Reading & Literacy

Book About Transgender Child Sparks Controversy in Elementary Schools

By Brenda Iasevoli — May 17, 2018 4 min read
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Two school districts in Oregon have barred students from participating in a popular reading competition because the list for grades 3 through 5 includes a book about a transgender child.

Once a year, students across the country in grades 3 through 12 take part in Battle of the Books, a game show-styled competition in which they earn points by answering trivia questions about books on the reading list. Schools kick off the competition by holding their own matches and sending winners on to local, county, and state competitions. The aim is to encourage reading and to broaden students’ interests.

The Cascade and Hermiston school districts in Oregon backed out of next school year’s competition in a disagreement over the book George by Alex Gino. It’s about a 4th grader who everyone sees as a boy, but who identifies as a girl. The districts say the book is not appropriate for 3rd through 5th graders, reports the Associated Press. Instead, the districts will put together their own competition for students in these grades.

George has already faced controversy outside of Oregon. The conservative group, One Million Moms, is warning parents that Scholastic, the book’s publisher, is “unsafe for children.” And while Wichita Public Schools hasn’t banned the book from school libraries, it also won’t pay to put a copy on school library shelves, reports the Wichita Eagle. Gail Becker, a supervisor of library media for the Wichita Public Schools, cited language and references inappropriate for children as the reason. Gino ended up donating 50 copies to Wichita school libraries.

In 2017, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom ranked George Number 5 on its list of top ten most challenged books. The purpose of the list, which is based on news stories and reports from individuals, is to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. In 2016, the Office for Intellectual Freedom ranked the book Number 3, explaining that challenges were based on the view that the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels.”

Students might not find a copy of George on the library shelf at Morse Pond School in Falmouth, Mass., for a different reason: Librarian Elizabeth Abbott can’t keep it on the shelves, according to Cape Cod Wave Magazine. “Understanding that kids aren’t all coming from the same place, that’s nice to see,” she told the magazine.

In Oregon, a note to parents on the Battle of the Books website advises parents that not every book on the list has to be read by every child and that they should decide which books their kids will read based on reading level and emotional maturity.

“You may feel that the content and/or theme of one or two of the titles are inappropriate for your child,” the parental note reads. “Not all OBOB team members are required to read all books on that year’s list and students should not be assigned specific books to read for a grade if students or parents have reservations about the content suitability of that title.”

Still, Reed Curtis, a parent of a 4th and 5th grader, said in a comment on the Oregon Battle of the Books Facebook page that he wouldn’t talk about the topic with his children until they either meet someone who has “transitioned” or they reach “an appropriate age.”

“We treat everyone with the respect and kindness they deserve,” Curtis wrote. “What no one can tell me here is why an 8-year-old needs to understand this now.”

School librarian Andee Weinert Zomerman, another commenter, responded to Curtis by saying that the choice of the book George is not about “your kids.” “Maybe it’s about the kid in 3rd grade who transitioned, but no other kid in the school knows about it. Maybe that kid needs George. Maybe seeing George as an OBOB selection makes him feel more accepted. Maybe kids reading George will open their minds a tad and maybe it won’t be such a big deal when transitions are more well known when they’re older.”

Author Alex Gino said George might offer readers a lesson in understanding. “My book will not make anyone transgender, but it can help make people trans aware, and bring connection to those who already are trans, and I believe that those are good things,” Gino says in a statement. “I don’t believe there’s any age before which it is appropriate to learn compassion.”

Oregon Library Association defended the choice in a statement, saying the competition’s selection committee has a “responsibility to meet the varied interests of all students, as well as reflect the lived realities of the many students who call Oregon their home.” The group also argues that the choice of what students read should be made by parents “who can best determine if their student’s intellectual and emotional development matches the book’s content,” and not by school districts.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.