Saturday, October 24, 2015

Alex Gino's virtual visit to our "George" book discussion group

As soon as I read George, I knew I wanted to share it with kids at SK. And teachers. And parents. And everyone I know, really, because while it is groundbreaking in that it is a truly middle-grade novel with a transgender protagonist, it is also a really, really good story about the tension between how we see ourselves and how we think the world sees us. This is a book that has the power to change the way we interact with the people around us and forces us to pause and examine our own assumptions. In fact, this book was the catalyst for my idea for the middle grade book discussion series in the first place. I had a sense that a whole lot of good would come from a conversation surrounding this book. Of course, I really couldn't have expected that we, as a school community, would have the joy of talking about the book WITH ITS AUTHOR, so I couldn't have known what kind of real life magic we actually had in store.

When I emailed Alex Gino to thank them for writing George, I felt like I was sending my note into the ether. In my wildest librarian dreams, I never expected Alex to write back to ask ME if they could join in our book discussion. Why hadn’t I thought to invite Alex in the first place? Where were my manners?! I wanted to write back, immediately, in all caps, and shout “YES!” from the rooftops (but I exhibited self-restraint and sent a perfectly professional note). Over the course of the weeks that followed, Alex, their publicist, and I made plans for our Skype session.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday, when we had nine kids, grades three through eight, and either a parent or grandparent with each, gather to talk about the book and Skype with Alex. We also had two children call in and listen via speakerphone while on a family road trip. Technology, about which I complain on a regular basis, also enables some of the most powerful of shared learning experiences.

After talking about the book and generating a list of questions as a group, we called Alex in California. Our first volunteer question-asker was a third grade girl who started the discussion with a question about Alex’s rationale for their preferred pronouns (they/their), which the young reader had noticed in the author bio in the book. As she asked this, and as we listened to Alex explain the history of the evolution of language, I looked around at the other adults in the room and they all appeared to be in a similar state of complete joy and complete awe. I imagine that in addition to feeling incredibly proud of this young person (and all of the young people who followed her with similarly profound and insightful questions), they also felt proud of the community of which we are a part and the world that we are hoping to/helping to create for our young people.

Another particularly powerful moment came when one of our fourth grade students asked Alex about the role of gendered spaces in the book. This young reader asked Alex if they were trying to make a point about the ways in which gendered spaces (specifically, pink/blue bathrooms and boys/girls lines in schools) can be exclusive and hurtful by focusing on them at several points throughout the novel (even perhaps exaggerating their significance). Alex explained that while yes, they were, of course, trying to make a point, none of these situations or spaces were exaggerated; instead, these fictional spaces were intended to represent the school experience for most children. Our young reader seemed somewhat shocked by this and explained, in a matter of fact way, that our bathrooms are all different colors and they’re all individual and some are gendered but most are not. Alex’s incredulity at both the way that this all just seemed so obvious to a fourth grader and the fact that single-person, non-gendered bathrooms are the norm at SK spoke to the truly unique and forward-thinking environment fostered in our school. Their response, of course, led us to enthusiastically invite Alex to our school to see our bathrooms (and the rest of our school) in person.

The conversation continued well past our expected end-time. Alex was gracious with their time, openness, and willingness to engage with both children and their parents about topics ranging from the role of girls' magazines in the novel (and in the world) to who gets to wear skirts (and the history of power and wealth in society that contributes to the acceptability of women in men's clothing but the lack of acceptability of the reverse) to the way that the people you often least expect to be the ones who are okay with who you are end up being the ones to surprise you with their warmth. I got the sense that so much of this talk transcended age and generation and resonated with each one of us in a different, personal, meaningful way.

George is powerful without being preachy. It asks questions without being heavy-handed. Toward the end of our conversation, while discussing some of the other characters in the book and the ways in which they responded to Melissa (the transgender protagonist) at different points, Alex told us that while none of us (people in the room) might be transgender, we'll all probably meet some people who are. And if we don't meet people who are transgender, we will inevitably be or meet people who feel trapped, unsure, and marginalized in some way. The other characters in George and they way they orbit around Melissa give us some ideas about how to go beyond merely saying that we are "allies" but instead give us ways to actually "ally." In framing "to ally" as a verb instead of a noun, Alex gave us a new way to think about how we support the people around us (on both an immediate and a global scale).

I look forward to reading more from Alex and continued extraordinary discussions with our community of readers.

Good books change lives,


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