Alex Gino’s George won the Stonewall Book Award and has often been cited as a book that’s redefined what middle grade can be. George is earnest and heartwarming and one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year. And for a groundbreaking novel, it’s also got a lovely, classic, modern-yet-familiar feel.
Note: I’m totally late to the party! Many lucky people got around to reading this book last year. But despite my late-to-the-party-ness and behind-the-times-ness, I can’t help but blog about this wonderful little book.
So, let’s see what Gino’s debut has to teach middle grade writers––and anyone looking to tell a story that so desperately needs to be told.
1. Play with convention-embracing and convention-breaking.
George has a very clear message: BE WHO YOU ARE. And the book is as brilliant at embodying this message as it is at conveying it.
George is a classic middle grade novel, perfect to shelve next to Charlotte’s Web, a book its protagonist adores. George’s plot is simple and sweet: George wants to play Charlotte in the fifth-grade play. George also knows she’s a girl––but everyone thinks she’s a boy, and boys aren’t allowed to play Charlotte. In classic middle grade tradition, George’s triumphs are small things that are big in her world: saying Charlotte’s lines with confidence and force. Having a friend call her by her girl name. Getting to wear a skirt.
What’s so brilliant about George is this mixture of classic, feel-good middle grade tropes and an innovative narrative technique that helps the reader share George’s experience of the world. George is a girl, and she knows she’s a girl, so the narration always uses “she” and “her” pronouns when talking about George. But, at least at the beginning of the story, everyone else in George’s life calls her “he” and “him.” The effect is jarring, disconcerting, and frustrating––just as it is for George.
So George, as a creative work, takes its own advice: BE WHO YOU ARE. In this case, that’s traditional and innovative. Uplifting and troubling. Happy and sad.
It’s everything together, and because of that, it’s real.
2. Understand how important your writing is.
In Gino’s brilliant Stonewall acceptance speech, they said, “We don’t control the past. We barely have a handle on the present. But we can guide the future. And that’s why writing middle grade fiction is so important to me.”
Gino gets it. And this––in addition to the craft and the sweetness and the lovable characters––is what makes George so powerful, so fundamentally true. Gino writes with a tender empathy for their protagonist, and this sweetness and understanding permeates the novel. Every word is full of love for kids out there who are struggling, who are figuring out who they are.
Or kids who know who they are and live in a world that’s trying to keep them from being completely, wholly themselves.
And that passion, that knowledge of how life-changing a book can be, helps make George the brilliant work it is. All writers, especially all middle grade writers––who are speaking to kids at this especially confusing, raw, formative time in their life––would do well to search for the same sense of purpose that Gino writes with in George.
To quote Gino’s speech again: “BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES.”
If you write knowing that, you know how important every single word can be.
So, read George. Share George with the kids and adults in your lives. And write with the knowledge that what you do matters, and matters deeply.
Want to discuss George and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.