Author: Alex Gino
Publisher/Date Published: Scholastic, 2015
How I Got This Book: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Rating: 5 out of 5
People look at George and think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows a girl. George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part… because she’s a boy.
George is the first work of fiction I have read that features a transgender protagonist, and as such I was very apprehensive about reading this book when I received it. This isn’t because I have any issue with transgender people but, I was concerned that the first account I was reading is a middle grade book that could deal with the issues very simplistically. It would have to deal with a very complex, emotionally-charged subject in such a way that would engage and appeal to children around the age of eight years old. I feared it would be mawkish and artificial. I am so pleased to say I was totally wrong.
George is written from her perspective. As such, the language is quite simplistic and there is a charming naiveté to the way she deals with the world. She is, after all, only eight years old. My limited experience of transgender issues has usually been in the context of teenagers and adults who want to transition, or have transitioned, and though I had heard of younger children feeling the same I could never imagine how a child that young could feel so certain. I think I get it now. In many ways, George’s story is all the more heartbreaking because, prepubescent, she is at the point where her body will change in ways that she doesn’t want and can’t control. She reads the glossy teen magazines she has hidden at the back of her wardrobe and imagines herself as one of the beautiful girls in the spreads. She knows about the clothes, she knows about the makeup, but she’s not allowed to be part of that world because she was born with the wrong gender. I had also forgotten about just how much primary school is gendered – lining up ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ to go into the classroom, boys and girls playing completely separately at lunchtime. I really felt for George and how constrained she must have felt in that environment, reminded every day that she can’t be who she really is.
Alex Gino tackles George’s story in a very sensitive and engaging way, and as much as you feel for her situation, it is the supporting characters and how they react when they find out about her true self that really saves this book from being a very difficult read. George’s best friend Kelly is a marvel, full of bounding energy and love, dealing with situations in definitive, positive ways that many adults could learn from. I wish that all people struggling with these kind of situations had a friend like Kelly fighting alongside them. In many ways, this book is as much about the power of love and friendship than it is about George herself.
I was also really drawn to George’s mum and how she reacts when George tells her about her true self. My instinctual reaction would be to say that a mother should love her child unconditionally regardless of their gender, sexuality, shape, etc… But I do appreciate that when faced with that situation in reality it is a lot more complicated than that. I admit, it was the discussions that George had with her mum that made me cry a little. I can’t imagine a much more heartbreaking thing than to feel like your own family doesn’t see the real you. I also can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like you want to protect your child from a harsh, judgemental world and you can’t fix their problems for them. Their dialogue was powerfully written, and honest, a real asset to the book as a whole.
I liked the running theme of Charlotte’s Web throughtout the book as well, I thought it was a very clever device to use to provide a catalyst for George. I was a bit surprised when the book continued after the play was over, and although the final chapters did provide a much more hopeful endind than the book would have had if it had ended at the curtain drop, it did mean that the book’s ending trailed off a little for me. I appreciate that it’s an almost impossible task to provide a positive, final resolution to a story where the protagonist’s journey is only just beginning, but it works well for its demographic and it was the most hopeful ending to a story I’ve read in a long while!
George is a very special book. It’s a book that belongs in every library, at every school. It is as heart-warming as it is heartbreaking. It would be a wonderful title for a parent to read with their child to encourage discussion about gender issues and help both parents and children understand them better. I also think every child should have a friend like Kelly, and I hope that through books like George, more kids will realise the importance of understanding and friendship in a very complicated world.