Author of the most-banned book in the U.S. speaks out: 'I expect to be relegated to the edges'

Alex Gino, left, wrote George — No. 1 on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books list for three years running. (Author photo: Blake C. Aarens)
Alex Gino, left, wrote George (Melissa's Story) — No. 1 on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books list for three years running. (Author photo: Blake C. Aarens)

Book banning may sound like something out of a movie — think Footloose or Fahrenheit 451 — but it's something very real in modern-day America. Each year in September, the American Library Association (ALA), which has an aim to stop censorship, calls attention to the issue with Banned Books Week (Sept. 26 - Oct. 2), celebrating the freedom to read.

The ALA also keeps a running list of the most banned and challenged books (meaning there've been attempts at suppression) in the country. It's tallied each year and released in April, based on anecdotal evidence. Books on the current list include classics such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, plus newer writings including Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

But holding the No. 1 spot for three years running is the 2015 middle-grade novel George (unofficially renamed Melissa's Story, to honor the character's chosen name), by Alex Gino, about a transgender fourth-grader. It's been challenged and banned, according to the ALA, "for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting 'the values of our community.'"

And while some might see that as a rebellious badge of honor, Gino does not.

"I think something that people see from the outside is like, 'Oh, you're doing the thing that's pissing people off! Oh, look at you! How cool that is!'" the author, 43, tells Yahoo Life. "That might be cool if it's not your identity that's what's at stake. Right? Like, if a person in a place of privilege, let's say a white cisgender woman, writes about a sexual encounter that they enjoy, and it gets banned or challenged, that's about what society thinks about that action."

But, adds Gino, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, "When I write a book about someone who is transgender…just simply someone who is transgender — they're not doing anything, they just are transgender — and that book gets banned? That is my existence being so scary and so reprehensible and so monstrous, that I cannot be shown to children."

That doesn't mean Gino, author of two other tween novels and the forthcoming Alice Austen Lived Here, is surprised by their book being so frequently challenged — as it's been in places from Wichita, Kan. (where the librarian for all schools would not purchase any copies, prompting Gino and GLSEN to donate them) to Oregon's statewide Battle of the Books competition, where certain districts withdrew their kids from competition after the book became one of 16 titles selected.

"Now you have a whole bunch of third-graders who want to know why you don't want them to read it, and what is, what is so scary about this book," Gino says about the 2018 incident, and how such attempts to suppress tend to backfire. "It is not how I want things to go, but when a book gets banned or challenged, sales go up. For six months [after that], I sold more books in Oregon than New York, L.A. and whatever else combined."

Below, read Gino's thoughts on being banned, why George got a new title and why Gen Z's understanding of gender leaves them "stunned."

How did you react to first learning your book was being frequently banned or challenged?

I started writing the book in 2003, when the idea that anyone would ever publish it was not only outside of my realm of belief but outside the realm of reality… But once we got to the point of getting it published, [a bookseller and I] were like, well, yeah, it's going to get banned. It was almost a joke of, "Let's put up a big old chart of which state bans it first!"

I expect to be relegated to the edges. I'm surprised when I'm not. I'm surprised when people read my book and they go, "Wow, I'm glad I read that." That, to me, is not the norm. The norm is to be not accepted, which is deep and horrible. And it's why I write for kids so that other kids [in] the next generations don't have that.

Regarding the book's name: You called the official title, George, an "unequivocal error," apologizing for "deadnaming" Melissa and pointing to cultural shifts and publishing red tape, noting that now the title is not yours to change. But you encourage readers to use "Sharpie activism" to cross out the name and write Melissa’s Story. Why not just leave it alone?

The nice thing is that Melissa is not real. And it is true that not everyone feels the same way about hearing the name assigned at birth. And that deadnaming isn't even the appropriate term for it for a lot of people. But there are real, live trans people out there. And given that there's a whole bunch of cisgender people who haven't read the book and the only name they have for this trans girl is the wrong name, I feel bad about that. Because I feel like it shows anyone that it's OK to do it.

The past several years have seen a real rise in trans visibility and representation in the media — but also a fierce backlash in the form of anti-trans bills. How do you view that coexistence?

I don't think one exists without the other… The same access to visibility that allows my book to be published is the same access to visibility that makes people more frightened, and that allows for more backlash. There's no backlash if there's nothing to be scared of.

How does having access to a book like George help kids facing anti-trans sentiment?

Melissa's Story is for trans people. I write it for trans kids. I write it for gender-nonconforming kids, whatever language they want to use. Because if you see yourself reflected, it's a way of knowing that you are real — of knowing that you have a place in this world and that someone else sees you. And it is a tool to help you show yourself to others. It can be way easier to go to your parents or go to your friends and be like, "Hey, this is this book about this kid named Melissa. What do you think?"

Anyone who reads the book will come out more trans aware, and what that means is, in the future, when they connect with someone…trans, it’s going to be easier to see the human there. And it is going to be less of a scary new thing. And it means, in the future, trans people are safer.

A lot has changed since you first wrote this book: 5.6 percent of Gen Z identify as LGBTQ, for example, and, within that, a quarter identify as nonbinary. The understanding of gender diversity among kids and tweens and teens is pretty advanced. What’s your reaction?

I am flabbergasted and I am stunned. They have language and understanding that is fantastic. I was visiting a school a couple of years ago, a private school in Ann Arbor, a cisgender kid I think in fifth or sixth grade, said, "Here's the gender-neutral bathroom… and here are the gender-designated bathrooms." They are gender designated bathrooms! That kind of thing. That's just one real specific example, but yeah, there’s a consciousness that was not around when I was a kid, and I've got some envy…but I'm also completely and totally stoked for them.

What was it like for you growing up gender nonconforming in Staten Island, N.Y.?

I knew I was different. I knew that I didn't match. And that's all I had. When I was about 17, I found "queer," and I was like, "Oh, that! That, that, that." And then I was 19 and I found nonbinary, or rather genderqueer, and I was like, "Oh, that, that, that, even more than queer," 'cause it's not even so much about who I'm interested in, which of course is important, but you can only name that if you have where you're starting from.

What sort of thanks for accolades do you hear from readers?

I hear from young trans readers and those emails are so sweet and so darling that I can't even conceive of them. But the ones that like really, really get me are the adult trans people who are like, "Wow, what if I had had that book?" And yeah, what if we had had books that said that we were real, instead of said that we weren't? I went through 13 years of public school with absolutely no recognition of my existence — like a lie of omission, as if I am not real, because I was never spoken about. And now I get asked and paid to go to kids and be me on purpose.

How do you process that?

It’s a mindf**k ... The day I was supposed to do a talk in a junior high school gym, I was like, "I promised myself I was never going back to one of these! I’m so scared right now!" But then…they played "Rebel, Rebel," and I walked onstage — in a junior high school gym! — to lyrics like, "She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl." [Laughs] That was, I believe, in Oakland, Calif. But I also go to places like Indianapolis and the kids are on target — so many of them, in so many places. It is a fricking culture shift.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.