Greg Howard’s second middle-grade novel, Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk!, features a pre-teen boy coming to terms with the realization that he’s gay. But unlike Howard’s poignant 2019 novel, The Whispers, described by Booklist as a “touching story of grief and healing,” this book is a funny, fast-paced plunge into the seemingly unrelated worlds of middle school, entrepreneurship, nursing homes, and the drag scene.
Twelve-year-old Mikey Pruitt hopes to follow in the footsteps of his beloved grandfather, Pap, who was successful at many kinds of businesses in his younger days. Pap, now blind, lives in a nursing home and is often too ill for Mikey to visit. Mikey is determined to make Pap proud of him, so he has founded Anything, Inc., with his parents serving as the board of directors and his 9-year-old sister enlisted as his bratty intern. Now he just has to figure out what ventures he will undertake.
Unfortunately, Mikey’s first attempts at entrepreneurship have all failed, including his general store and his most recent endeavor, teaching neighborhood kids to play croquet. This doesn’t stop him from looking for the next great idea. He jots down proposals for new divisions of Anything, Inc. (“Anything Modern and Hip Rebranding” and “Anything Perplexing Mystery Solving Detective Agency,” for example) and important-sounding but basically meaningless business tips as they occur to him, hoping for that big breakthrough concept.
It’s unfair, Mikey thinks, to have to deal with middle school with its attendant social anxieties (not to mention homework) and a pain-in-the-neck younger sister, while trying to get a business off the ground. It doesn’t occur to him that operating a general store might be a bit ambitious for someone who’s never even worked in one before and that may be the reason he failed as a croquet teacher was that he doesn’t know how to play the game himself.
What Mikey lacks in self-awareness he makes up for in self-confidence, though, and when a boy walks into his office seeking an agent for his fledgling career as a drag queen, Mikey is sure he can turn Coco Valiente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem (also known as Julian Vasquez), into a star. He’s completely ignorant about the drag scene, but his talent for bluffing and his internet search skills manage to convince not only Julian but three other young clients (a dog trainer, a psychic, and a comedian) to sign him as their agent.
Much of the humor of Middle School’s a Drag comes from Mikey’s cluelessness and overconfidence, but when he interferes in Julian’s family life, things become serious and he risks disaster. Some might find the resolution of this blunder too neat, but for young readers who wonder if a personal dilemma (whether sexual orientation or another issue) can ever be resolved, Mikey’s success might be just the encouragement they need.
Many middle-grade and young adult novels center on adversarial relationships between protagonists and their parents. Refreshingly, Mikey’s parents and grandfather are supportive of his business enterprises, and they seem unconcerned that he’s gay. Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! is a funny take on early adolescence and discovering who you are, with a warmth that’s sure to speak to young readers and the adults in their lives.