Alex Gino wants to talk to white children about the privilege of growing up without fear of being shot by the police.
The genderqueer author who in 2015 gave us the landmark youth novel George, about a transgender child teetering into her gender identity, is back with a sophomore book that challenges complicity and comfort.
You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! (Ages 8-12; Scholastic Press) is the story of a white 12-year-old navigating her own privilege for the first time. Protagonist Jillian Pirillo is waking up to a world of racism and ableism, and she’s making lots of mistakes.
When her sister Emma is born deaf, Jilly is determined to share Emma’s world by learning ASL. She processes her feelings with Derek, an online friend who loves the same fantasy book series as Jillian. But Derek is Black and Deaf and Jillian comes to learn that her education is sometimes coming at the expense of her friend.
Think of Jilly P as a frank conversation about race in America today between one white person and another. Except in this case, the white ally is an adult, and the person on the receiving end is in elementary school.
Like George, which has been among ALA’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books, a list of reads that have been requested pulled from school libraries, Jilly P delves into territory that is surprisingly candid and heartrending considering the age group of the intended readership.
George centered on a transgender girl who navigated gender identity through a quest to play Charlotte in a school production of Charlotte’s Web. The book talked about medical transition and anxieties about the protagonist’s genitalia. That groundbreaking conversation made it as successful as it was controversial. George won the 2016 Stonewall Book Award. The book also faced backlash from anti-trans activists and parents who worried the subject matter was too mature for elementary school kids.
In Jilly P, Jilly is learning what it means to be an ally to her Deaf sister and to Derek. She finds that Derek is not excited when he is the sole person she chooses to share the news that Emma is Deaf.
Jilly digests a string of police shootings of Black teens, piecing together the dangers that face her own cousins and Derek. And she wonders why her parents remain silent throughout. Her aunt Alicia, who is Black and married to her mom’s sister, helps her break it down.
“Black parents in this country have to talk with their kids about being careful around police,” aunt Alicia tells Jilly. “But until white parents can talk about what’s happening to Black kids too, nothing’s going to change.”
Jilly watches in horror as her own extended family makes subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments at the Thanksgiving dinner table, sending aunt Alicia and her family home early. Her own parents fail to challenge the racism around them, catalyzing Jilly into finding her own voice over Christmas dinner.
When the subject of her aunt, who has skipped the family gathering, comes up again, Jilly challenges the family to consider their own racist comments as hurtful and connects them to the violence she sees happening around her.
“Black kids get shot all the time,” Jilly says to her shocked family. “And it happens because no one does anything about it.”
Toward the end of the book, Jilly comes to understand that police, the people who are supposed to protect us, have killed other kids because they were black. White people feel safe with police because they are white, she concludes.
Gino is clear that they are white and hearing. And so at the end of the novel, they append an apology, for a book that centers a white hearing character and kills two Black youth in the process.
“In a world in which so many books are unconsciously written for white audiences, this book is consciously written for white people as a catalyst to talk about modern racism and police violence in the United States,” they write.
The book weaves in LGBTQ characters without much ado. Where the centerpiece of George was a trans protagonist, queer characters pop in and out of Jilly P like their heterosexual counterparts. There is a rare mention of homophobia directed at Aunt Alicia, but for the most part, queer relationships are normalized.
Jilly P is the conversation many white parents need to have with their white kids but don’t know how to. It’s layered with the complexity of queer narratives and a reflection on ableism. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a book that respects the intelligence and humanity of its young readers.
Jilly P goes on sale Sept. 25.