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Posted by Tom, October 22, 2015

The Nosy Crow Reading Group Verdict on George by Alex Gino

Last night the Nosy Crow Reading Group met to discuss George by Alex Gino, a middle grade debut novel about a transgender girl, and the recipient of starred reviews from Publisher’s WeeklyKirkus, and School Library Journal.

I had sort of feared, in advance of the group meeting, that we wouldn’t have much to discuss: that this would be one of those books that we all loved, leaving us with nothing much to talk about – and happily, George provoked a far livelier discussion than I was expecting. I don’t think there are any spoilers ahead, as such, but if you haven’t read the book yet and want to come to it with a completely open mind… well, why are you reading this blog post at all?

Overall, I think it’s fair to say that this is a book our group responded to very positively. Some people really loved it – adjectives including “important”, “wonderful”, “kind”, and “moving” were thrown around on more than one occasion – and many of us merely liked it, either a lot or a little bit.

Interestingly, it was also a book that seemed to inspire in our members a willingness to overlook perceived flaws: several of us had some problems with it, but were happy (certainly happier than usual…) to justify or dismiss these (one person thought that there were “lots of ways it could be better, but that doesn’t really matter”). A few of us, for instance, found it to be a relatively slight book – short on plot, simple in its language, a bit ephemeral – and we found ourselves rationalising this slightness as a deliberate choice on Gino’s part: a conscious decision to simplify the issues of the book, and the central theme, and distill them down into a digestible form for the broadest (and youngest) possible audience.

Similarly, one or two of us thought that the book had a slightly “pamphlet-y” tone – that it was written as an exercise in teaching people how to treat transgender children, with a series of scenes that functioned quite transparently as “what to do/ what not to do” object lessons – but we also agreed that it was an important book: a story that, in the words of one person, “needed to be written”.

It struck me, looking at my notes at the end of the evening, that it was a book that we treated on quite different terms to some of our previous choices for the book group: at various points we debated whether or not the acts of writing and publishing George had been “brave” ones, and whether or not the book had an “optimistic” tone – and optimism and bravery are certainly not thresholds that any other book that we’ve discussed has been required to meet.

For me, the simplicity (or “slightness”) of the book is a great part of its charm – and actually, the writing itself struck me as typifying that particular variety of prose (to my mind Rebecca Stead is the unparalleled master of this style) that might seem, on the surface, to be simple and straightforward, but which is actually effortlessly sophisticated.

A lot of us particularly liked the fact that it was written for such a young audience: several people commented on the refreshing absence of teen angst in the book. Very few people in our group objected to the writing style, I think: one or two of our members found it slightly awkward or repetitive, and one person thought that it was unevenly written, with a slightly inconsistent tone and point of view (which, for instance, occasionally switched from Melissa to Kelly).

There was, perhaps, a bit more frustration expressed around the plot: for some people, the book ended sort of abruptly, and for one of our members, the conclusion was slightly “evasive”, with too many questions unanswered… but for many more of us, I think we found it a satisfying, upbeat ending: open-ended, perhaps, but in an almost pragmatic way. To me it felt that by ending the book the way they did, Gino was implicitly acknowledging that Melissa’s future would be a complicated, perhaps not always happy one: the ending is an artfully contrived moment out of time, suggesting a hopeful future for Melissa, but not, by any means, promising one.

And for all the criticisms that the book occasionally came across as an instruction manual, we also admired the way that Gino subverted expectations and challenged our ideas of progressiveness in their portrayal of many of the characters in the book: the people we hoped or expected to be most supportive of Melissa (her mother and class teacher) were not always reliably so, and the characters we feared would be judgemental or strict (Melissa’s brother and school principal) revealed themselves to be open-minded or compassionate.

The Nosy Crow reading group will be back in November – if you’re interested in attending, send an email to tom at nosycrow dot com, and we’ll add you to our mailing list.


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