3 questions for Alex Gino, whose book 'Melissa' has been banned in 4 states

"Melissa" was No. 1 on the American Library Association's most challenged books list from 2018 to 2020.

Author Alex Gino and a photo of his book
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

Alex Gino, the nonbinary author of Melissa — one of the most banned novels in the country — believes the more that books of a particular genre are challenged in school districts across the country, the more those stories need to be told.

Melissa, which chronicles the story of a trans girl in fourth grade who is seen by the world as a boy named George, has been banned by at least seven school districts across four U.S. states, according to data compiled by the free speech group PEN America. From 2018 to 2020 it was No. 1 on the American Library Association’s most challenged list.

Gino, who uses the pronouns they/them, told Yahoo News they initially created the story in 2003 as a “pet project” for local trans youth who didn’t see themselves reflected in literature. But once young people read the story, it took off with an even larger audience. In 2015, Scholastic published Gino’s book under the title George, and it went on to win several awards. The book was renamed Melissa in 2021.

The subject matter discussed in Melissa also incited a backlash, with critics saying that a part of the book that references genitals is inappropriate for young people, a charge Gino refutes.

Protesters who support banning books gather outside of the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn, Mich.
Protesters who support banning books gather outside the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn, Mich., in September 2022. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

The controversy over Gino’s novel comes at a time when conservative organizations, like the parental rights group Moms for Liberty, have organized nationwide book-banning efforts, which led to a record high number of bans and challenges in 2022, according to the American Library Association.

Read more on Yahoo News: Moms for Liberty emerges as power player in Republican politics

“Parental rights really anger me, because what about human rights? People who are under 18 are human,” Gino told Yahoo News. “And if you are keeping information about the world from young people, you are leaving them less prepared to learn how to be in the world.”

Yahoo News spoke to Gino about how Melissa became a target of those seeking to ban books. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Can you explain exactly why you think your book was banned?

I think it is fear that looks like anger. I think it is a fear of adults generally. Adults are not great at not knowing what’s in the world. Kids are great at it. Kids are constantly learning what’s in the world and taking on new ideas. They learn who’s in the world, they learn how people are in the world. Many adults feel like they have already learned who should be in the world, and if someone goes against their notion of that, they are somehow immoral. And there’s a particular panic about showing that or immorality to young people. And I think their goal is for their children not to live in the real world. Their goal is to shield their children from the reality of other people and the reality of themselves. And I think that goal is extremely harmful.

If my book is going to get challenged, that to me is a sign that there are more stories that I need to write. And so I’m writing now about queer and trans kids who don’t just exist but who know each other and who have community and who get to thrive. If they’re going to say, “Don't do it,” then I better not tell myself not to do it. I better do it more.

Read more on Yahoo News: New school year highlights book, curriculum bans facing America’s teachers

2. The effort to ban books has picked up over the past couple of years, but your book has been challenged since at least 2016. What’s changed since then?

There were reasons why my book wasn’t banned until 2016. And that’s because it didn’t exist until 2015. A book not existing is its own type of ban against information and against awareness. So had it been any before that point, the cultural ban against thinking about trans children was so great that the book couldn’t even exist. So the book existing is progress, and of course there is pushback to progress. The fact that there is more pushback is a sign that there is more progress. That does not make it good. That does not make it acceptable in any way, but that’s why it’s happening, because there are more books where more children have access to them that didn’t used to exist. Also, the first year that there were challenges about my book, it was, “My goodness, there’s a transgender kid in it.” And that didn’t seem to fly as an obvious rallying cry as some people might have thought it would. So they shifted to combing through the book to find references that they could code as sexual so that they could put a big giant X over the entire book.

3. In a blog post, you apologized to your protagonist for naming the book something they did not want to be called. Why was this important to you?

She’s not real, but trans people are. And if you’re someone who is cisgender, not trans, and reading maybe for the first time about a trans person, it’s going to have an impact on perhaps how you interact with trans people in the future. So it’s important to say, “No, it’s not OK to call people by something they don’t want to be called.” Even though she’s not real, that’s not the point. The point is it is more important to be respectful than anything. And so if something is wrong, go ahead and go, “Oh, that was wrong. I’m going to be respectful.” That should be the focus.