All over the country there are debates about whether the needs of transgender children are being met in our school systems. I’m thinking particularly of this recent case in Edmonton, in which the mother of a seven year old transgender girl is fighting for her daughter’s right to use the girls’ washroom. The Catholic school board is set to review and debate a new policy, but the mother feels that without a provincial policy in place conflicts like these are sure to arise again. This story makes my heart ache and I am so thankful for books like George, which should not only be required reading for children, but for adults making decisions for children.
George knows she is a girl, even if to the outside world she looks like a boy. She has dreams of wearing skirts and make up and keeps a stash of women’s magazines hidden in her closet that she can flip through and pretend that she is one of the girls in the photos. It is getting harder for her to pretend to be a boy. When auditions for the school’s production of Charlotte’s Web come up, George wants to try out for the role of Charlotte
It is fitting that George identifies with and yearns to play Charlotte, the wise female spider who understands the power of words. Charlotte is perhaps the most graceful character in children’s literature. Grace is a word I kept coming back to while thinking about this book. Alex Gino’s prose is graceful and unfettered, yet full of nuance. I hesitate to call a book with such impact gentle, and George experiences violence at the hands of a school bully that is not at all gentle, but the tone is pitched just right for younger middle grade, ages 8-11, and I believe this is the age group that needs this story the most. I’ve gone on about how YA is too late to address sexuality, identity, or any controversial issue. We’re kidding ourselves if we think children don’t wonder about these issues before the age of 10. Why not acknowledge their questions and curiosity and provide them with informed information and stories with heart and truth to bolster confidence and inspire empathy? Stories like George?
Empathy is a quality we talk about but I’m not sure that I see it in the never-ending news stories about inadequate rights for LGBT students and challenges to sexual education. You cannot teach empathy without demonstrating it, and George is a perfect example of empathy in book form. Through the narration, which is third person but very firmly inside George’s head, we know that George refers to herself using female pronouns. It is jarring when characters do otherwise. Words like ‘brother, my boy’ feel wrong and their implications carry much more weight. This is a simple but effective technique that allows readers the tiniest glimmer of what it must feel like to be George. It would be hard for a reader to walk away from George with not only a deeper understanding of what it is like to be trans, but also how we can support trans people.
It goes without saying that this is an excellent discussion book. The concept of being trans can be tricky for children to wrap their heads around, particularly in a culture that sees people as Pink or Blue. Let’s face it, many adults have trouble understanding and accepting the concept. Gino is careful in presenting a variety of reactions to George. There is an especially lovely scene between George and her older brother Scott when she tells him she isn’t gay, she’s a girl. Two things happen. One, Scott says “That’s more than being just gay,” suggesting that it is harder people to come to terms with transgender people than it is to come to terms with homosexuality. The second observation is that Scott “looked at George as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time.” What a lovely moment of acceptance. For those looking to use George in the classroom, Alex has a section on their website about how to talk about George and transgender people in general.
I have to give a shout-out to George’s best friend Kelly, she of the slogan t-shirts and loud opinions. Kelly is exactly the friend George needs. She embraces George being a girl and comes up with the plan for George to go to the city zoo with her and her uncle (who has never met George) as Melissa, the name George calls herself. George comes to her house, tries on girls’ clothing and lip gloss and gets to spend one day as her true self. The scene has a jubilant feel to it and ends with Melissa contemplating the best week of her life “so far.” This quiet promise of good things to come, that things will get better, is exactly the kind of affirming message that children struggling with issues of identity and acceptance crave and deserve.
George is available in hard cover now from Scholastic.