble their own Shakespearean drama: the cast is fighting, and the boy playing Romeo may not be up to the challenge of the role. And due to a last-minute emergency, Mattie is asked to step up and take over the leading role—opposite Gemma’s Juliet—just as Mattie’s secret crush starts to become not-so-secret in her group of friends.
In this funny, sweet, and clever look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to become a lead player in her own life.
Star-Crossed 1 “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”
—Romeo and Juliet, Prologue 2
It wasn’t about me, I knew. But still.
I hadn’t been invited to Willow’s Halloween party, and I was okay with it. Unlike a lot of my classmates, I didn’t plan my schedule around her parties, which were usually sweaty and overcrowded, the sort of thing where you spent the whole time shouting over music you’d never listen to on your own. She’d always invited me to her Halloween parties before, and I’d always gone, mostly because my two best friends, Tessa Pollock and Lucy Yang, were going, and the three of us always stuck together. Everyone knew this, even Willow, who never paid us much attention. The weird thing was how she’d invited Lucy (even though she never hung out with Willow) and Tessa (even though Willow pretty much hated her). But not me.
“Don’t feel bad, Mattie,” Lucy urged me. She looked worried. Lucy was always fussing over this sort of stuff, trying to make sure everyone felt comfortable. The idea that she was invited when I wasn’t . . . well, I could tell she felt terrible. “I heard she invited only half the class, so I’m sure it wasn’t personal.”
“How could it not be personal?” Tessa demanded. “Willow decides who’s invited and who’s not. What could be more personal than that?”
“You guys, I’m fine,” I insisted. But still, I tried to think if I’d offended Willow lately, if maybe I’d forgotten to congratulate her on scoring a goal or something. Willow was the type of person who expected face-to-face compliments, not just cheers.
Tessa snorted. “Of course you’re not fine, Mattie. How could anyone be fine about being left out of the biggest party all year?”
We were at Verona’s, this new fro-yo place in town where you could design your own sundaes. I was having chocolate fudge with chocolate chips and crushed brownies, Lucy was having strawberry with a bunch of fruit on top, and Tessa was having vanilla drowned in almost every topping available—gummies, marshmallows, peanut butter cups, hot fudge, strawberry syrup, coconut. It looked like a small volcano had erupted in her cup, trapping gummy bears in lava. Like a yogurt Pompeii or something.
“Well, Mattie, if you’re not going, neither am I,” Lucy said.
“What?” I don’t know why this surprised me, because it was typical Lucy. “That’s really sweet, but it wouldn’t be fair. I mean, to you.”
“Are you joking? Why would I do something that wasn’t fair to you?”
“Listen, we’re all going. Including Mattie,” Tessa declared, waving her spoon for emphasis.
I took an enormous bite of my creation. “Well, aside from the fact that Willow obviously doesn’t want me there, it’s supposed to be a costume party, right? And I’m not a costumey sort of person.”
“How can you say that?” Lucy protested. “Your costumes are always so original, Mattie. That year you went as the Sorting Hat—”
“Yeah. People just thought I was a witch.”
“Okay, but last year, when you went as Matilda—”
I groaned at the memory. Last year, I’d thought: Okay, my name is Matilda; how much more obvious could it be? Besides, who hasn’t read Matilda? So I wore my half-sister Cara’s old school uniform and my brother Mason’s tie, and I made my hair all crazy with spray. Liam Harrison, the coolest boy in the grade (at least, according to him), asked if I was Eloise. You know, the bratty little girl at that hotel. Clearly, I was the worst at costumes.
“I’m the worst at costumes,” I told my friends.
“Maybe you’re overthinking it,” Tessa said. “You don’t always have to do a book thing, do you? You could just wear a really cool mask.”
“But I don’t own a mask. Even a non-cool one.”
She poked two holes in her napkin and held it over my face. “Voilà: mask. And the thing about wearing a costume, Mattie? No one will know it’s you.” She stage-whispered the last part, cupping her hands over her mouth.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “If I totally cover myself, including my head. And if I disguise my voice. But I don’t know, the idea of sneaking into Willow’s party—” I shook my head.
