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Gracefully Grayson: 02/11/16

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky is another recent middle grade book about a transgender girl. Where Melissa, the main character in George already knows in her heart of hearts that she's a girl and hates her body, Grayson though older than Melissa by a couple years, seems more hesitant in expressing and exploring their gender identity.

It's really difficult to think of Grayson's story without thinking of Melissa's. And I'm struggling to rectify my own personal reactions to both books against what I know about the origins of the books. George's author is active in the LGBT community and Gracefully Grayson's isn't. While both books are fiction, George is probably a roman à clef and needs to be respected as such.

Both books get deep into their main character's heads. We get to see how strongly Melissa (known to the whole world except her inner self) as George, and Grayson (who will later be teased and renamed by a bully, "Gracie") feel about gender, gender identity, and their current situation. For Melissa, she's at the breaking point and she's desperate to be seen as the girl she knows she is. Grayson, though, isn't sure what they are, though they're certain they're not a boy.

Both books hinge their big reveal on a play with a female lead role. In Melissa's case the risk at performing is all hers. She's prevented from the get go by her teacher to even try out for the role but her best friend helps her do the role anyway. In Grayson's case, the risk falls on the theater teacher who it's hinted at might be gay. By letting Grayson take the lead role, he's seen as a predator and is forced out of his job at the school.

In the end I liked Gracefully Grayson slightly more than George though both books seem flawed to me. Hinging everything on a play seems farfetched and clichéd. The binary divisions of girl and boy in George also seems extreme to me. I get that an old fashioned teacher might try to run her classroom like that but for every character in the book to also see the world as either boy or girl with no middle, no gray area, seems unrealistic and simplistic. It certainly doesn't match with my own experiences growing up or now as an adult, though I have noticed in some circles, the gendering of things and children has gotten more pronounced in the last couple decades!

Grayson, while fascinated by princesses and sparkly colors, is at least aware that clothing doesn't make one female — that gender is a personal and complex thing. They pay attention to the girls in their life, at school, in their family, that they meet in public, and realize that they don't all dress the same. They don't all wear skirts or dresses or makeup or have long hair, etc. They are people just like Grayson is. It's that's realization that a female gender identity doesn't automatically make a person act or dress a certain way that makes me like this book ever so slightly more than George.

The problem that both these books (and others I've read) is that transgender characters, or even more broadly, gender, is treated like a light switch. Flip the switch by changing a name, picking the right type of clothes, slathering yourself in the gender appropriate color, change your hair (either grow it out or cut it short) and you're suddenly at the other extreme as if that's the only option.

That's not to say that experience isn't a valid one. I just want something that covers the middle area, the dimmer switch approach, if you will. There need to be more of these stories to give room for more variety, more nuance. There should be other elements of diversity and representation in these books too. Invariably if the main character is transgender, they're also white and middle class.

Four stars

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