Interview with Alex Gino


About the Author: Alex Gino loves glitter, ice cream, gardening, awful puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. They would take a quiet coffee date with a friend over a loud and crowded party any day. Alex Gino is the author of “George” a middle-grade novel that follows the life of a young transgender girl named Melissa, they began writing their book in 2003 and never imagined it could become what it is today. Melissa knows who she is, however, most people only see her as a boy named George. Melissa dreams of starting in her school’s fourth-grade play as Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web”. “George” expresses the blissful naivety and acceptance of fellow children while simultaneously illuminating challenges such as bullies that a transgender individual may face. It approaches the struggle of a young girl desperately searching for a way to express herself with writing that is humorous and relatable to a middle-grade reader.  Life is hard for anyone at this age but this book triggers an eye-opening experience, one previously untold yet poignant and crucial for this generation of young readers. They are also a proud member of “We Need Diverse Books”. Alex is currently working on a second middle-grade novel about best friends, baby sisters, first crushes, Deafness, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Note: Alex uses the singular-they, and the honorific Mx., pronounced “Mix”.  (e.g. Mx. Gino is hoping they still have ice cream in the freezer.)  If you are speaking or writing about Alex, please do the same.

Find Alex Gino on the following platforms:

Thank you to Alex Gino for participating in this interview, helping with edits as well as providing the text from their own site to be used in this interview. Also thank you to Lauren for helping arrange the interview.

Michele Rizzo: Last year you received the first ALA Stonewall award specifically for children’s LGBTQ literature, and it was in Orlando, so I was curious how you felt receiving that award?

Alex Gino: It was in Orlando, about two weeks after the Pulse shooting. I had won the children’s Stonewall award, Bill Konigsberg, also with Scholastic, had won the young adult Stonewall award, and David Levithan, who is a senior editor at Scholastic, had won the ALA Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement. It was supposed to be a Scholastic party! We were ready, we might well have gone out to a club. And it was about two weeks after Pulse, and it was really hard. In fact, my pinned post on Twitter, because we live in a world of social media, is my acceptance speech. I was sitting there reaping the benefits of the progress we made watching the backlash happen. And a year later here we are facing even more backlash. There has been a lot of change, and that swinging causes more swinging back. And it is scary, and I don’t know what else we do but keep working and keep fighting. So, it was just a reminder you don’t get to be comfortable, and if you’re comfortable it’s because someone else isn’t. It was hard, and it was how things were, so we had to face it. Every single acceptance speech mentioned it, everyone scrapped everything they originally had, and the speeches were tearing-ly beautiful. It was a real moment. It was raw.

MR: Do you feel there was a tangible sense of community at the awards?

AG: There were two things going on. There were in-community connections like, “Are you okay? How are you? How do you feel? Here we are in this space, what does this mean?” Most of us weren’t from Orlando, most of us weren’t Latino, so we were affected but not affected in the same ways. And there was this larger sense at ALA as a whole of “What do we do?” and that is not always effective work, because we do not know how to make it better. But it did feel like everyone was saying, “Whoa, that happened…” and it reverberated throughout the conference.

MR: Talking about your next book featuring deafness and the Black Lives Matter movement, I am curious about what it is like writing something that is not as personal as the story found in “George”. How is the writing process different, or what are your thoughts on that writing process?

AG: I have been thinking about this a lot. I don’t consider “George” to be an “own voices” book since I am not a trans girl; I am genderqueer, but we are not actually that similar. We both like Charlotte’s Web, but we are very different. The main character of my new book is a hearing white girl who has deafness in her family, like I do, who has black friends, like I do, and who makes mistakes, like I do! So, a lot of the book is learning about supporting the people around you without putting yourself at the center. It is about micro-aggressions. So, in a lot of ways I connect with the character of my second book more. My grandparents are deaf. I grew up in deaf culture. I don’t consider myself fluent in ASL, but my English is tinged with ASL and it is the community I connect with.

AG: I just want to go off on a quick tangent.

MR: Please do!

AG: So many folks, so many white-hearing writers, have said to me, “Oh, I can handle writing a Black character but I do not know how to do someone Deaf,” and I feel the opposite. I feel connection with Deaf folks and feel comfortable. I want to bring it to linguists and stuff for how the language is but I feel much more careful about how I am writing characters of color than I do writing a white Deaf character. But my white Deaf character is 12 months old, so I got this! I just think it is interesting what we think of as being within our domains and what isn’t.

MR: Do you have any updates on your new book?

AG: It is in the revisions process with my editor. We are still honing in on how to present the story to a mostly white audience, who mostly isn’t immersed in these topics, which is exactly why they need to read about them, and why they need tools and stories to talk about these things. But it is a struggle getting the story right. “George” took 10 years and this one is at 3, so at least I am doing better!