“Mattie, come on,” Lucy cut in. “You can’t spend Halloween sitting home by yourself; it’s bad luck, or bad karma. Bad something.” She ate a raspberry. “Oh, and by the way,” she added, “not that it matters, but I heard Elijah’s going.”
I poked a brownie chunk with my spoon. “Yeah? Well, woohoo.”
“Okay, so what did I miss?” Tessa had been away all last weekend at a theater camp reunion, and was still catching up on the news. “What happened with Elijah?”
“Nothing,” I told her. “I saw him at the library on Sunday, so I said hello. It was like, Hey, how was your weekend, wanna hear about mine? He didn’t even answer.”
“Whoa,” Tessa said. “Literally didn’t?”
“Yep. Totally ignored me.”
“Maybe he wasn’t ignoring you; maybe he just didn’t hear,” Lucy suggested.
I raised my eyebrows at her. “In a quiet library? When I was talking exactly as loud as this?”
“Maybe he had earbuds in?”
“Lucy, he was just sitting in the graphic novel section reading old Batman comics. No earbuds, no anything. I checked.”
Tessa licked some fro-yo off her spoon. “You know, I hate to say this, Mattie, but in my opinion Elijah’s a stuck-up dirtbag.”
“You’re probably right. The stupid thing is, I think I still like him.”
“That is stupid,” Tessa agreed. “Why do you like him?”
I sighed. Because how do you answer that kind of question? It’s like explaining why you think a joke is funny, or why a song stays in your head. Or why you like chocolate fudge frozen yogurt, or the color blue. You just like what you like. Like who you like. Even if the person acts like a stuck-up dirtbag sometimes.
Besides, liking Elijah was just what I did. What I’d done since the start of seventh grade last year, when I suddenly realized that I kept staring at him. He wasn’t just cute, with his wavy dark hair and his big brown eyes—he was really smart, especially about words. He always raised his hand in English and said non-obvious things. I could tell our teacher, Mr. Torres, appreciated his comments. And how many eighth-grade boys spent summer vacation at the town library? Only Elijah.
I mean, really, considering me, it made perfect sense for me to have him as my crush. For an entire year, I scribbled his name in the back of my math binder and tried to think up words that rhymed with Elijah (beside ya?) while he read Batman comics or whatever.
Because the thing was, who else was I supposed to like?
But it was hard to say this without sounding slightly loser-ish. Or like a person who enjoyed feeling sorry for herself. Which I didn’t.
“Earth to Mattie,” Tessa said. “Come in, spacegirl.”
“Yeah, sorry. I was just thinking.” I stirred my fro-yo counterclockwise, then ate a spoonful of soggy chocolate chips. “I guess I like Elijah’s eyebrows. And the way he laughs.”
Tessa snorted. “Okay, well, that explains everything.”
“Mattie, listen to me,” Lucy said, reaching across the table to pat my shoulder. “Go to Willow’s party, wear a costume, take a really good look at Elijah. See how he acts if he doesn’t know it’s you. It’ll be a test: If you still think he’s worth spending the entire year crushing on, go ahead. But maybe you’ll decide he isn’t worth it. And maybe you’ll notice someone else.”
“Yeah? Like who?” By then, we’d noticed everyone in middle school. There was nobody left to notice.
“I don’t know,” Lucy admitted. “I just think you should keep your eyes open.”
Right then, Charlotte Pangel and Isabel Guzman walked into Verona’s. They were two of Willow Kaplan’s sidekicks, always playing on Willow’s teams, or cheering for her in the stands. Seriously, it was strange that they were here without her, because they tagged after Willow all over town. Charlotte and Isabel were the kind of girls who were always whispering to each other; whatever they were saying, it was probably something you’d rather not hear.
“But I like it here. I like these chairs. Don’t you think these chairs are really comfy?” Tessa sat back in hers, kicking out her skinny legs as if she were sunning herself by a pool. She scooped up a spoonful of fro-yo lava and beamed at us.
Lucy and I exchanged glances. I could tell she wanted to leave as much as I did, but neither of us trusted Tessa enough to leave her behind. The thing about Tessa was, sometimes her Off switch malfunctioned. Especially around people who didn’t appreciate her coolness.
