Things in Print Thursday :: a review of George by Alex Gino

27 Aug

Courtesy entirely of my drift partner.

George might be one of the most important books in the last decade. It is about a trans girl who wishes to be called Melissa, and who is trying to figure out how to deal with her gender identity and how her loved ones will react. It’s a pretty typical coming-out/identity story. What makes it unique is that Melissa is in the fifth grade and her story was written for 8-12 year olds.

I first heard about George via a tumblr post, which is how I find out about roughly half of the books I read anymore. That post contained the text from a blog post by the author, Alex Gino, in which they explained the most respectful ways to discuss the main character of the book, her gender identity, and their own gender identity (Gino is genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns). The last time I bought a brand-new hardcover book was in February (and it was only because it was by my favorite author and I had been waiting for it for years), but I decided I needed to buy and read this book, since it was coming out the next Tuesday (August 25). I’m cisgender, probably (gender is kind of uncomfortable for me to think about but that is neither here nor there), but I wanted to make sure to support the book.

Melissa is a sympathetic character from the first page. For most of the book, the narrative calls her “George,” which in the trans community is known as “deadnaming” (Gino explains this in the linked post), but uses she/her pronouns. Melissa is a sensitive, clever, funny person who wants more than anything for people to know her secret, but whose anxiety of what might happen to her keeps her from saying anything. So she has to do things like keep a secret stash of teen girl magazines hidden in her closet, or practice for the role of Charlotte in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. The play acts as the obvious conflict, since Melissa badly wants to play Charlotte, but is terrified that her teacher won’t let her because she thinks Melissa is a boy. But I actually think that the play was kind of secondary to the narrative, and the real conflict involved Melissa’s relationships with her mom, brother, and best friend. That might be a personal thing, because I’m much older than a fifth grader, but I know the fear you feel when you can’t be your true self around your loved ones. At one point, Melissa’s mom thinks she’s gay, and tries to give her a talk about how it’s okay, she’ll accept her no matter what, and Melissa panics and changes the subject. The mom is probably one of the most realistic characters in the book, actually, because she talks about being accepting of gay people, but when Melissa actually tries to explain herself her mom shuts her down. Unfortunately, even some people who say they’re accepting of gay rights can be transphobic, either accidentally or through willful ignorance. (I won’t spoil it because everyone should read this book, but I will say that the ending is perfect.)

Gino’s writing style is engaging and emotional and pulls you into Melissa’s head right away, and they bring up a lot of struggles that trans people face in language that kids or people unfamiliar with transgender issues can understand. One of my favorite small touches involves a scene where Melissa is taking a bath and arranges the bubbles so that she won’t be able to see her penis. (Interestingly, the book never uses the word “penis,” but instead uses language like “the thing between her legs,” which I thought was a nice way of communicating the disgust and dysphoria Melissa feels about her body.) The word transgender isn’t even brought up until about halfway through the book, which is an interesting choice, and the right one, because it’s made clear that while Melissa has done a bit of internet research, she’s still fumbling around with the term and unsure of how to express herself exactly. I know in LGBTQ spaces, there’s some heated debate about how to refer to trans men and trans women, i.e. should we differentiate between cis and trans people when speaking about sexuality? So I think that having Melissa just refer to herself as a girl and not a transgender girl is the easiest way to help kids understand how she and other trans people feel.

Overall, it’s a sweet, heartbreaking, wonderful little book that’s definitely worth checking out. I hope it’s helpful to trans kids, kids who don’t fit into the gender binary, cis kids who want to be compassionate and accepting people, and adults who fall into any of those categories.


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