MR: I read “George”, and trying to read more diverse novels specifically on a similar topic I read Gracefully Grayson. When I read it I was very protective over “George” since the storylines were so similar. I am curious on how you feel about the similarities?

AG: I have thoughts about that! Some people think I somehow got my ideas from there. So, first of all, I have seen little comments of things like “Oh, that’s interesting… it came out with a very similar storyline”. But I ask, “Do you know the timeline of a book?” My book was already in final edits when Gracefully Grayson came out. They are not connected. However, the idea of using theatre as an outlet for gender expression or sexual identity expression goes back, that is a common theme. It’s the ability to put on and take off the mask. In fact, 5-6-7-Nate, by Tim Federle, is a gay middle-grade novel that also takes place on stage. Queers go on stage. There is something there.

MR: There are some stereotypes that think if you are queer you “have to” be into theatre. Was there any backlash on that aspect?

AG: I didn’t hear of any. The bigger stereotype criticism that I heard was that my trans girl is very girly-girly. And you don’t have to be girly-girly to be trans. And that’s true! It just so happens that my character is also very girly-girly. I am the kind of feminist that says that’s okay. Pink is okay. It’s not required, but it’s not wrong.

MR: Now talking a bit about Melissa; she is a trans girl. Do you think you will ever write a book about a trans boy? Or do you know of any writers currently working on that type of narrative?

AG: I might. It depends on whether the character and the story all align. I might also write a non-binary character. That’s actually probably more likely because that would be more own voices, but again, it is about the story aligning. “When the Moon was Ours” by Anna Marie Macklemore is about a trans boy within middle grade, and there are certainly others in the world of YA. When we get to YA, the corpus is large enough that I can’t name them all, but within the world of middle grade, I still pretty much kinda know what is going on. I love that we are getting to a place where I can’t name them all. For a while, I could name them all on one hand. When I was asked for a recommendation it was particularly awkward, because the hand would know them all, but I couldn’t really recommend many, because a lot out there were so focused on the care and comfort of cisgender characters and readers. But there are more now!

MR: Melissa is wonderful, and she is the star of “George”. And not to take the spotlight from her, but Kelly is incredibly empathetic, young, and wise. What was it like writing Kelly as a character? Do you think this type of empathy is found amongst many children? And how can Kelly be a role model for children reading “George”?

AG: Kelly is phenomenal. Scott is not bad himself, either, in terms of being empathetic. A lot of Kelly comes from the fact that she is the single kid of a single parent who is an absent-minded artist. So she has sorta been running the show in her family for a while, and she’s fierce. Also, her mom was African American and she has got a little Black girl magic in her. She has no interest in your BS, and she would call it cow poop ‘cause she doesn’t want to offend you. And yes, I think that there can be and are people like her. And even if she is turned up 10%, it’s fiction, and we deserve that. Especially if all the dramatic, traumatic ones are gonna turn it all up on it, and the person gets outed in the last twenty pages of the book, and, oh, let’s all be okay with that. We get the nice stuff, too, sometimes.

MR: You are a member of We Need Diverse Books. What does that organization mean to you, and why do you think it is important for publishing today?

AG: There is a lot of buzz about diversity, and so it’s really easy to say, “We want diverse books, we need diverse books,” and this organization actually takes that to heart in several ways. The first is the diversity part. Race is a significant piece of how we name diversity, but we also look at class, immigrant status, disabilities, LGBTQ issues, religion, and more. We think about the intersectionality between these issues, and that to me is really important. We do this in a few ways; we highlight books, we give books press, but more importantly, we are working within an industry. We are getting interns into publishing houses, we have grants so folks can finish their work and connect them with editors and agents. There is quality fiction available, but it’s not getting published, and it’s not getting press. We need more of it, we need more diverse books, and we also need to celebrate diverse books that exist, and the only way that is going to happen is to have people in it at all different levels of publishing. Because while books are windows and mirrors, books get bought by publishing houses by being mirrors, so we need people inside who look at a book and see themselves in it. Not like, “Oh, what a great diverse experience,” but “This book is me.” So, those are some of things that we are doing.

MR: Did you know you were going to be an author? More specifically, did do you know you were going to be writing about trans youth?

AG: So, the short answer is yes and no. I have been writing stories since before I could write. My parents are the kind of people who would let me dictate to them, and I would tell them a story and they would write it down. So, I’ve always known that I was a writer, and I always wanted to write a book. When I was a kid, I thought: I am either going to be a writer, or a teacher, or a bus driver, or maybe all three. I’ll drive the kids to school, work with them all day, drive them home, and in the evening, write the things for them to read. As an adult, I wanted to write, but I didn’t think I would get paid for it. And I didn’t know what to do, other than trying to write short vignettes or trying to co-write this Friends for queers type of book. I didn’t really have a home until I realized I liked to read children’s books. I probably should try writing a children’s book. I wish that I had had a book with a trans character in it, maybe I should write one of those. It won’t get published since its 2003, but I could get it to PFLAG and they could get it to some kids and we could print like 100 copies. So, the actual working part of it is actually surreal, but was it what I was going to do? I knew that, I just didn’t know how it was possible.

