George by Alex Gino

george-small

“As the principal spoke, George’s eyes scanned the wall behind her… A sign in the far corner showed a large rainbow flag flying on a black background. Below the flag, the sign said SUPPORT SAFE SPACES FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH. Reading the word transgender sent a shiver down George’s spine. She wondered where she could find a safe space like that, and if there would be other girls like her there. Maybe they could talk about makeup together. Maybe they could even try some on” (Gino 2015, p. 125).

I had no idea this book existed before I found it on my reading list for my children’s literature class, but I’m so glad that I was able to read it. This book was surprisingly hard to find at my local public library. Whether that’s because of the sensitive subject matter within or the fact that it’s so new, however, I’ll never know. Regardless, I was able to snag a copy from the university library I work in, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to talk about it here on my blog.

George, as the title implies, follows the story of a young boy named George. Though she was born a boy, George knows in her heart that she’s a girl, but is terrified to tell anyone around her for fear of being teased or called a “freak.” At the beginning of the story, George’s class has just finished reading Charlotte’s Web, and will be putting on a play for the rest of the school. George wants nothing more than to play the role of Charlotte, the wise spider with whom she most identifies. George’s teacher, however, refuses to let a boy play Charlotte when there are so many girls eager for the part. Throughout the story, George struggles with the fact that she is secretly a girl, even afraid to share the information with her own mother and brother. George is ultimately the story of a little boy who knows she’s a girl, and must find the courage to show the rest of the world who she really is.

Surprisingly, this is one of the few stories (this and If You Could Be Mine) to feature transgender issues. Though books with gay and lesbian characters have existed for a while, transgender issues have only recently come to light in the world of literature. When I learned that this book would be about a little boy struggling with the possibility of being transgender and transitioning, I was ecstatic; it’s wonderful to see diversity in children’s literature, as children often need to see characters like them. Though I’ve seen young adult books deal with transgender issues in the past, I have yet to see a children’s book tackle them. George, though a simple story, is ground-breaking in that it shows a young child struggling with her self identity and dealing with problems (such as bullying and self-doubt) that plague many real children who might benefit from reading this book.

Though it might not always be realistic, it was nice to see George’s family support her once they found out that she wanted to transition. There are so many parents out there who would kick their child out of the house for even thinking about being gay or transgender, so I think showing a child with a supportive (though worried) mom and brother was very positive representation. George’s mom seems upset at first, but we later learn that it’s because she’s worried about what the rest of society will do to him. She does her best to be supportive at the end of the novel, however, simply asking George to take things “one step at a time” as she adjusts to the new information. It was also wonderful to see that George had an incredibly supportive best friend, one who was willing to let him play the part of Charlotte and defend him against the school bullies.

Speaking of bullies, I was surprisingly okay with the one-note bullies in this story. Usually, I’d take issue with characters who exist solely to be awful, but I think this story needed them in order to convey the severity of George’s decision to transition. While many of his classmates are supportive when he plays Charlotte, the bullies (Jeff and Rick) torment him simply for crying over the spider’s death in the book. Though I obviously cannot climb into the author’s head, I feel that these characters were added to foreshadow how some members of society will treat George later on in his life. The sad reality for many LGBT children is that they are often bullied to extremes, pushed until they see suicide as the only way out. Just as I’m glad Gino gave George supportive friends and family members, I’m glad he chose to show a glimpse of the cruelty of others, as this is important for children to realize. The author was able to convey a sense of hope for children in similar situations (one of George’s teachers even promises to be there for her), while also warning them that not everyone will be so accepting.

Along with providing a “safe book” for children struggling with their sexuality or identity, George also has the power to evoke sympathy in those who have traditionally held anti-LGBT beliefs. Though George is a fictional character, she is impossible to dislike. I can’t think of a single person who would read her story and not feel sympathy for what she’s going through, and this sympathy could help them to see the LGBT community in a new light. Sadly, not everyone who holds anti-LGBT sentiments will give a book with such “controversial” subject material the time of day, but I believe it has the power to change the minds of those willing to give it a chance.

Though George is by no means high art (it’s written very simply and is incredibly short), it’s a wonderful little story that helps to shed light on a marginalized community that could really use more exposure and awareness right now. For that, I applaud Gino. As I mentioned above, all children need to recognize themselves in literature, especially children from marginalized groups. Seeing a character like George presented in such a respectful way could go a long way in helping a child who is struggling with the same problems feel less alone, so I think this book is immensely important. If it helps just one child to feel that he or she is normal and accepted, I think it’s more than worth any expenses required to put the book in that child’s hands.

Reference:

Gino, A. (2015). George. New York: Scholastic Press.

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