By Mette Bach
Available now from Lorimer
SideStreets is Lorimer's series of hi-lo books. I've written about these types of books before, but it has been awhile. Hi-lo books are written to appeal to struggling readers. They have content that appeals to teens, but are written at a range of lower reading levels. FEMME is written at an approximately third-grade reading level. I really appreciate that SideStreets and Mette Bach are making LGBT stories available for readers who are still developing their skills, since there isn't much reading material on the subject available below a high-school reading level.
Sofia, the protagonist of FEMME, doesn't feel like she has much going for herself aside from her popular boyfriend Paul. When her English teacher pairs her with class genius Clea, Sofia is worried about being judged for being dumb. But the two girls end up being fast friends and Clea helps Sofia nurture her study skills. In fact, the two girls decide to take a trip to the US together and look at schools in Portland. Clea wants to go to Portland because she's a lesbian - the only out one at their Canadian high school - and she wants to find a community that she fits into. To Sofia's surprise, she starts to find where she fits too.
FEMME might be simply written, but it is also sensitively written. Sofia and Clea feel like real teenage girls, particularly Sofia. She begins the novel shallow, with low self-esteem, but she makes amazing strides throughout the story. And even though the page count is short, Bach doesn't just tackle a romance. She tackles issues of identity involving sexuality, race, and class. There is a subplot about cyberbullying too. It all moves by quickly. However, while things are lightly covered, they don't feel lightweight.
FEMME is a novel that fills a niche that desperately needs something. Fortunately, there's much more reason to read it than just because it feels a need. It's got wonderful characters, a strong setting, and it tackles real-world issues in a manner that is positive but not treacly. I found FEMME to be surprisingly sweet.