by Liam Lowery
George is a very special book, but the most special thing of all is its unfaltering use of female pronouns to refer to the protagonist. Melissa is a transgender girl, and the omniscient narrator affirms her story from the first page: she is a girl, even if everyone thinks she is a boy. But she has a plan to let everyone know the truth—she will nab the title role in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web.
Like Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish,which follows the transition of a boy named Grady whose family puts on annual Christmas pageants, the centering of Melissa’s transition and coming out on a play highlights the performativity of gender. The stage, it seems, should be a safe space for Melissa to try out a new identity and play with gender. But she already knows who she is. Instead, she decides to make her debut. This production is the moment to let everyone know once and for all that she is a girl.
The plot of George will keep you turning pages (don’t worry, I won’t spoil the story here), but where George really shines is in Melissa’s moments of pain. Author Alex Gino expertly weaves together snapshots of transgender childhood and deftly maneuvers through difficult moments in George, ranging from stings to slaps.
George captures adeptly the challenging experience of a transgender fourth grader, where bullies loom large around nearly every corner. There are dramatic moments, to be sure, such as Melissa’s teacher telling her she will be a “fine young man,” after she cries when Charlotte dies in Charlotte’s Web, or Melissa’s mother telling her she can’t handle having “that kind of gay” (meaning trans) kid.
The most perfect and profound are the moments of quiet solitary sadness, like Melissa being handed the boys’ bathroom pass at school and flipping the word “boy” away from her as she walks down the hallway. Tender and candid, I have not read a book that more perfectly captures the feelings of being a transgender kid and coming to terms with having a complicated gender identity.
But in George, as in life, hard-won moments of transcendental joy are also in store for Melissa, like rifling through her stash of girls’ clothes and magazines before her family gets home, or a trip to the zoo with her friend Kelly, who lets her be herself, or even experiencing her mom’s march toward acceptance.
Be forewarned: you will likely read George in one sitting and you should really keep a box of tissues nearby. A tale on par with Charlotte’s Web, though the suggested reading range is grade 4-6, I would recommend George for any and all kids and adults, especially those who are, have, or know transgender kids. This degree of nuance and focus is rare when portraying trans characters in general, let alone when they are as young as Melissa is in George.
This is Gino’s debut novel, and their voice as a non-binary author is something more kids and parents need to hear. Gino is a true friend for sharing this story with us, and a good writer to boot.
Liam Lowery is a queer transgender man and law student, based in New York. His work focuses on transgender legal advocacy, and how race, class, ability and sexuality impact the transgender experience.