Transgender Book Reviews: “Gracefully Grayson” and “George”

| Nov 19, 2018
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This week I’m doing two books, and both are for children of various ages. As they are similar, but not the same, I will review them together.


The first to be released chronologically was Gracefully Grayson, which was written by Ami Polonsky. A quick Google search took me to her website. She is a teacher who decided to write a “middle age” book. She is cisgender. I’ll come back to this. This is her first published book, and it’s aimed at a middle school audience.

Grayson is a sixth grader in Chicago. As can be easily guessed, she is trans (I will refer to Grayson as female in this review because I think she’d prefer that.) However, like so many of us at her age, we hid it. Desperately. Grayson lives with his aunt, uncle and their two children, making him the middle child. His parents died in a car accident when he was four. This adds to his detachment from others, but has other significance as well.Book cover

The school is holding a play about the myth of Persephone and Hades. Grayson is encouraged to try out by his humanities teacher, who plays the role of the “supportive adult who seems to know what’s going on” that many of us wish we had. Grayson decided she wants to play the female lead, and that’s when it all goes to hell.

Of course, she gets the role — after all, aren’t all TGs in hiding truly the best actors/actresses? This ignites controversy within the school and without. Ms Polonsky seems to have done her homework, as the people against Grayson having the role cite the usual reasons why she shouldn’t. This, of course, includes blaming/ investigating the teacher, “he’ll be bullied,” etc.

And of course, there are bullies. There are always bullies. There will always be bullies.

Fortunately, Grayson also finds friends. As is typical of early middle school, some of the friendships are shallow, and others are not. Ms. Polonsky is a middle school teacher and has an eye for behaviors, so reading these bits brought back memories of my own middle school years. (Don’t worry, Ms. Polonsky, I forgive you for that! 😉 In any case, the characters should resonate very well with the intended audience.

So — does Grayson actually play Persephone? Do the bullies finally get their chance at perpetrating their first hate crime? What happens to the helpful teacher?

Well, I’m not going to say, as it would give things away. That said, it’s a young adult novel, so older readers, especially trans ones, should be able to figure out those answers quite quickly. And also the repercussions of those answers. Why? Because we’ve lived them.

The ending seems a bit rushed, and maybe just a little unsatisfying. I like to think of it as a happy ending, but, as I know the challenges that Grayson has yet to face, I wonder if it would be. That said, I’m a bit jaded. For the intended audience, it is a happy ending.

I must say I really enjoyed this book. I identified with Grayson quickly, and many of the characters in the book could have attended my junior high school all those many years ago. The pacing is a touch uneven here and there, but that doesn’t detract from the read. What impresses me most is Ms. Polonsky’s method of introducing so many of the obstacles that TGs face in a way that the intended audience can understand and appreciate. Is it simplified? A bit, of course, but the core issues are there, and explored. This is a wonderful read for teens and adults. I recommend it as an easy way to introduce adults to the issues we as TGs face, as it provides examples to which everyone can relate.

“George”

George is by Alex Gino, and was published in 2015. Alex Gino is genderqueer, and is from New York. They graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, have been an activist for the past twenty years, and George is their first published book.

George is for a younger audience, starting around eight years old. One of the first things that strikes the reader is that Gino refers to the main character with female pronouns from the start, and exclusively. An interesting tactic, as the reader instantly sees George as a female, despite everyone else saying differently. I remember smiling and nodding when I first encountered the pronouns. Simple. Effective. Brilliant. I wish I’d thought of it. George quickly introduces her other name: Melissa, and it is as Melissa that I shall refer to her for the rest of this review.

Melissa lives with her parents and older brother, and, unlike Grayson, has a female friend who she’s known a very long time. Melissa is trans (obviously) and is keeping that secret as most of us do. She is in fourth grade. Where Grayson wears towels and oversized shirts to simulate hair and dresses, Melissa does neither. She reads Girls’ teen magazines and wishes she were one of the girls pictured.

Book coverAs in Gracefully Grayson (henceforth GG for this review), an opportunity presents itself to show her true self in the form of a play, in this case Charlotte’s Web. There are try outs, but, being an “all inclusive” class thing, everyone has a part to play. Melissa wants to play Charlotte, but, being biologically male, doesn’t get the part. The part goes to her best friend, Kelly.

Kelly is the type of girl we all wished to have as a friend. She’s fun, unpredictable, and loyal. She hatches an idea — have Melissa replace her as Charlotte in the final performance of the play.

