FALMOUTH – Elizabeth Abbott, the library teacher at Morse Pond School, prides herself on having a book for every student at the school for fifth and sixth graders.
But at a recent visit, there were no copies of “George” by Alex Gino on the library shelves. That is because it has been repeatedly borrowed by students.
“George” is a children’s book about a transgender elementary school student written by a transgender author. Some say it is the first of its kind.
“We can’t keep it on the shelves,” Abbott said. “We’ve had more girls read and request it but not by an overwhelming majority. Everyone seems to enjoy it, boys and girls,” Abbott said.
While Abbott said the population of transgender youth in a town the size of Falmouth—population 31,000 on the 2010 census—is undoubtedly small, the importance of having a varied selection of books in the school library cannot be overstated.
“We need diverse books. That’s a book movement. Understanding that students aren’t all coming from the same place. That’s nice for kids to see,” she said.
Abbott, who has taught at the school for 17 years, said she recalls that years ago there was one boy who wanted to come to school wearing a dress. His mother allowed it but his father did not.
“That was a very isolating feeling for a fifth grader. If [‘George’] was on the shelf, he would have said, ‘there is someone like me,’” Abbott said.
The book, “George,” Abbott said, is revolutionary in its way “because it really separates out this idea of identity. Many [young adult] books are tied to romances. This is really about who you are and who you feel you need to be,” she said. “For me it was groundbreaking.”
Abbott said, the book also offered her a better understanding of what some of her students may be feeling.
So far, Abbott said, there has been only one student who spoke against the book, saying it was not realistic. But when that student brought up her point of view at a book club, other students disagreed with her, seemingly defending the book’s main character. “It was interesting,” Abbott said. “They were fighting for what they believed.”
The book “George” was first brought to the attention of Abbott by Sara Hines, one of the owners of Eight Cousins Books, a bookstore specializing in children’s books that is located on Main Street in Falmouth.
Hines said the book is an example of the theme that, for young readers, books can be windows or mirrors. They can give an insight into something different, thereby serving as a window through which to view the world, or they can reflect the reader, serving as a metaphorical mirror.
“‘George’ is a fantastic window/mirror book wrapped in an excellent story. For kids who are transgender, I am so excited that there is a book like ‘George’ for them to read. For kids who are not transgender, ‘George’ offers a window into a new experience. I’ve seen people from a variety of backgrounds identify with the ‘Be who you are’ tagline,” Hines wrote in an email response to questions about the book.
In fact, it is a scene near the end of the book involving a mirror that serves as a kind of turning point in the story. The protagonist, George, looks into a mirror when trying on girls clothes and from then on, the protagonist is referred to as Melissa, the preferred name of the narrator.
According to Hines, the reaction to the book at the bookstore has been positive.
“Most people describe the book as sweet. It is one of our Holiday Picks for 2015 and there has been a lot of support from the Eight Cousins staff. I’ve received positive reviews from kids that have been posted on our website. I don’t have a strong sense of the parent reaction, but the parents I have spoken with about the book have been very excited to read the book with their kids. We’re seeing a range of kids reading the book. Even though it is targeted towards early middle school, I’ve heard back from late middle school and high school teachers that there is interest in reading the book and meeting [the author],” she wrote.
Abbott said she fell in love with the book after Hines brought it to her attention and she knew she wanted to have it showcased in some way.
That happened last month when the book’s author, Alex Gino, came to Morse Pond to read from the book, answer questions and sign copies.
In front of a group of a couple dozen teachers, parents and students gathered in the school’s library, Gino answered questions ranging from the book’s theme, to character and of course the knotty issue of pronouns.
Gino has bright blue eyes, a small scruff of beard and long blond hair streaked with purple and blue pulled back in a ponytail. At the reading at Morse Pond School, the author wore a black velvet blazer over a black blouse with a diagonally striped skirt over leggings.
Gino likes to use the pronoun “they” because neither “he” nor “she” feels comfortable. While some have suggested “ze” for transgender people, Gino said there is really no need to introduce a new word into the language.
“They” is the word you use, for example, when people are coming to dinner and you are not sure of their gender, Gino explained. You might say “they”will sit at the far end of the table or after dinner “they” will get a tour of the house. Third person plural. A solution Gino said works fine but for the small problem of occasionally awkward grammar.
“Linguistics trumps grammar,” Gino said.
The issue of what pronoun to use for the book’s protagonist, George, is addressed beginning on the first page when George is referred to as “she,” even though George’s friends and family refer to the child as a boy. Through the course of the book, the child struggles with the feelings of being in the wrong body until a best friend’s empathy and a trip out of town allow George to pass as “Melissa,” an identity that finally fits.
Liz Liles, an English teacher at the Lawrence School, Falmouth’s junior high school, and the faculty advisor of the junior high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, said that even with the sensitivity training that she has gone through, she found that as a reader coming across a female pronoun for a seemingly male character was difficult. “I was surprised at how hard it was to change my thinking. I was having a hard time on what to visualize. I think [the book] is so useful for understanding the complexity of these gender issues,” she said.
Liles said there are some students in Falmouth’s schools who identify as transgender but she believes there are many who identify with the gender they were born into but feel hedged in by stereotypes. “They feel that there is more than one way to be female and more than one way to be male,” Liles said.
During the author’s question and answer session, one questioner noted that having such a young narrator in a book about a transgender person clarifies the separation of identity and sexuality. “You’re not talking about sex. You’re talking about identity,” she said.
“Identity is different from sexuality,” Gino agreed.
Gino said there has been concern rather than backlash about the book. The question from educators has been more along the lines of “how are you going to talk about it” rather than “are you corrupting children,” Gino said.
