June 28, 2017

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Alex Gino on Debut Novel, “George”, and the Importance of Transgender Voices in the Kid Lit World

In a starred review, SLJ called Alex Gino’s debut, George (Scholastic), a “required purchase for any

Photo credit: Blake C. Aarens

Alex Gino, author of George. Photo credit: Blake C. Aarens

collection that serves a middle grade population.” The groundbreaking novel introduces readers to Melissa, a third-grade transgender girl, known to almost everyone around her—even her family members and best friend—as George, her birth name. First-time author Alex Gino discusses their motivation for penning this important story, the reaction from readers, and why children’s lit needs transgender voices telling transgender stories.

One aspect of George that almost every review notes positively is your choice to have the omniscient narrator always use female pronouns when referring to Melissa. Was that always a part of Melissa’s story for you, or did earlier drafts have a different pronoun usage?

The narrator’s choice of pronouns for Melissa has always been important to me, and it’s something that went through a number of changes over time. In the first draft, Melissa’s pronouns flipped at a critical moment in the book, but that felt far too external and performative for how I wanted readers to know Melissa. By the time Scholastic acquired the book, the pronoun she appeared on page 2, as Melissa opened her bag of girl’s teen magazines. It was my editor, David Levithan, who questioned the need to make Melissa’s gender into a secret reveal and brought Melissa’s pronouns into the opening paragraph. Hurray for editors!!

On your website, you wrote a blog post on how to talk about George. First, thank you for doing that. I think even well-meaning, educated folks are still learning so much about transgender people and we need to keep educating ourselves. I was struck by how important it is to pay attention to word choice and the power of words. For example, you advise that one should never say, “Melissa (or George) identifies as a girl.” Instead, we might say that “Melissa is a transgender girl. She was assigned male at birth.” Why is this distinction so important?

It’s a question of perspective, and recentering the truth that trans people share about ourselves. It’s about a difference between being seen and being questioned. I am who I am, regardless of how you identify me. Do you say someone identifies as six feet tall? Or as being bald? If you are cis, do you say that you identify as being a man or a woman? Generally not; you probably say, “I’m a man” or “I’m a woman” with pride. So if you’re using different language to talk about trans people, it’s a sign that you’re treating their gender as less “real” than that of a cis person.

What do you say to the militant grammarians out there who take issue with pronoun usage that breaks the grammar rules, such as using they instead of he or she?

I call on the linguist, who understands the complexities of language and who understands that while language is held together by rules and standards, it is a living, breathing, ever-changing creature of endless growth and potential. While grammarians have a technical grasp of language, linguists understand its roots.

Adding a new structural word to a language that an adult already speaks—such as invented gender-neutral pronouns—is challenging. I know it was for me. In comparison, the singular they is a quick shift that reflects your respect for who people are.

As for the grammarian who’s still railing, I refer them to the Oxford English Dictionary (which includes the singular they), to writers as old as Chaucer and Shakespeare, who used the singular they, and to my use of the singular they earlier in this response, which, unless you enjoy pointing out errors for their own sake, you probably glossed over.

As noted in a recent New York Times piece, George comes out at a time when transgender people and transgender fictional characters are seeing more mainstream attention, perhaps more than in any time previous. And your novel fills a particular void—whereas most of the recent books are for a YA audience, George is about and for middle grade readers. Was that absence part of what motivated you to write Melissa’s story?

Middle grade contemporary novels (chapter books, as I called them growing up) have always been my favorite literature. When I was 10, I loved to read more than at about any other time in my life. So the age range of the book was never a question. When I started writing George, there wasn’t really mainstream trans literature for children of any age. The few gay and lesbian books that did exist were focused on picture books for children with LGB adults in their lives and young adult novels about high school students first coming out.

Upper elementary school is an important time of developing independence. We learn more about who we are as distinct from the world around us, even our own family members. Knowing that trans kids need this story at this age definitely played a role in getting me through the hurdles in making this book a reality.

So what did the Times piece get wrong?

The New York Times article reported on my pronouns but then proceeded to avoid them through awkward, clunky sentence structures that detract from a smooth read. AP policy states that media should use a person’s stated pronoun, which other press has done. Further, they proceeded to call me by my first name, rather than by an honorific and last name, though they had reported on the honorific Mx. only two days before and which is in the Oxford English Dictionary. As a good friend and loyal Times reader noted, honorific and last name is a standard they have historically broken in three situations: cases of requested anonymity, stories in which multiple family members with the same last name cause ambiguity, and children.

