"When I came out as queer in college, I sought books that would reflect me,” Alex Gino says. “It was the late ’90s, and it was barren. I thought, hey, this book doesn’t exist, and I wish I could have read it someday.” Yet beyond the urge to create mirrors, Gino had just always known they were going to be a writer. “I was one of those kids who was interested in words really early on, and my folks would write stories down that I told when I was a kid.” And middle-grade books were Gino’s favorite in particular. “As an adult I thought I’d fallen out of favor with books, but it’s just that I didn’t like adult books. It’s natural that [middle grade] would be the age of books I’d write.”
With that goal in mind, Gino drafted George, the story of fourth grader Melissa, born a boy named George, who comes out as transgender while trying to land the role of Charlotte in the school’s stage production of Charlotte’s Web. The book took Gino more than 10 years to write. “I thought, I’ll write a book and be done in a year. It turns out it’s really hard.” The kernel for the book started with what ultimately became the novel’s final scene, in which Melissa and best friend Kelly go to the zoo, and Melissa dresses in girl’s clothes for the first time in public. Gino had an image “of these two girls at the zoo, in an act of alliance of one, and an act of liberation of the other.” After years of working on the draft, Gino sent it to friends for their feedback. “I can’t even count on fingers and toes how many drafts I’ve written.”
While Gino wasn’t writing on the book for the entirety of the 10 years that passed between conception and publication, “I kept picking it up; I knew it had to exist. I always thought some small press would pick it up.” But eventually, Gino queried agent Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency because of the agent’s stated interested in diverse books, including those from queer and trans perspectives, and after more edits, Gino landed David Levithan as editor in a two-book deal with Scholastic. And the timing was right as well. “Once I saw the culture started to shift, I wanted [my book] to be at the forefront. A lot of [transgender] books coming out were by cis people, and there was something those stories were missing.”
Gino describes working with Levithan as an amazing experience. The author says that Levithan was a collaborative editor whose suggestions helped make the book stronger, too. “The best change [Levithan suggested] was Melissa’s pronouns. Originally, there was a delayed reveal on page two. [Levithan asked], ‘Why is her gender a secret?’ ” Gino changed the pronouns in the book to immediately reflect Melissa’s understanding of herself, and to make it clear to readers.
The book garnered significant prepublication attention, earning early praise from booksellers and librarians, and plenty of accolades, including a starred review from PW. After years of effort, the most thrilling thing for Gino was holding the ARC: “I remember what I said—it feels distanced enough that it’s funny to me now: ‘This is like a book, but my name is on it.’ ”
Life post-pub has changed in ways big and small. The author no longer has to hold down a full-time day job (previously Gino worked as an educator and tutor) and can focus on writing their next book, also middle grade, which is about three characters near San Francisco and focuses on topics of race, deafness, and alliance. Gino’s hope is that their work helps the shift of culture to creating a safer, more inclusive world, saying, “It’s important to keep remembering that at the end of the day, people are being themselves even if it’s not safe, because hiding is worse.”