By: Alex Falck
Alex Gino is a long-time LGBTQ+ activist, but they are best known for George, their 2015 middle-grade novel whose titular character wants to be seen as a girl and prefers the name Melissa. George was published in 2015 and won numerous awards, including the Lambda Literary Award and the ALA’s Stonewall Award; it has also been a frequent target of challenges and bans.
Alex Gino’s new book, You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!, was published in September and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. Jilly P is another realistic middle-grade novel, this time focusing on a white hearing character who befriends a Deaf black boy online and, through conversations with him and her black aunt, starts to recognize, talk about, and respond to ableism and racism in her environment.
As you mention in the afterward to Jilly P, you’re a white hearing person writing about a white hearing character for a white audience, on the topics of anti-black racism and deafness. Were you nervous about how that would be received? How did you approach it?
I wasn’t nervous about how it would be received so much as I was nervous about misrepresenting people. As a white person who aims to be anti-racist, it was important for me to figure out how to support the people I’m in alliance with without speaking for or over them. It is not my place to write a story of Blackness or Deafness, but I can write books which can be tools for white, non-disabled people making sense of their privilege.
In an interview with We Need Diverse Books, you talk about how the story of You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! changed dramatically from what you had originally envisioned to its final form. It sounds like you went through some personal growth as well. What did you take away from your experience of writing Jilly P?
My first novel, George, was about a kid who wasn’t being seen for who she was. While the details are different, that story is enough mine that I could use my experiences as a starting point for understanding Melissa’s. But in Jilly P, I knew I could be misrepresenting communities that I’m not a part of, so it was an experience in looking critically at my own writing, but also reaching out to sensitivity readers and incorporating their feedback into my work. It was an experience in self-reflection.
I found it interesting that Jilly’s crush on Derek fades away about as quickly as it came, but they remain good friends. Why did you give their relationship that arc?
Crushes are funny things. They can come and go quickly. For Jilly, she’s as excited about the idea of having a crush as the object of the crush himself. Once she meets Derek in person, he becomes less of a concept and more of an actual person. That’s when Jilly is able to start really seeing him and figuring out how to ally with him.
George was number five on the American Library Association’s list of the most-challenged books in 2017. Did that surprise you?
Sadly, no. When I started writing George in 2005, I didn’t think it would be published at all. There are a lot of adults who are afraid to have conversations with kids where they’re not the experts, and they often think that by hiding information from kids, the kids will never know that part of the world exists. But kids have access to more information that parents know, and will grow up into adults, who are much more likely to be well-adjusted if they’ve had (pardon the word play) time to adjust well to who they are and how the world will treat them. On the other hand, the road back from shame is long and hard, and we don’t come out of it unscarred.
Can you share one of the positive reactions to George that’s stuck with you?
I sure can. One of my favorite was a tweet from a Mom who had just finished reading George with her 7 year old. The kid brought out a stuffed bunny and declared that the bunny was trans. In a world where people are worried that my words will magically change who people are, I found that to be a delightful way for her to play with the idea of allyship. She didn’t ask herself, “what if I was trans?” She asked herself, “What would I do if I knew someone trans.” Not that I suggest you announce peoples’ trans status as an act of allyship, but I think you get what I mean. 😉
Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you wish I had?
People sometimes ask about the title of my first book, and while I’m not proud of it, I think it’s important to talk about. The title George deadnames my main character; that is, I’ve used the name for my main character that she would prefer never to hear again. Her name is Melissa, and by calling her George, I have disrespected Melissa and further the notion that trans peoples’ names are up for question. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry to the trans community. At the same time, that discomfort between Melissa and the book title is a bit of insight into trans experience.
Do you have any advice for aspiring trans writers?
Write write write write write!!! We need YOU to write our stories, so that cis voices don’t dominate the field. Apply for grants and mentorships, enter contests, submit to agents – they are for you too! Especially in the face of frightening times, we need to tell our stories. And show your work to other people. That doesn’t mean you need to listen to everything they say, but revising your work so that it does what you want it to do means you need to know what it does for other people.
Many thanks to Alex Gino for speaking with me. You can find more of my interviews with trans authors here.
Alex Falck is a Children’s Librarian at the Chicago Public Library. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.