This article is part of a series celebrating Pride Month by highlighting LGBTQIA+ characters encountering unprecedented social and romantic situations, and whose stories have helped make readers feel seen and supported in their own personal journeys.

Be Who You Are: Melissa’s Story

michelle pastor  //  Jun 15, 2022

Be Who You Are: Melissa’s Story

Melissa, the title character of Alex Gino’s popular Scholastic novel of the same name, is widely beloved, and her story is essential reading even seven years after its initial publication. Melissa is smart and thoughtful, kind and insightful, determined and brave - someone who believes in herself and encourages others to do the same, and someone readers want to keep close long after they’ve finished the book. When we meet her, Melissa knows she’s a girl, but the world sees her as a boy named George. She hasn't shared this part of herself with anyone else, unsure how her family, friends, and community will react - until she has the chance to express herself onstage. 

Alex tells Melissa’s story in a way that’s both personal and universal, set against the very relatable scene of fourth-grade friendships, bullies, and classroom politics, but brings to it the importance of transgender representation on a broader scale. “I wrote Melissa because it’s a book I wish I had growing up, and a book I’m happy for kids to have now, so that they can grow up a little differently than I did,” Alex said.

Although Melissa struggles to find her place in the world, her sense of self is unwavering. She’s proud of who she is, and she doesn’t let the bullies define her. When her class reads Charlotte’s Web, Melissa instantly identifies with Charlotte, so much so that she wants to play her in the school play, even though everyone at school still sees her as George. “Charlotte is a ‘girl’ who lives in the shadows and is generally seen as ‘an ugly old spider,’ but who is a good writer and a good friend,” Alex explained. “Melissa connects deeply with her, and sees playing her onstage as a way to engage in and express her girlhood. There is a deep and rich history of LGBTQIAP+ people in theater, using the distance of playing a character to reach and share deep places within themselves, and Melissa is part of that tradition.”

The possibility of playing Charlotte changes everything and, eventually, Melissa begins sharing her identity with those close to her. Their reactions are an important part of the story too, for Melissa and for readers alike. Melissa can experience the true joy and full self-hood that comes from being accepted for who you are.

“Seeing how friends, family, and others react to Melissa sharing her gender can be a model of how people might want to act, or not act, when someone comes out to them as transgender. And seeing how gendered assumptions hurt Melissa can show teachers, parents, and others the value of speaking and acting in trans-inclusive ways,” Alex said.

The novel itself is a living product of its own values, with Alex changing the title from the original George in 2022 to be more respectful of how Melissa wants us to know her. Alex explained their decision and encouraged readers to correct the covers of their books, sparking an important conversation - and the #SharpieActivism movement, which resonated in a huge way. “It’s hard to overstate the shift in cultural understanding and acceptance of young transgender people in the last ten years. What was unseen then is blaring now. Re-titling the book is like joining Melissa in her process of claiming her identity,” Alex said.

 

The cultural shifts of the past decades also influenced the story as Alex was writing. When they began the book in 2003, they didn’t include the word transgender at all, since it seemed unrealistic for a child to find that language on their own at that time. “I’ll also say that when I started writing Melissa, I had no conception that she would be able to be herself at school and home for at least a few years, but now, the idea that Mom would get it together to help Melissa be herself shortly after the end of the book is well within the range of what’s likely,” they said.

While that support is critical for Melissa, and for all trans kids, it may not always be immediately available in their own lives, making accessible representation even more important. “For trans and gender-non-conforming kids, seeing someone like them in a book helps them know that they are real and deserve respect and support,” Alex said. “For cisgender kids, knowing who’s in the world means that they are better able to be a part of it. Transgender people are at frightening levels of risk of harm from self and others. Acceptance and support are the best ways to mitigate that risk.”

Melissa’s effect on readers can’t be overstated. “I have heard from readers of all ages, genders, and sexualities that Melissa has helped them see and be themselves, and to see and support others. I hear from people who are figuring themselves out, whose lives haven’t neatly settled into a label, or might not ever, but who see Melissa as a touchstone in their self-discovery. I hear from cisgender kids who had never thought about gender before, and others who are delighted to see a friend like theirs in a book. I hear from cisgender parents and teachers who are happy to be able to share Melissa’s story with the kids in their lives. I hear from transgender adults like me, who are comforted to read the kind of book we wish we had had as children,” Alex said. “But probably most special of all, I hear from trans kids, kids who won’t grow up never seeing themselves in a book. Kids who are finding themselves in books like mine. Kids who are going to change the world for the better – kids who already are, by being able to be themselves.”

If you’re curious about what happens next for Melissa, her story continues in Alex’s book Rick!

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