So the three of us sat there, not budging, while Charlotte and Isabel helped themselves to yogurt and toppings, paid the lady at the counter, who was possibly Verona, then took seats at a table opposite us. Lucy and I pantomimed eating, even though by then there was nothing left in our paper cups.
Charlotte and Isabel whispered. The radio was playing some Mom-era song, and Possibly Verona was humming along as she sprayed and wiped the counter.
Finally, Charlotte slapped down her spoon. “Okay, that is just. So. Rude.”
Tessa blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”
“Right, Tessa. Like you don’t know.”
“I really don’t, Charlotte. Why don’t you tell me?”
“The way you keep staring at us,” Isabel said. “It’s kind of creepy, actually.”
Tessa raised her eyebrows. “You think I’m staring at you? Why would I even want to?”
“Who knows?” Charlotte said, smirking. “Maybe you’re wondering what it’s like not to be ugly.”
Tessa paled. Considering she was naturally fair-skinned, with wispy blond hair and light blue eyes, pale on her looked kind of alarming.
But then it was like something clicked inside her, and she practically leaped out of her chair. “I’m ugly? You’re like a toad; ugly and venomous. Thy face is not worth sunburning.”
Uh-oh, I thought. Because I’d seen this before: When Tessa got too angry to think up words, she quoted lines from plays. Often it got on people’s nerves.
“?‘Thy’?” Charlotte hooted. “?‘Thy’?”
“Tessa, come on, we need to leave,” I said, grabbing her arm.
She pulled away from me, avoiding my eyes. “It’s Shakespeare,” she informed Charlotte. “It means ‘your’: Your face is not worth sunburning.”
“I know what ‘thy’ means, you moron. I meant, who talks like that?”
Tessa did a fancy bow. “I do.”
Isabel rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Tessa, and we all love hearing it.”
“Okay, guys,” Lucy said, stepping in front of Charlotte. “Can we all please . . . ?”
Tessa ignored her. “At least I have something to show off. But you, Charlotte, are just Willow’s little shadow. You can’t think one single thought for yourself. ‘Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows.’?”
“There she goes again,” Isabel told Charlotte. “?‘Mine elbows.’?”
“Oh, is Shakespeare hard for you?” Tessa asked sympathetically. “Allow me to translate. ‘Mine’ means ‘my’; ‘elbows’ means ‘elbows.’?”
The door opened. In walked Willow. As soon as she entered the shop, you could tell she smelled a fight. “What’s going on?” she asked in a sharp, accusing voice.
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “Charlotte and Tessa were just arguing. But it’s over now, right?” I glared at Tessa.
“Really?” Willow narrowed her eyes at me. “Well, it doesn’t look over. It doesn’t feel over.”
“Because it’s not,” Charlotte said. “Tessa just basically called me stupid.”
“Huh. Did she? The thing is, Tessa, if you’re being nasty to my friend—”
Tessa’s cheeks turned pink. “I’m just defending myself, Willow! Am I supposed to stand here and allow your little lapdog—”
“Okay, so now you’re calling me a dog?” Charlotte’s eyes popped.
“No,” Tessa said. “Although, actually, ‘I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something.’?”
“Should I translate, Charlotte? ‘Thee’ means—”
“STOP,” Possibly Verona shouted. She was in front of us now, her hands on her hips. “If you girls can’t have a pleasant, quiet conversation without name-calling, you aren’t welcome here.”
“But she started it,” Charlotte protested, pointing at Tessa.
“That’s not true,” I said loudly. Lucy frowned at me.
“I don’t care who started anything,” Verona snapped. “It’s my shop, and I can’t have fighting in here, period. Now why don’t you girls take your fro-yos and come back when you can act decently, like well-behaved young women.”
She walked over to the door and held it open for us. It occurred to me that I’d never been kicked out of anywhere before—and I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Although in a way, I wished I had. I mean, I sort of just felt like a spectator.
All six of us filed out of Verona’s. Tessa was the last to exit, and as she did, she did another fancy bow, doing a complicated hand gesture that ended with her tipping an imaginary hat.
“Fairest lady, I humbly take my leave,” said Tessa.
Barbara Dee is the author of several middle grade novels including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have received several starred reviews and been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.