George by Alex Gino.
George loves Charlotte’s Web more than anyone in her class, maybe even her school. She can’t wait to be Charlotte in the 4th grade play. There’s only one problem – to the world, she looks like a boy, and Charlotte is a girl’s part. But George is also holding in a big secret… she’s really a girl.
This book has been getting a LOT of buzz in the book blogging world, particularly the diverse corner of it. Let’s face it, there aren’t many books in general addressing the transgender experience, and I cannot think of any other fiction work for middle graders on this topic. There are a few picture books, but the majority of works are aimed at teens and YA audiences, which is a shame, because many (not all) transgender or intersex people are dealing with this from a much younger age.
I found it ironic that the book was based around Charlotte’s Web, which is at points somewhat sexist and old-fashioned (although I still love it). Personally I read this as the author subtly pointing out that our own cultural attitudes toward transgender people are outdated, but it’s also possible that it just was chosen as a cultural touchstone many people are familiar with in America.
As a closeted transgender youth, George’s life is a constant series of microagressions, and this is evident throughout the novel, but especially in the earlier parts. When this is most obvious is when it comes from allies like Ms. Udell or her best friend Kelly.
I was very impressed with the way that this novel handled violence against transgender people. Bullying, mean comments, microagressions, and even violence are present, but handled deftly. This is so important because, while this book is about a fourth grader, it may be read by children quite a bit younger. Children need to be aware of such violence so that they can either be prepared for it or be prepared to advocate for others, but it shouldn’t be too scary.
George experiences violence, but adults and occasionally peers do intervene eventually and there is a general sense that she is relatively safe at school. She may be bullied and ostracized, but she also has a friend and experiences far more support than many transgender people.
There seemed to be a lot of gender separation in the school. I’m not saying there aren’t schools that still do this sort of thing, but as a temporary parent and roving school librarian, I’ve been involved with a lot of schools. Lining up by gender or having to roleplay an animal by gender are not usual and tend to reflect a teacher’s idiosyncrasy rather than a school policy. Ms. Udell seemed too compassionate and up-to-date to rely on such outdated policies.
One other minor issue was that I couldn’t quite decide if the author was fat-shaming. The entire work contains a lot of description activating the senses, including taste and textures. Our main character’s mother is sure to eat a salad first at the buffet and one character is described as fat. I mention it in case anyone is triggered.
A lot has been said about the accidental micro-aggression of the title, however I didn’t feel that the title was incorrect. George is in transition. She’s referred to by the correct pronoun throughout the book, but doesn’t experience a permanent name change. In the book, Gigi is an affectionate family nickname that’s been in use for many years (albeit with masculine spelling). She’s a fourth grader dealing not only with the massive trauma of living in the incorrect gender, but also her parents’ divorce and some pretty severe bullying at school. Melissa may end up being her forever name, or it may not. Either way, I felt there was room for a sequel with her new name as the title for book two.
This book is highly recommended, as it is not only well-written, but also one of the few books dealing with early childhood transition for younger children.