STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now let's talk about crossing another kind of barrier - a barrier that's crossed in a book - a children's book called "George." It's about a transgender fourth grader. It's being released to much notice by the U.S. publisher of "The Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter." NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with the author.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you look at the author's online biography, you'll see words like urban gardener, sourdough baker and fat queer. Alex Gino is used to being asked...
ALEX GINO: Why do you identify as a fat queer? Like, why do you label yourself?
ULABY: Because, says Gino, they're not labels to be ashamed of.
GINO: I am a fat queer, and there are plenty other fat, queer, urban gardener, sourdough bakers who might like to know that they're not the only one.
ULABY: Gino wants kids who feel they were born to wrong gender to know they're also not alone.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) George pulled a silver house key out of the smallest pocket of a large, red backpack.
ULABY: George is coming home from school as the book begins. She is 10. She loves to read. She has a best friend named Kelly. And she's worked up the courage to tell her mom she does not feel like a boy. She's so nervous. Before she can make herself say those words, her mom says...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Whatever happens in your life, you can share it, and I will love you.
ULABY: George's mom believes she's saying the exact right thing, but it's exactly wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) You will always be my little boy, and that will never change. Even when you grow up to be an old man, I will still love you as my son. George opened her lips, but there were no words in her mouth and only one thought in her brain - no. George knew that Mom was trying to help, but George didn't have a normal problem. She wasn't scared of snakes. She hadn't failed a math test. She was a girl, and no one knew it.
ULABY: It took author Alex Gino more than a decade to write "George," long before Caitlyn Jenner appeared on TV and the cover of Vanity Fair.
GINO: I had no sense that any publisher anywhere would take it seriously, other than maybe some sideline queer press. Maybe we'd put out 5,000 copies.
ULABY: Scholastic's putting out 10 times that because of the book's nearly unprecedented buzz says editorial director David Levithan.
DAVID LEVITHAN: Fifty thousand is pretty amazing for a debut author writing a middle grade book that isn't part of a series.
ULABY: A series like Scholastic's "Harry Potter."
LEVITHAN: No wizards, no Greek myths, no action/adventure. It's just one girl's story.
ULABY: To build buzz about this girl's story, Levithan copied the marketing of another hit series.
LEVITHAN: Strangely, it was very similar to what we did for "The Hunger Games" when "The Hunger Games" came out.
ULABY: Crazy as it might seem now, "The Hunger Games" was seen as a hard sell to many young readers. It's about kids killing each other, but Scholastic thought...
LEVITHAN: Once you read the book, you would understand the book.
ULABY: So it applied the same strategy to "George," bailing out tons of advanced copies to prove that a book about a transgender 10-year-old could appeal to a mass market.
LEVITHAN: Scholastic Book Club sent it to 10,000 teachers to say, hey, this book is coming in the fall, and just - we want to hear what you think about it.
ULABY: The teachers and librarians who read "George" loved it, says Levithan, but some negative posts popped up online - not about "George" the book, but the idea of any kids' book with a transgender character. The editor took author Alex Gino to a big convention of independent booksellers a few months ago.
LEVITHAN: All of the booksellers had a story to tell Alex about a trans kid that they knew, a trans kid in their family and a trans adult who worked in their store. And it wasn't just the coasts, and it wasn't just sort of the liberal hotbeds. It really was booksellers from every state saying, oh, goodness, we need this book, and I know exactly who I'm going to give it to.
ULABY: Since 2000, there've been hundreds of kids' books featuring transgender characters, mostly self-published picture books and books for teenagers, says J. Wallace Skelton.
J. WALLACE SKELTON: But there's been nothing in the middle.
ULABY: Skelton studies transgender representation in children's literature. He's a transgender father of three who works to prevent gender-based violence in public schools. He says people sort out their gender identity at all different ages, and even with more visibility, transgender people are still disproportionately marginalized, harassed, even killed. In "George," Skelton appreciated that the main character faces bullies.
SKELTON: But she's not powerless and, you know, the face of their torment, and it's not the thing that shapes her days.
ULABY: George's days are shaped by her friends and family, her activities and dreams.
SKELTON: All of that is in there, and it's not just this is a trans narrative. This is a narrative about a young person who very much is trying to become who they are.
ULABY: Like much of the best children's literature, he says,
George" is about becoming who you are, learning about people both different and maybe similar to you and, more than anything, being kind. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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