Author: Alex Gino
Published: August 2015 by Scholastic Press
Summary: George is a fourth-grader with a secret — though everyone sees her as a boy, she knows she’s not — she knows she’s a girl. When her teacher announces that the fourth graders are going to put on a play for the school, George and her best friend Kelly see it as her chance to reveal the truth. She auditions for the role of Charlotte, her favorite character from Charlotte’s Web, but is told she can’t be cast as the spider since it’s a girl’s part. Will George find another way to show her true self — Melissa — to the world, and will they accept her for who she is, once and for all?
Thoughts: I picked up this book after a recent censorship controversy with Kate Messner‘s newly published The Seventh Wish. In the many letters and reactions that came out of that, I kept seeing the title George being referenced as a prime example of school library censorship. My local library happened to have all three of its copies available, so I picked it up. Of course, the topic of the book is so relevant because of recent debates over bathroom laws — whether transgender people should be able to use bathrooms slated for genders that they identify with, rather than born in — and more recently, the tragic targeting of the LGBTQ community in the Orlando mass shootings.
The fact that the main character is a fourth-grader — same as my younger daughter — also intrigued me. As a mom, am I ready — or knowledgeable enough — to broach the subject matter? I have always been open with my kids about sex, giving them age-appropriate information as questions come up. So in a way, a conversation about transgender people is just an extension of our conversations about private parts, gender roles, homosexuality, etc. We have already talked a bit about the bathroom law and how they felt about it, so it wouldn’t be a huge shock to either of them that there are people who believe they were born in the wrong bodies.
As a librarian, and as someone who believes strongly in intellectual freedom, would I circulate this book in my library even if a few parents protest? Would I limit borrowing rights to older kids (grades 5 and up)? Would I require parental consent before letting the kids read them? (Place too many obstacles though, and the book might never end up circulating!) Would I recommend this book as a classroom or school read-aloud? (It certainly deals with a topic that is relevant and prominent right now.) And how will I handle the parents/administrators who want to censor it — as they most likely will? (These questions are hypothetical because I am not currently working in a school library, but surely they are the same questions my employed librarian friends grapple with everyday.)
A little bit about the actual book itself. Overall, it was well-written and an easy/quick read, though it definitely wasn’t light. I asked myself this key question: What would I do if I were the mom in the story? George’s mom has reservations at first about her revelation but eventually agrees to let George be true to herself, one small step at a time. Her acceptance happens quickly in the story, within a week or so of George’s appearance as Charlotte in the play. I wonder whether real life parents could adjust so fast. I don’t think I’d love my children any less just because they come out as gay or trans, etc., but I think anyone would go through some natural stages of questioning and denial (“Maybe this is just a phase?”) and sadness (for the pain and struggle the child would have to go through as a trans person in a very judgemental world) and even loss (loss of a child and what you have believed him or her to be), etc. The book addresses this a little bit, but I would have loved to see more on the inner struggles that the mom must have gone through. (I guess that’d be in a book based on her point of view, not George’s!) The same thing could be said about George’s older brother’s reaction and that of her best friend, Kelly (who thinks it’s so “awesome” to finally have a best girl friend to hang out with since she’s grown up with only boys). I wish Gino would’ve explored their feelings a little deeper, rather than jump straight into Scott’s question of whether George would transition all the way by “snipping” it off, and Kelly and George’s stereotypical girly makeover scene. There’s got to be more about being a girl than just getting to dress up like one. (That said, that probably would be one of the most important things to a fourth-grader.)
Now that I’m done with the book, I am passing it to my 10-year-old daughter. I told her to read it and come to me at any time if she comes across words or ideas she didn’t understand. I am eagerly awaiting her thoughts and her review. Chances are, she’ll have a totally different take than I did, but hopefully, she’ll come away with a little more understanding of the diversity that is all around her and become a little kinder and more compassionate as a result. Hopefully, she’ll come to realize that it’s okay to be different, that everyone is in different ways…that it’s important, even if it’s difficult and scary, to accept yourself for who you are, to be brave enough to stand up for what you believe to be true…to BE YOURSELF.
George resource page: http://www.alexgino.com/george/
Some discussion questions:
- Why do you think the author chose to use the pronoun “she” when describing or referring to George? Does this make a difference to the way you feel about the character?
- How do you think George feels having to keep this big secret inside? (Use text evidence to support your claims.) Have you had to keep a secret about yourself — how does this make you feel? Without revealing the secret (unless you feel comfortable), share or write about this experience and how you were affected.
- George eventually reveals her secret to those she cares about. How does this make her feel? (Use text evidence to support your claims.) What are some consequences of “hiding” vs. “being yourself”?
- What do you think it takes to “be yourself”? What are some pros and cons of being who you are? What are some other examples of “being yourself” that might be scary for kid?
- Share or write about a time where you had to be brave enough to be who you are. What made you finally do it, and what effects did the experience have on your life?
- People reacted differently to George’s revelation. Discuss how they differed and possible reasons why (try to think about this from the person’s point of view). How do you think you would react if you were each of these individuals?
- George’s mom and big brother
- School teacher/principal
- George’s best friend Kelly
- Kelly’s dad and uncle
- Discuss diversity, acceptance/tolerance, prejudice, bullying, compassion, etc. Come up with real-life examples. What are some way your classroom/school/family/community could be more accepting of those who might be different from you?
- Towards the end of the book, the author switches to the name Melissa when referring to George. Why do you think he chose to do that?
- Make a prediction about what George’s life might look like in the next year…the next five years…etc.