MR: Now that this is your job, how does it feel when you are able to speak to children in school settings?

AG: IT’S AMAZING. It’s absolutely amazing. I was at an event recently, it was a small school and they rented some of their space from a local church. So I was in the chapel, on the altar, reading, and thinking okay, this is what my life is. This is actually happening, this is phenomenal. It is amazing! I can’t fathom what it could have been like to have that at school as a kid, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of the things that gives me hope.

MR: Are there ever parents at these events who give you a hard time? If so, what would you say to skeptical parents, or how would you present “George” to that type of parent?

AG: I am lucky in that the skeptical parents usually don’t come. The ones who come are usually very accepting and wonderful. And there are lots of them. There are also some people who think that trans-ness is evil and wrong. And I really can’t converse with those people. There is too big of a chasm, and I just can’t bridge it. But there is a growing group of folks in the middle who are uncomfortable personally, but who want to be respectful. The dominant cultural view of trans-ness is going from a personal sin to more confused sympathy, and so there’s two pieces of it that I go at. All that anxiety you have about the book, please don’t give it to your kids. Please don’t go to your kid and say, “I have this book here about an important topic to read”. Nothing makes a kid not want to read a book more than calling it important. Let the kid read it, if the kid has questions, bring it up. You don’t have to know everything; there is a WHOLE internet out there for you. The other part of it is, some parents are worried whether it is age appropriate. There is no point before which where it is appropriate to be kind or appropriate to be accepting. Books with trans characters don’t make people trans. Books with trans characters make people trans-aware. This is a good thing. The alternative is hiding, the alternative is shame. And the path back from shame is long, and it hurts.

MR: Yesterday in the news, we heard about Trump’s administration revoking protection previously provided to protect trans youth specifically regarding bathroom use in schools. How do you feel hearing that? Is there anything you feel needs to be said?

AG: Shame. And it’s part of a much larger shame that this country is facing right now. A much, much, much larger shame. I am not surprised. Fascists go for the trans people early. There is this other part of it that is weird, which is that I didn’t grow up with those protections. So, they have been rescinded, and that is awful. That they were ever on the table, that to me is still unfamiliar. That trans kids could have asked to be safe, and anyone would have listened. The backlash is almost a sign of progress. I am scared and terrified and it’s horrible, and there are more of us ready to push than ever.

MR: Is there anything you would say to Melissa regarding this?

AG: Oh, gosh. That there are lots of people who have her back, and she get to decide what feels safe for her. Her safety comes first. And she is in New York, in a pretty liberal town, so I am not super worried about her. I am worried about trans kids in other places, and I am worried about trans kids of color, and I am worried about trans kids who don’t have supportive home environments.

MR: What do you think the overall trajectory of children’s literature will be like, given the current political situation? Do you think there is going to be more?

AG: Oh, there is more. The writing community is activating. We have been active and we are activating more. We know that art and culture is key, including the stuff that’s not “issue books”. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s being written about. The fact that we are doing these things is important. If we don’t do them, they get taken away. So, we keep doing them and we keep doing them. And as they get taken away, we keep doing them. I think there is a lot more coming and I think there are a lot of folks your age [22] and younger who are getting their writing together. And there is a lot more.

MR: How were you impacted by children and young adult literature growing up? Is there a book that spoke to you growing up?

AG: Around 4th or 5th grade is when I liked reading more than any time in my life. I like reading now but I LOVED reading, it was everything. I would read a book, then want another, and another, and another. It wasn’t like I was reading big, important stuff. I read all The Babysitters’ Club, but it was just taking in the stories. The book that pierced deepest was “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein. I was a kid who hated poetry. I thought everything was in prose, and poetry was stupid and boring, and didn’t make any sense, and was about trees. Shel Silverstein was like, “I see where you are coming from, but here’s also this…”. He taught me a lot about words being playful, and the power of mixing that playfulness with heart. And how he can put something so serious on one page and something so silly on the other and reality is where the pages are touching. And that is how I feel when I read Shel Silverstein.

MR: Is there anything else you would like to say before we end the interview?

AG: The shout-out that I always do, when I have a space, is to trans women of color. Particularly right now, as our rights are under attack. It was trans women of color who fought at Stonewall. It is trans women of color whose lives are on the line on a regular basis. I’m getting a lot of great press and things are going really well for me, and at the same time, things are going really badly for a lot of people right now. I know that is not a lovely and heartwarming way to end this whole thing, but it is real, and it is why we keep pushing.

PRR Writer, Michele Rizzo