I’m a firm believer that the more we discuss taboo subjects, the more normalized they become. I don’t have children, but I know that if I did, I’d want them to know where babies come from. I’d want them to know the anatomical names for their body parts. I’d want them to know that they are in control of their own bodies. And I’d want them to know that not everyone is the same and that’s okay. In George (Alex Gino, 2015) we have an excellent example of the latter. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss everything the book offers – gender identity, transgenderism, tolerance – and for that I think that the book’s existence is incredibly important. So, it pains me to say that, unfortunately, I do not love the writing.
George is the story of a ten-year-old designated male at birth who knows, deep down, that she’s truly a girl. When her fourth grade class auditions for parts in the school’s play, Charlotte’s Web, George feels as though she’s born to play the title role. She practices endlessly with her best friend Kelly who does nothing but encourage her in her theatrical aspirations. George is, predictably, bullied by some of her male classmates and her teacher is none too keen on allowing a boy to play Charlotte, but George and Kelly concoct a scheme to allow George to shine on the stage and reveal who she really is.
I will hand it to Gino, who, as a non-binary individual, has clearly imbued the story with some of their personal experiences. What we as cisgendered individuals take for granted Gino paints as fraught with anxiety for George:
George hated the boys’ bathroom. It was the worst room in the school. She hated the smell of pee and bleach, and she hated the blue tiles on the wall to remind you where you were, as if the urinals didn’t make it obvious enough. The whole room was about being a boy, and when boys were in there, they liked to talk about what was between their legs. George tried never to use it when there were any boys inside.
Yet, as much Gino works to show us how George struggles against male stereotypes, it surprises me that George’s identification as a female extends little beyond an affinity for magazines about makeup, wearing Kelly’s skirts, and pining to play the lead female role in the play. I’m not transgender, so I can’t claim to know how this feels at any age, let alone as a kid, but I have to think there’s something stronger pushing a person to question their gender identity than lack of conformity to stereotypes. I hardly think my eschewing of high heels and cosmos and bachelorette parties makes me any less female than women who do like those things.
The main issue I take is that Gino’s writing is far too simple for such a complicated topic. I understand that the book is geared toward elementary-aged kids, but looking back on the books that I fell in love with at that age…those are the books whose writing impresses me even now. Should we not write up to our kids, instead of down to them? In putting this topic in such simple terms, Gino leaves so many big questions unanswered. When George’s mother finds and confiscates her girl magazines, Kelly asks what right she has to do that. George, who has been doing some internet research on transgenderism, responds that sometimes transgender people don’t have rights. And there the scene ends, with no explanation for what rights they are denied, how George feels about it, how Kelly feels about it, or, even, how the author feels about it. There are times when it is more powerful to leave open-ended questions, but this is a time where some authorial guidance would have proved beneficial. I would have loved to see George process how life might be different for her than for other people, and not just because she prefers a certain type of magazine.
I acknowledge that I am not the author’s intended audience and I’m not the one who stands to gain most from this story. Still, there is something important about reading books that do not directly represent you. If we only consumed narratives that spoke to our personal experiences, we would do nothing but confirm the preeminence of our own viewpoints. It is only by reading, watching, hearing, seeing lives that are different from our own that we learn to appreciate the rich variety of the human condition. I wish I could commend George for speaking to me from a place unknown. It simply does not.
Nevertheless, I cannot argue against how important a work like this, one of the first of its kind, is. For those who empathize with the story of a young transgender girl, George will provide a warm sense of belonging, of identification. For those of us who do not, George will teach us compassion. Ultimately the book ends on a hopeful note, assuring readers that it does, indeed, get better. I am certain that for some this book will aid in the journey.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender]