Book review: ‘George’ ‘George’ brings transgendered issue to younger readers

It’s a simple message that is easier said than done: Be who you are.

For that characters in Alex Gino’s award-winning book, “George,” it’s a lot more complicated than a cliched statement.

“George” is a middle-grade contemporary fiction book that is unique in that its main character is transgendered and the topic was written specifically for younger readers in grades three to seven.

The book tells the story of a 10-year-old boy named George who is in fourth-grade and knows he is not a boy; George is Melissa. (The book should have been titled “Melissa,” since it’s really about her.) Melissa wants to play the role of Charlotte in the class production of “Charlotte’s Web,” but her teacher won’t even let her tryout for the part because she thinks George-the-boy trying out for the female lead is a joke. And that’s just one issue to show how complicated Melissa’s life is. (For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the titular character George as Melissa to be respectful to the wishes of transgendered individuals.)

Melissa hopes that with her best friend Kelly’s help she can get the part and show her family, and her classmates, who she really is.

The use of identifying pronouns is especially important in Gino’s story. When the world talks to George-the-boy, male pronouns are used; the narrator, however, uses only female pronouns for Melissa. As Melissa struggles to tell those around her who she really is, she has to face the painful realization that not everyone will accept it and that some will even bully her.

The book has been touted as required reading in the publishing and library world, and a necessary book for intermediate libraries. Not everyone will agree and the book has become a frequently “challenged” book in several school districts and by the Christian Family Research Council because of its controversial subject matter. One children’s book author claims that he was not invited back to speak at a school near Austin, Texas, because the previous year he recommended the book to students.

Regardless of your personal beliefs on the transgender issue, young readers will identify with Melissa’s struggle to be understood by her family and friends. The book’s conflicts are solved safely and easily, but it is still a heartwarming tale that ultimately reminds us how difficult it can be to “be yourself.” The ending will satisfy younger readers, as it is a delicate and safe introduction to a complex and complicated subject matter that should spur additional conversation within the family.

Melissa’s best friend, Kelly, shows how important it can be to have a true friend an ally in life to get through difficult situations. Kelly shows maturity beyond her age when she plans a trip to the zoo so the real Melissa can shine.

I read this in one day on my Kindle and found myself grinning as the book neared its conclusion. It is a powerful example of accepting others as who they are and not who they appear to be. I especially loved the school principal character, who recognized and embraced the need to be a trusted adult not just for Melissa and her mother, but also for Melissa’s teacher.

Any book that encourages a child to be a friend like Kelly and not a bully like Jeff is a book I support. As Gino wrote about Melissa and her love of E.B. White’s classic book, “it takes a special person to cry over a book. It shows compassion as well as imagination.” And while I’ve mentioned before my interest in the We Need Diverse Books movement, it would be great to not need that movement at all because people are accepted for who they are and accurately portrayed in literature. This book is a great start.