But more importantly, they misgendered Melissa. It’s one thing to be behind the times on gender neutral language. It’s another to purposefully use the wrong pronouns for a young trans girl. That upset me. What’s beautiful in that article, though, is the quote at the end from Carolyn Mackler, talking to her 10-year-old son. He basically “Mo-om”s the entire NY Times: “I said, ‘If you met George, would you be friends with him?’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Mom, it’s her, and I would be friends with her if she was nice.’ ”

GEORGE_finalTell me a bit about the reception so far. Beyond the glowing, starred reviews and lovely write-ups by industry professionals, have you spoken to kids? What kind of feedback have you gotten?

The most common response when I have told people about my book coming out has been for people to tell me a specific person in their life, often a kid, who NEEDS this book. That’s powerful. I’ve gotten some responses from kids and from parents of kids, and they’re amazingly, glowingly wonderful. I’m honored that I can provide a literary mirror for kids to find themselves in, even if the details are a little different. Literary mirrors are, funnily enough, not literal.

There’s been backlash, too. How do you manage or respond to that?

The overall response has been amazing, and the concerns I’ve heard, at least so far, have more been from teachers and librarians who are nervous that they will face backlash if they make Melissa’s story, and other trans children’s literature, available to students and patrons. Yes, that can be a genuine fear.  And I ask you to remember the young trans student, alone and with fewer resources than you, who needs to find themselves represented in literature.

It would seem that the success of George has already launched you into the spotlight as a de facto advocate—a spokesperson, even—for the transgender community. Is that a role you are comfortable in? Is this something you expected to happen with the publication of this book?

When I started this book, I had no idea who, if anyone, would ever consider publishing it. But as I witnessed culture shifting over the past few years, I knew it was time to finish up the manuscript on my computer and get it out there. And as I interact with people and media about the book, I do find that I sometimes need to steer the conversation away from me and back onto Melissa and trans children.

I come to the conversation with a lifetime of trans experience and 18 years of experience in trans culture. I have the advantage of having already learned how to navigate the world in my gender before being thrown into a spotlight to speak for others. And yet I am and will only ever be one trans person, and in that sense, how can one spokesperson ever advocate for such a diverse group? I am a white, able-bodied, well-educated, middle-class, native English speaker from New York City. I can only ever be the expert of my experience, and I hope that any media attention I receive adds to, not detracts from, the awareness of other trans people, in particular trans women of color, who are being murdered at a frightening pace.

George had a different title originally. What was it? Why was it changed?

George grew up on my computer as Girl George, an homage to Boy George, of course. The name change was one of the first edits Scholastic made, and they did it to widen the audience. It was an extremely smart decision. And it’s left things in a bit of an awkward place, titling the book a name Melissa would prefer never to hear again. But I think that gives the audience a little extra insight into the discomfort of being trans in a world that expects you to be someone you aren’t.

It was announced recently that actress Jamie Clayton narrates the audio book of George. Why is that such an important choice?

I believe deeply in the importance of trans voices telling trans stories. Aside from being an amazing voice actress, which she is, Jamie brings a level of authenticity and understanding to her performance that a cis person simply can’t replicate. Trans visibility is key to trans acceptance, and a trans voice reading a trans story written by a trans author is just the kind of thing we need.

Listen to a clip from the audio book:

Have you already binge-watched Sense8 (a Netflix drama starring actress Jamie Clayton)? What did you think?

For me, one episode a night is bingeing, but YES! It was so good and so real. I think there are some problematic elements, and J.M. Strazcynski [the cowriter/creator and executive producer of Sense8] has already been a slow play as a writer (I say this having watched all of Babylon 5 more than once, including the first season), but the queer and trans representation is so real and genuine and so wonderfully integrated into the rest of the story. And that opening scene? Awww, yeah!

Were you a big reader growing up? What books were your favorites as a middle grader?

I loved reading then perhaps even more than I do now. I loved everything by Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Judy Blume. And The Phantom Tollbooth! I’ve always loved stories [that] show me what’s in my world and also that the options are limitless. Charlotte’s Web made me cry in class, and I wanted to live in My Side of the Mountain and have a falcon. And I loved Paula Danziger. My parents were happily married—still are, kissing-in-public style—and books like It’s an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World were how I learned about this odd social phenomenon: divorce.

The fans of Alex Gino and George are legion, and we want more. What are you working on now?

You’re so sweet.  I am currently working on my second middle grade novel, which incorporates issues of Deafness, the Black Lives Matter movement, intergenerational struggles, and first crushes. I have a draft that I’m ironing, massaging, and pruning to interweave these story lines into a fluent, intersectional, modern story of learning about privilege and how to ally with the people you care about.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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