As always, there are obstacles. As this book is for younger readers, they aren’t as fearsome as in GG. There are adults who just can’t/won’t see the Truth of Melissa’s gender. And, of course, there are bullies. In this case, one of them is a former friend, and that adds just another twist of the knife, so to speak.

As the book moves on, Melissa grows as a girl, gaining confidence. Kelly helps her in this, as she knows Melissa’s secret. In many ways, Melissa’s growth is similar to many TGs during those first steps of realizing their Truth. I wish I could’ve had a Kelly back in my youth, but in many ways, I have had a “Kelly” later in life in the form of all my mentors, especially my “Big Sister” Mel.

Will Melissa and Kelly be able to pull off “the Switch.” What will the consequences be? Will Melissa ever get to be herself? Once again, I’m not saying.

George is a pleasant read, even for adults, but may be too simplistic to use for outreach purposes. For the intended audience of late elementary school, it’s a wonderful introduction into who TGs are, and how we feel. In a more general sense, it applies to people who are different in any way. Alex manages to make their points in a simple and universal way, and that way is quite effective. I enjoyed this book as well.

I found the fact that both books used theater as a method of discovery and exploration of identity. As I wrote above, TGs are consummate actors/actresses. We have to be, if we are to keep our secrets. I’ve read in several places that acting is a way to explore ones own soul — to get to the truth of the character one must find the truth of themselves. Well, as I’ve written many times, we TGs Do know our truths. . .  if we choose to face them. The use of theater to “cushion the transition” of identities in public makes for an interesting metaphor. If we, as TGs aren’t accepted at face value, and usually we aren’t, (see: Wing, Right) the idea of baring one’s true self has great appeal. Of course, Shakespeare used male actors exclusively for all roles, including female ones, so there is historical precedent.

Another commonality between the books are the Bullies. We all face them, whatever our age (again, see: Wing, Right.) My own bullies when I was younger were the typical physical ones with their taunts and beatings. I shudder to think how bad it would’ve been if my Truth had been known back then. The bullies in GG and George are of different intensities, as the books are for different audiences. In both books, there are the expected taunts, and each has its own twist to the bullies. And in both books, the bullies do some damage, especially in GG. I think about how bullies have changed over time. The bullies of childhood now have new weapons in their arsenals as they have the internet and social media. In many areas, older bullies may be armed. When I was growing up, if an adult saw a kid being beaten, they usually stepped in to end the fight. Phone calls to parents were made. Not so today- everyone is too afraid of being sued. The bullies of GG were more real to me because they WERE physical, like mine were. I hated seeing them on the page, but I understood their role in the story. In both stories, actually.

The last commonality I’ll comment upon is that of the “female friend/ mentor.” In George, Kelly is obviously the mentor and enabler. She helps Melissa discover herself and allows her to blossom. In GG, the role belongs to Paige, the older student and “star actress of the school” who takes Grayson under her wing and nurtures her. Kelly’s role is far more involved and hands on, while Paige is more subtle, as is appropriate for the target audiences of the books. As I mentioned above, these girls mirror the mentors most TGs find when they finally find the courage to stretch their wings and leave the safety of their seclusion. I found mentors my first night out as Sophie, in my dear friends Jone and Jennifer. Soon after, my “Big Sister” Mel entered my life, as did many others, thanks to the Renaissance support group and various TG gatherings in my area.

I mentioned above that Ami Polonsky is a cisgender woman, and Alex Gino is genderqueer. Does this have a bearing on their books? I’d say yes.

Ms. Polonsky, as I wrote above, has obviously done her homework. She knows what challenges TGs face, and writes about them intelligently. Being a woman, she understands the feminine point of view, and for this reason, Grayson is imbued with an easy femininity.

As Alex Gino is genderqueer, and an activist, they understand instinctively how it feels to be that outsider in a way a cisgender person can never understand. George overflows with that feeling of “otherness” that so many TGs live every day, and Melissa has that awkwardness that is so very familiar to us.

Does this mean one author is in some way superior to the other? Am I saying that a cisgender person can’t write about trans topics because they just “don’t get it?” Absolutely not, and Ms. Polonsky proves that conclusively. Both points of view have merit, and the topic needs to be explored from both.

I’ll conclude by saying that both books are wonderful, and I hope other books will join them soon on the shelves. I recommend them both highly.

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Sophie Lynne

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Read Sophie's blog here. View her contribution to The New York Times transgender stories article. She has also been featured in an article on Philly.com.

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