With ‘George,’ Author Alex Gino talks transgender issues with Common School in Amherst

  • Students, parents and staff at The Common School in Amherst gave author Alex Gino an enthusiastic reception at Gino’s March 21 reading at the school. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alex Gino, the author of the middle-grade novel "George," speaks about the book at The Common School in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alex Gino, who lived in Northampton for awhile about 10 years ago, says "George" is book not just for trans people “but for everyone.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alex Gino, who lived in Northampton for awhile about 10 years ago, says "George" is book not just for trans people “but for everyone.” —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2017

George is a fourth-grade student who’s troubled by a couple of things. For one, George knows he’s not a boy: She’s actually a girl named Melissa.

But the rest of the world doesn’t see that — which is why the teacher won’t cast George as Charlotte the spider in the school play based on the book “Charlotte’s Web,” because Charlotte is a female character.

The question of gender identity is at the heart of “George,” a middle-grade novel that’s been making waves since it was published in 2015. It might have the most unconventional storyline for a children’s book since “Heather has Two Mommies,” by Holyoke author Lesléa Newman, debuted in 1990.

Last week, Alex Gino, the author of “George,” came to The Common School in Amherst to read from the novel and answer questions about it. And Gino, who is genderqueer — very broadly, a person who identifies as neither exclusively male nor female — talked about the importance of self-identity and accepting people for who they are.

“This is a book for trans people,” said Gino, a New York City native and writer who lived in Northampton from 2005 to 2008. “But more importantly, it’s a book for everyone.”

About 80 people, including students, parents, teachers and staff, came to the The Common School’s main meeting room to listen to the author, who was already something of a favorite: Many of the students in the school’s combined 5th and 6th grade class read “George” last year on their own, said director Christine Lindeman.

“It really took off like wildfire,” she said.

The school also examines gender and community in a more general way, Lindeman noted. Last fall a Northampton therapist, Julie Mencher, who works with teens on gender issues, held a workshop with faculty and staff to help them become more familiar with addressing the topic in the classroom.

The school’s librarian, JennyKate Marble, is also a friend of Gino and suggested bringing in the author for a talk. “We all thought that would be a great idea,” said Lindeman.

So did many of the students. “We think you’re awesome!” said one girl at the the beginning of the Q & A session, after Gino had read part of one chapter.

Gino, 39, who uses the pronoun “they,” said “George” had a long gestation period. They’d started working on the novel around 2003 “not knowing anything about writing a book” and had progressed over the years through multiple drafts and reviews by friends and then a literary agent.

But the novel quickly found a publisher (Scholastic Press) a few years ago, likely reflecting the way transgender people have gained national visibility in recent years, from the story of Caitlyn Jenner, to the appearance of well-developed trans characters in TV shows, to profiles in magazines and newspapers.

The novel, Gino quipped, “was a 10-year overnight success.”

Proper pronouns

“George” gets right to the issue of its protagonist’s identity: The third sentence reads “George had to steady herself awkwardly on one foot while the backpack rested on her other knee.”

Gino said the idea of using a female pronoun straightaway to describe George’s thoughts and actions was introduced by the book’s editor. Gino had originally switched George’s narration from “he” to “she” much later in the novel, when George completely takes on the identity of Melissa.

“[My editor’s] argument was that ‘This is who George is, so why aren’t we using ‘she’ right from the start?’ ” said Gino.

When it comes to transgender people, “We talk about ‘preferred pronouns,’ ” Gino added. “But I don’t prefer my pronoun, I use it, and I don’t ‘identify’ as genderqueer — I am genderqueer … That’s part of what this book is trying to get across.”

In the novel, George tries desperately to keep her identity from everyone, including her mom, her older brother, Scott, and even her best friend, Kelly. A couple of bullies in the class, Jeff and Rick, regularly taunt George for being effeminate.

George’s teacher, Ms. Udell, is perplexed when George does a tryout for the role of Charlotte and reads — perfectly — several of the spider’s lines from the play.

“Was that supposed to be some kind of joke?” the teachers asks. “Because it wasn’t very funny … You know I can’t very well cast you as Charlotte.”

Even Kelly doesn’t grasp George’s dilemma, at least not at first. “I still don’t see what the big deal is,” she says. “So you want to play a girl onstage. It’s not like you want to be a girl.”

Slowly but surely, though, George finds her way to greater acceptance and understanding among the people closest to her. She even gets revenge on one of her tormentors, Jeff, when she vomits on Jeff’s shirt after Jeff punches George in the stomach.

That scene prompted laughs from the children at The Common School when Gino gleefully read it aloud.

“I love that George uses her body to get back at the bully!” Gino said afterward.

In a later email to the Gazette, Gino said they’d used “Charlotte’s Web” in their own story because it’s “a story of friendship and what it means to support something going through a situation (Charlotte saves Wilbur [a pig] from the fate of becoming bacon).”

“I also connect with it because I cried at the story when we read it in class when I was a child,” Gino added. “The way I remember it, I was the only one crying, and it was one of my earliest feelings of being different.”

At The Common School, Gino said their goal in giving readings and talks about “George” is to promote greater respect and understanding for trans people and to encourage anyone struggling with gender identity “to find a safe space that works for you — you have that right.”

Finding your way on that journey is not an overnight process, Gino added: “Coming out is a lifelong process.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Alex Gino’s webiste iswww.alexgino.com.