Literature makes us who we are.
Too often, non-required reading is classified as just that: non-required. A leisure activity. Not a necessary ingredient in a well-lived life. Nora Ephron once said, "Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real." Reading can not only bring beauty and reality and imagination to our lives, it can also provide us with essential instruction on how to live.
"George," Alex Gino's new book for middle grades, is all of these things. Kid, teen or adult, it should be on everyone's reading list.
The book tells the story of George, a 10-year-old transgender girl. At the beginning of the story, she's not out to anyone, poring over teen magazines in private and wanting to read for the role of Charlotte, not Wilbur, in her elementary school's production of "Charlotte's Web." She dreads puberty, and hates being told she'll be a "fine young man" when she grows up.
Here's where that "instructions for living" bit of reading comes in, especially when we're in those tender and formative middle grades that Gino writes for in "George." I realized I needed glasses after reading a "Babysitters Club Little Sisters" book in which the main character gets her own pair after the chalkboard is blurry to her. The chalkboard was blurry for me too, I asked for an exam, and my extreme nearsightedness was revealed. The power of literature!
Now imagine what "George," a story of a person realizing who they are and how they want to express that to the world, can do for today's readers, kid or adult. Here's a word for something you might be, something they might tell you they are, something you might be hearing about. Here's a way you can react to that.
Gino, who prefers to use a singular "they" pronoun, began writing "George" 12 years ago, frustrated with the lack of queer and transgender literature for kids. They went to a bookstore and found a few "Heather Has Two Mommies"-type picture books and "depressing Young Adult" books, they told MTV News, and decided it was time to fill the void for middle readers.
"It seemed really important that kids have a book that reflects themselves and also that reflects trans people even if they're not themselves trans," Gino said.
Indeed, "George" can be a lot of things to a lot of people. It's a school story, a narrative that takes place in the classrooms and playgrounds and on the couches of friends. It's a theater story, following the production of George's school production of "Charlotte's Web," a device Gino said they loved as a nod to theater's traditional role of exploring identity and trying on different masks, as well as a tribute to E.B. White's classic tale, which Gino called "pretty much a perfect book." "George" is also a highly relatable narrative that doesn't talk down to its readers (George is referred to as "she" from page one, without any "George was born a boy but sees herself as a girl" hand-holding) or sugarcoat, but isn't dark or scary for any kids who might be encountering the same feelings in their lives. George comes out slowly to those closer to her, and their reactions vary.
"I wanted to make sure that I didn't leave people with an 'it gets better in the future' feel, because that's not enough," Gino said. "It has to be now. Sometimes the results when you reveal yourself don't go well, and sometimes they do, and when they do it can be from the people you least expect."
"George" hit shelves this week, and positive comments from fellow authors like John Green have helped spread the word of mouth. What Gino says is most important, however, is that people read and share the book.
"The word of mouth is out of control and amazing," they said. "The fact that people are tweeting me and saying, 'I read it and I'm giving it to someone else,' it's amazing. It's one thing to buy a book, it's another thing to read a book. A book can sell a lot of copies, people can say I'm gonna read that book, but where it really changes things is when you read it cover to cover."
For an author whose book stands tall in a nearly empty field, Gino said they "can't wait to be behind the times." There are so many stories to be told, they said, and so much forward ground to cover.
"This is only one trans story. This is not the only trans story," Gino said. "And I really look forward to more diverse trans stories and more intersectional trans stories. Trans stories where being trans is only part of it. Trans stories about people of color, people with disabilities, people who don't speak English as their first language, and also have a trans narrative."
"George" is available for sale now.