Ten years ago, if you’d walked into a bookstore or library, you’d have been hard-pressed to find transgender narratives written for and about youth. They were virtually nonexistent, and for the same readers who went on oft-disappointing quests to seek these books out, it’s nothing short of heartening and profound to observe the difference a decade can make. We are now witnessing a welcome sea change in the landscape of children’s literature—not only in the young adult category, but for early and middle readers, as well—and it is both exciting and a relief to see a remarkable book like Alex Gino’s George riding this current, much-needed wave.
Written for ages nine to 12, George was born from this absence: a lack of published stories about young children questioning their assigned gender identities, figuring out safe ways to reveal internalized truths to those around them, and, often, taking steps toward transition. George diverges from the narratives we’ve come to expect by placing its reader alongside a protagonist who already, at the novel’s beginning, knows she’s a girl. The book’s main source of tension, rather, is how Melissa, known throughout the book as George (her given name at birth), will prompt others to view and understand her the way she understands herself. As a child of the digital age and fortunate enough to grow up during a time when transness is visible in the media, Melissa has the tools and language she needs to recognize that she isn’t alone and is part of a larger community. But George is also smart enough to convey that it isn’t enough to know something better is out there, waiting—that it is difficult to be a child and even more difficult to be a child living in secret, and the need for support and acceptance from the parents, teachers, and peers one already has relationships with is more immediate and crucial.
“Ten years from now is a lifetime away, and that’s not enough,” Gino says, emphatic about the gap between childhood and adulthood. “There have to be parts that are OK now. There have to be outlets now.”
This includes, of course, the availability of transgender narratives for young readers. When asked what propelled them along their 12-year journey of writing George, Gino, who has a background in education, notes an ongoing love of middle-grade books and says, “The story is different when it comes from the inside. It was really important for me to get trans voices talking about transfolk out there.”
Another important aspect of the book is the concept of allying. Gino isn’t sure which party will benefit from George more—trans- or cisgender readers—but they “wanted to give models of what it looked like to ally and that it’s not about being perfect.”
“The ways that you ally,” Gino adds, “are you listen and you accept and you trust that what the other person is saying is real for them.”
Gino currently splits their time between writing middle-grade fiction about marginalized individuals, performing other types of activism—they are just finishing a board term with the queer, body-positive organization NOLOSE and will be joining We Need Diverse Books as a team member in the fall—and hoping George finds the readership that needs it most.
“My hope is that it be in every library in the country, that kids be able to get their hands on it,” Gino says. “I want it to be a book that someone passes to someone and says, ‘You have to.’ ”
Rebecca Rubenstein is the editor-in-chief of the online literary magazine Midnight Breakfast and a bookseller in San Francisco.