The book ‘Melissa’ was targeted at the St. Marys library. But what’s it actually about?

December 14, 2022 3:33 am

St. Marys residents come out to discuss the renewal of the public library lease on Dec. 6, after protests about the book “Melissa.” (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Iridescent Riffel is a graduate student studying higher education administration at the University of Kansas, where she also serves as a higher education professional.

One recent weekend, I took the time to read — something I haven’t done for pleasure in a very long time. This is unfortunate, as I love words and am a former language arts teacher. Reading “Melissa” felt like a breath of fresh air.

Simply put, Alex Gino has written an amazingly affirming piece.

I wish I could say I opened the book with the intention of simply enjoying it. However, I found myself wondering why so many people want to censor it, and why the St. Mary’s library found itself in hot water for holding a book that has only been checked out four times.

Challenged books week

Kansas Reflector opinion columnists read books challenged by parents and residents and give their thoughts.

Monday: Clay Wirestone on libraries.
Tuesday: Lori Brack on “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Wednesday: Iridescent Riffel on “Melissa.”
Thursday: Mark McCormick on the stakes for students.

Jumping into the book was easy. It consists of 12 short chapters.

As a transgender educator, I found myself relating to the title character’s experiences with dysphoria. “Melissa” would have been transformative and a source of safety for me growing up. Some might argue that writing about dysphoria in a children’s book is harmful or confusing; however, it is ignorance that harms.

I agree with Gino that transgender representation is imperative. How can someone learn to be themselves if that self is shunned or hidden away because of bigotry? “Melissa” is a book about self-acceptance and love. “Melissa” creates a space where transgender kids can read about someone like them. “Melissa” creates a safe place for children to read, to think critically, and open conversations within themselves.

The audience of this book isn’t just transgender children. Cisgender children can benefit from the book too! Throughout the book, Melissa is bullied by classmates Jeff and Rick. The book states that Rick and Melissa used to be friends, but after Jeff entered the picture the safe space between Melissa and Rick disintegrated.

Cisgender kids can read Melissa’s thoughts: her struggles, her worries, and her inner dialogue knowing she is a girl despite what everyone else around her might see or believe. Such deep personal access to a transgender character’s thoughts presents cisgender children with an opportunity. They can seek to understand Melissa more (something I’d argue the St. Marys City Commission should consider).

“Melissa” tackles problems brought on by gender roles, including toxic masculinity, but above all it teaches the importance of kindness and acceptance. Throughout the book Melissa struggles to be seen and accepted by her classmates and adults in her life. Where her teacher, Ms. Udell, fails Melissa, best friend Kelly opens up and accepts her. Where Melissa’s mother fails, her principal succeeds, showing signals of support in her office.

Melissa struggles to come out, but once she does she experiences more joy and comfort than she ever has before. At first, Melissa’s mom is shocked and doesn’t know what to do- cast deep into her own thoughts and worries. Over time Melissa’s mother opens up to accepting her child after seeing her so relaxed and free.

'Melissa' tackles problems brought on by gender roles, including toxic masculinity, but above all it teaches the importance of kindness and acceptance.

– Iridescent Riffel

At first, I thought the ending of the book was incomplete. On reflection, I think I understand it better. The book ends abruptly, with Kelly and Melissa returning from a trip to the zoo. Gino writes: “But Melissa didn’t nod off for a moment. She couldn’t. She was too busy remembering the best week of her life. So far.”

The book ends this way because Melissa’s journey is not over. It has simply begun.

Ending “Melissa” on such a note is honestly realistic. The first step in transitioning is accepting yourself and finding others who do, too. Melissa’s mental health did not begin to heal until she found acceptance from those close to her. After the adults in Melissa’s life created a supportive environment, she was able to flourish.

“Melissa” isn’t telling kids to start taking medication or hide from their parents. In fact, the book does the opposite. It teaches kids that, yes, it’s OK to be trans, but adults in your life should know. Those adults can help you find support, and that support will take time. In Melissa’s case, the first step was going to therapy to talk about her feelings. This is a journey for Melissa to take, with her mom’s support.

The question remains: Why is St. Mary’s library being pressured to remove any books supportive of LGBTQ people?

Does the book sexualize children? No.

It comes down to willful ignorance and hate. I’d challenge parent Dave Perry to actually read the book before spouting hate and paying to have it removed. He might learn what supports queer and trans kids in St. Marys actually need.

Like Gino, I want to tell trans and queer kids and their families that they should be loved and you should be supported. You deserve love, and you deserve to just be yourself.

Like Melissa, our journey isn’t over. Neither is our fighting spirit.

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Iridescent Riffel
Iridescent Riffel

Iridescent Riffel is a graduate student studying higher education administration at the University of Kansas, where she also serves as a higher education professional. She holds a bachelor's degree in secondary education from Kansas State University and is passionate about supporting kids and their dreams. She lives in Lawrence and upon graduating plans to remain in the Kansas City area.