Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
Note (12/2/2018): Alex Gino has a post on their site where they talk about how to discuss this book and the main character’s name. The author now refers to it as Melissa’s Story. I’ve left my original review intact to reflect my thoughts at the time of publication.
“Trying to be a boy is really hard.”
George loves Charlotte’s Web, so when her school decides to put it on as a play, George immediately knows that she wants to play the part of the wise and beneficent Charlotte. And maybe if she can play Charlotte on stage, everyone—from her mother to her teachers to her friends—will finally be able to understand that George is a girl, not a boy. But her teacher refuses to let George try out for the part because she says she can’t give the role of Charlotte to a boy. So George and her best friend Kelly come up with a plan to help everyone finally see George for who she really is.
One simple stylistic choice makes George incredibly effective; Alex Gino uses George’s female pronouns from the start, which helps affirm George’s gender identity to the reader, but also clashes with George’s birth name. The male name combined with the female pronouns highlights the disparity between how George feels, and how the world perceives her. I was curious about Gino’s decision to use the male name as the title and throughout most of the book, but in fact George has a secret girl’s name that she wishes she could use, and part of the narrative is about her becoming confident enough to share that name with the world.
Throughout George, Gino does an excellent job of highlighting how many aspects of elementary school—from bathrooms, to line ups, to drama auditions—are gendered, often unnecessarily so. It seems quite unremarkable until, like George, you feel like you have been put in the wrong line. Forced in with the boys, who mock her effeminate behaviour, George has to cope with the fact that her dearest wish is their greatest insult. And even though George knows about transgender people from television and the internet, finding the words and the courage to tell her teachers what is going on just seems unfathomable.
In the midst of all this turmoil, theatre becomes an outlet for self-expression for George, a space where it might be okay to publically try out being a girl for a while without too much social sanction. Her teacher stands in the way, but that doesn’t stop George from rehearsing the part of Charlotte with her best friend. There are many fun moments and humourous touches, particularly in George’s friendship with Kelly, and her relationship with her older brother, Scott. This is a great hopeful story that presents both the difficulties George faces in being seen for herself, and the promise that she can eventually find her place.
You might also like Drama by Raina Telgemeier