Once again, I’m glad to be doing the Book Riot Read Harder 2016 Reading Challenge. I’m an eclectic reader by nature, but it’s easy to get stuck in a mommy-fiction-only or science-fiction-only rut (which is fine, especially in the case of science fiction, since I’ve probably read more of that than any other genre since I learned to read). There are so many excellent books out there that don’t fall into my usual categories, though. An excellent example would be George by Alex Gino (Scholastic, 16.99 USD), which I finished reading about five minutes ago. George falls way, way outside my usual stomping grounds. It’s a middle grade fiction novel, for starters – that’s the category I’m putting it in on the challenge. It doesn’t have one of my usual hooks – it’s what’s known in education circles as realistic fiction. The entire story takes place during a few weeks in the life of a 10-year-old boy who happens to be questioning his gender identity. George, we soon learn (if we haven’t already read the back cover, a review, or anything about this book) has come to the conclusion that George is actually a girl.

I was maybe a little hesitant going into this quick read (although knowing one transgender person probably gives me an edge over the North Carolina state legislature in terms of understanding basic facts, such as transgender not equalling pervert), but George is quite possibly the perfect fictional introduction to what it means to be transgender. The YMCA where my kids take swim lessons has the small pool area separated from the frigid large pool area, and the small pool is kept roughly ten degrees warmer than the rest of the building so little kids don’t have such a temperature shock between the air and the water when they’re freaked out enough about the water. George is the transgender character equivalent of the YMCA small pool. George is 10. Puberty is not yet in the picture (though it is on the horizon), and she (George refers to herself with feminine pronouns, which gives the audience a really big clue from page one without hitting the reader over the head with it) has only recently read up on being transgender online, since she just learned how to delete the browser history on her mom’s computer, so the reader learns about what options are available for people who identify as transgender right along with her. George doesn’t fit in, which is something with which most people who have survived to adulthood can probably identify. Most importantly, George is just an all-around likable kid. She loves Charlotte’s Web, the book all kids in grades K-4 read together at her elementary school. She cries at the end when (spoiler alert) Charlotte dies. She takes it personally when the class bully refers to Charlotte as “just a stupid spider” and immediately exacts revenge on behalf of her favorite fictional character. She and her best friend Kelly yell “One-two-three” and “Zoot!” to each other instead of saying goodbye, which is absolutely something I could see myself doing with my best friend when we were 10. (Or 15. Or, you know, 35.) George is exactly the kind of friend a bookish, socially awkward person like me would want to have at 10 years old. (Or 15. Or, you know, 35.) But she has that earth-shattering secret that she can’t bear to tell anyone.

I felt George’s pain when she almost-but-not-quite told Kelly. Kelly, we know from our first encounter with her, understands George better than anyone – maybe even better than George’s own mother. Kelly knows when something is wrong almost immediately. Just tell her, I said to the fictional voice in my head on page 36, but George is understandably afraid of how people will react, even though she wants nothing more than to be herself. Then George has an idea: she will audition for the role of Charlotte in the upcoming fourth grade production of Charlotte’s Web. If her mom (and Kelly, and her teachers and classmates) see her as a girl on the stage, maybe they will see her as a girl in real life. And so, George begins her campaign to play Charlotte in the school play – and, more importantly, to be who she really is.

I’m still, honestly, shocked, by how relatable George is to someone who has no idea how difficult it must be to be transgender. I say this as an idealist wrapped up in the armor of a cynic – this book cut right through my cynical armor. George is just another kid trying to overcome the thing about her that makes her not fit in. Any kid worth knowing has some part of them that doesn’t fit in with the other kids, and I wish more kids understood that at a young age. I wish more politicians understood that at their advanced ages. The author’s acknowledgements include a blurb about “There should be a book about a trans kid!” as the seed that eventually, many years later, led to this book. Why weren’t there books about trans kids before this (or, at least, not many)? The fact that this book even exists gives me so much hope for my boys’ generation. I’m quickly melting into a puddle of rainbows and idealism, but a world in which kids (and adults) regularly step into the lives of people who are different from them, including trans kids, via books, would be a far, far more peaceful and accepting world for everyone. (Then again, I don’t know too many bookish people who hate other people for being different. It’s the people who don’t read – or don’t read outside their comfort zone – who are often the problem.)

Fortunately – and this is a little bit spoiler-y, so be warned – George discovers that the haters are in the minority at her school, and while not everyone understands her identity right away, even someone she thought was an enemy turns out to be more accepting that she (or anyone else) would have thought. To me, this was the most unrealistic part of the book. I remember a boy who moved into my school district when I was in high school. He was funny and flamboyant and openly gay, and most people in my school, teachers included, didn’t know what to do with him. He was loudly mocked by his classmates (I didn’t make fun of him, but I certainly didn’t try to stop anyone else from doing so), but I remember him getting sent to the principal’s office more than the people who gave him a hard time. He was mouthy, sure, but maybe I would have been, too, if I were ridiculed every time I stepped into the hallway. He didn’t stay in our school district very long, and no wonder. I sincerely hope that the kind principal and understanding peers George encounters are less of a fiction than they would have been when I was in school. I hope this is the kind of school environment my boys encounter in the fourth grade and beyond. And I hope they make friends with someone as sweet as George.