George by Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: August 25, 2015
George introduces a compassionate and thoughtful fourth-grade girl living in a boy’s body, who wants to be accepted by her family, friends, and classmates as Melissa—if only she could be brave enough to share her secret.
This middle-grade transgender story won the 2016 Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association. The committee praised George as “a classic story that speaks to the transgender child’s experience.”
George does speak to the transgender child’s experience, and I recommend it simply for that. Some young transgender readers might identify with George and feel less alone. The story might also help straight readers to understand how other kids like George see the world, and perhaps think twice about hurtful words and actions. Books build bridges that way.
George is also a timely book as many state legislatures, sport leagues, and school districts are dealing with controversial laws, policies, and rules for transgender students. I’m impressed that Scholastic saw the importance of publishing a book like this. However, George often feels like a primer on the transgender experience rather than a contemporary middle-grade novel about a transgender character.
The author hits all of the main points of a how-to guide to transgender students like a translation of Schools inTransition: A Guide For Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools into a novel format. I stumbled on the multitude of stilted or stereotypical character descriptions and plot points. George has a thin frame and wants to wear pink outfits and glittery makeup, of course. Mom discourages any “feminine” behavior, like playing dress-up, as you might guess. The class bully hurls predictable derogatory comments at George and eventually punches George in the gut, like a “classic” bully would do. Perhaps precisely because these expected story elements are not well-tread territory in middle-grade novels, it’s forgivable here. Besides, the author refrains from outright didacticism that would make it a glorified how-to book, and the story is not bad. Just predictable.
Still, as a writer, I have a few other issues with this book as a literary work. The dust-jacket copy promises George will solve the problem for herself. Spoiler alert: George does not come up with the plan. Kelly does. I really wanted George to figure this out.
That brings up another problem in the spoiler-alert category. Kelly and Scott, George’s older brother, accept George’s transgender revelation too darn quickly. Scott eats a dinner roll and – poof! -- he is cool with her. Wouldn’t these characters balk at first? Maybe worry what other kids would say about them? I was glad they loved George unconditionally, don’t get me wrong, but I just didn’t believe they would welcome Melissa without any hesitation.
One other thing. Melissa? What’s up with that name? Kelly isn’t any better. My friends’ names are Melissa and Kelly, and I’m 50 years old. I don’t know of one Melissa or Kelly in fourth grade today. I wondered if the setting was the 1970s, back when I was in fourth grade, but there’s a cordless phone in one scene and Scott calls George “Dude.” I think it’s supposed to be contemporary fiction. And, more important, I think you should read George despite the name anachronisms, despite Kelly solving the problem, despite the predictable elements.
Please read it. So many children need to be better understood for who they are. Then, if you’re looking for exceptional contemporary fiction that happens to provide insights to the transgender experience, read Beautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills . We need more bridge-building books and more people reading them.
Tracy Nelson Maurer holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. She writes about children’s literature and has published more than 100 titles for children. Her picture-book biographies, John Deere, That’s Who! (Henry Holt) and Noah Webster’s Fighting Words will be published in the spring of 2017. Find her on Facebook or at TracyMaurerWriter.com.