Gino said writing the book, a first for the author, took 12 years.
“When I started, I had no sense of how it would get published,” Gino said. “I knew there was a hole in literature and magically the culture started to catch up.”
But Gino felt an urgency to address the issue, especially with young readers, given the large number of incidents of violence and even murder against transgender people in the United States.
“People are fighting for their lives to be themselves,” Gino told those gathered in the Morse Pond School library.
With a number of legislatures across the United States, including here in Massachusetts, looking at bills to outlaw discrimination against transgender people, Gino said a day may come when a book like “George” will no longer be needed. “I’m looking forward to this book being meaningless,” Gino said.
Because the book’s protagonist is young, parents, siblings and school friends are all characters who react to George’s dilemma.
In real life, it is no different, according to the book’s author.
In the book, the narrator’s mother is at first concerned and upset by her child’s revelation about identity, but then the mother is accepting.
For parents of transgender people, Gino said, the change is difficult because they have known the child since they were born.
“For a lot of parents, it’s a death,” Gino said of finding out their child is transgender.
The fairly quick acceptance of the lead character’s transition by mother, brother, principal and best friend puts a positive spin on the journey of a transgender individual.
“I wanted to show a hopeful reality, particularly through children’s literature,” Gino said.
Abbott, the librarian, said her students said the easy acceptance from George’s best friend was realistic.
“My students said, ‘No offense, Mrs. Abbott, but friends are much more understanding,’ In their minds, they thought kids are more amenable to change than adults,” Abbott said.
Hines from Eight Cousins Books said one of her favorite parts of the book is George’s brother’s reaction to George’s announcement of being a girl.
“I like the brother’s response the best. He recognizes that what George is going through is a big deal, but shows support and encouragement,” Hines said.
Gino admitted that one criticism of the book is that it is too optimistic in terms of how accepting family and friends are to George’s change to being Melissa.
“The line between realistic and optimistic is really hard,” Gino said. “I wanted to show a hopeful reality, particularly through children’s literature.”
Michael Wheeler, a senior who heads up Falmouth High School’s Gay Straight Alliance, was among the students who attended the reading at Morse Pond School.
Wheeler said he had not yet read the book but a teacher recommended he attend the session so that, as a youth leader, he could refer the book to other students who may be interested.
While he said he does not know of any transgender students at the school, he said he has friends who have graduated from the school who are transgender and others who are, he said, “gender questioning.”
The GSA club has about six or seven active members, Wheeler said, with both gay and straight members.
“It’s a safe space,” he said, but he added “not all members are open about their sexuality and gender status.”
But he said the school environment in Falmouth is so accepting that many gay students don’t feel the need to join the Gay Straight Alliance to find a safe space, because the school is already a safe space.
“Falmouth High School is a great place. It’s something very unique. As a member of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community, I feel very fortunate at Falmouth High School. It’s never an issue. That says a lot about the school community at FHS if people don’t need a special support network, because the school is a support network,” he said.
From what he has heard about the book, Wheeler said he thinks that “the book has a lot of promise in terms of advancing LGBT visibility in youth literature, as the youth of today lead the charge towards a more progressive society.”
Wheeler said young people like himself see society’s more accepting attitude toward gay people in television shows like Modern Family, in the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing gay marriage and laws prohibiting discrimination against gay people.
“Young people like myself and my friends grow up seeing that and hope that will go a long way toward setting a precedent. It will become almost a non-issue as others integrate into the society and will become less of a stigma or a taboo,” he said.
Another teacher who attended the Morse Pond session with author Alex Gino was Jeanine Kelly, a music teacher at Morse Pond School and a member of PFLAG of Cape Cod, which stands for Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders.
Kelly said she found the book “George” to be “a really sweet story, innocent, and accessible to anyone and any age—not just teenagers.”
Quoting the book’s tagline, she said, “Be who you are—that’s awesome.”
Kelly said she would like to start a Gay Straight Alliance at Morse Pond. There is currently one at the high school and the junior high.
“People aren’t sure [the school] is ready,” she said. But, she said, there are children at the school with two mothers and with two fathers. She believes it is only a matter of time before there is a transgender student at the school.
“It’s eventually going to happen here. We need to be prepared for that, to be proactive rather than reactive, to create a gender neutral safe place,” she said. “If it does happen, I won’t be surprised when it does.”
“Be who you are–that’s awesome,” said Jeanine Kelly.
Lawrence School English teacher Liz Liles agreed with Wheeler that the Falmouth schools offer a supportive environment. Liles, who attended Falmouth High as a student, said the schools have improved on that score from a generation ago when she was in school.
“It has come a long way. The administration is very supportive. The school culture has changed since I went to school here,” she said.
Liles said the Gay Straight Alliance was started at the school as a way to ensure there were teachers that gay students could talk to if they were not welcome at home.
Over the years the club has been in place, students in the group have identified across a wide spectrum of orientations, Liles said.
Liles also said that she loved the book “George.”
“I appreciated the way the author balanced the transgender struggle that George is feeling within a larger context of not fitting in at school, having an absent parent, a lot of issues that kids can relate to. It makes the transgender issue important and explicit but it is also a book about not knowing how to fit in. I thought it was a nice balance. It’s not just a book about a trans kid,” she said.
Hines said she is very pleased with Alex Gino’s visit to Falmouth and the reaction at the visit to Morse Pond School.
“I was overwhelmed at the response to the event at Morse Pond. I was touched that people shared their personal stories with me after. I have received calls from other teachers and librarians who would like to see a similar event at their own schools. I am so excited that Alex was able to visit Falmouth. I hope they come back,” Hines said, using the preferred “they” for the author.
Suddenly the complications of a pronoun seem not too complicated at all.