A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Set in 1987, Frankie & Bug includes a lot of detail of the era, including people living through the AIDS epidemic, and the gay-bashing that ensued. Bathroom issues are plentiful, especially since in 1987 gender-neutral public restrooms are extremely rare. In a pivotal scene, Bug, who has to go to the bathroom very badly, pees her pants because Frankie, who hasn't yet revealed that his anatomical plumbing is the same as hers, has locked the bathroom door -- and then emerges from the bathroom and laughs at her.
Strong messages of friendship, acceptance, and family, especially the ones you make for yourself when others reject you. Also of finding your tribe of people with whom you have something important in common, and building a life in that context. Characters compare notes and share wisdom about being refugees -- and all the things there are to be refugees from.
Positive Role Models
It's often a rocky road, but Frankie and Bug learn to accept each other and form a strong, supportive friendship. All the central characters in Frankie & Bug have a lot on their plates, frequently struggle, and often face tradeoffs: Danny and Bug's mom, left widowed with two small children, gives up her dreams of a journalism career; a gay neighbor won't press charges against the skinheads who beat him because he fears losing all his piano students if their parents learn he's gay. Sometimes they come up with brilliant solutions to vexing problems, as when Bug buys beach-averse Frankie a wetsuit so they can swim without body issues, or when Frankie's mother, much bullied by her narrow-minded husband, sends him away for the summer "to get it out of his system" -- to his gay uncle in Venice with its wild and colorful gender-bending scene, where he instead finds and bonds with people like him for the first time in his life.
The story is set in L.A.'s Venice neighborhood in 1987, a hotbed of artistic, personal, and cultural self-expression, and prominently features gay, trans, and/or racially diverse characters, including a very tall, Black, gender-ambivalent skater in a pink wig who mentors Frankie. Most of the straight White characters are portrayed as cartoonishly racist and sexist, frequently to the point of being downright evil.
"Frankie and Bug plunged into the melee and suddenly they were surrounded by voices, laughter, music. Bug wasn't sure if the skinheads were still chasing them, if they had chased them at all. All she knew was that here, surrounded by the bodybuilders and the skaters and the queers and all the superfreaks and refugees who made Venice home, she and Frankie were safe."
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Violence & Scariness
A serial killer is on the loose in LA, and the kids make it their businss to catch him. A gang of skinheads menaces people for their skin color, their gender, or generally just existing. A character is beaten outside a gay bar. Bug's father died suddenly before she was born, leading to much trouble for the family.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Skinheads make crude remarks and gestures about a woman "liking dark meat" because her son is darker-skinned than she is. One of Bug's friends is at the poster-kissing stage of Duran Duran fandom, and scheming about how Nick Rhodes is all hers.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults and teen skinheads drink alcohol. Some characters meet at a gay bar.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Gayle Forman's Frankie & Bug is the story of two tweens in 1987, a 10-year-old biracial girl named Bug and a visiting 11-year-old trans boy named Frankie, whose family wants him to stop the "nonsense" and be a "regular girl." Set in Venice Beach, a colorful, sometimes dicey beachside part of Los Angeles, it finds child and adult characters awash in and often overwhelmed with problems -- a mom whose family abandons her when her husband dies; a gay piano teacher who won't press charges against the skinheads who beat him at a gay bar because he fears losing his students when their parents find out; a teen suddenly on the receiving end of racial prejudice; his sister who's suddenly lost her best companion when he decides exploring his identity is more important than taking her to the beach, and her mother's decree that she doesn't get to do things her brother gets to do because she's a girl. And then there's the serial killer on the loose. It's all pretty loaded, but also relatable: "Bug waited for Frankie to tell her she was taking it too personally, that Danny was just at an age. But he didn't say either of those things. He looked at her solemnly, like he understood how bad it hurt when someone you loved didn't want you around. Then he gave his head a little shake. 'His loss is my gain,' he said."
Is It Any Good?
Gayle Forman takes on a whole lot of issues, including homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, skinheads, and serial killers, in her fraught, funny, complex tale of two tweens in 1980s Venice Beach. Title characters Frankie & Bug are dealing with quite a lot, as are the adults in their lives, but form a strong bond as they share experiences and work through their differences, discovering in the process that there are worlds they didn't know existed.
"'You keep saying 'queer,'" Frankie said. 'Isn't that a bad thing?'
"'In some circles, I suppose, but I mean it as a term of love for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals.' Flo tossed the quickest look at Frankie before adding, 'You know, all us folk...'
"At the us folk, Bug's breath caught. Did Flo know? Would Frankie be upset? She glanced over. Frankie didn't look upset. He had a funny little half smile on his lips. His eyes were open and shining.
"'Is that what I am?' he asked in a quavering voice.
"'It's not what you are, it's who you are. And that's up to you. But I know plenty like you who call themselves transsexual.'
"'Transsexual,' Frankie repeated. 'So there is a word for it.'
"'Oh, honey, there's a word for everything on God's green earth. And if there isn't, we can just make one up.'"
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.