Battle over books
How did a book on transgenderism, hormone therapy, and sex change surgery end up on a popular list for elementary school students?
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Robin Prather, a retired children’s librarian in Oregon and a Christian, volunteers at a school library in the district where she used to work. A fellow librarian pointed out a title to her in an upcoming popular reading competition for third- through fifth-graders: George by Alex Gino.
The story centers on a boy who is convinced he is a girl, and discusses genitalia, taking hormones, sexual orientation, and sex change surgeries. “We are talking about 8- to 11-year-old elementary students,” Prather wrote in an email. “Some of these children don’t even know about the facts of life yet.”
The competition is called Battle of the Books, a reading event that grew out of a Chicago radio show in the 1940s and is in school districts and libraries all over the country now. Once a year school teams meet to battle in a game show format, answering trivia questions about books on the Battle of the Books list.
George is on Oregon’s recently released Battle of the Books list for the 2018-2019 school year.
In one part of the book, George recounts watching a television interview with a transgender woman where they discussed sex change surgery. “So George knew it could be done,” the book says. “A boy could become a girl. She [George] had since read on the Internet that you could take girl hormones that would change your body, and you could get a bunch of different surgeries if you wanted them and had the money. This was called transitioning. You could even start before you were eighteen with pills called androgen blockers that stopped the boy hormones already inside you from turning your body into a man’s.”
The book is not just “raising awareness” for gender dysphoria or endorsing transgenderism for children—it is publishing risky health data. Pediatric hormone blocking is a relatively new practice (first undertaken in the United States in 2007), and the FDA hasn’t approved it. Giving cross-sex hormones like estrogen to a boy is also not FDA-approved.
A recent journal publication from a Washington University pediatric endocrinologist and two Johns Hopkins Medical School psychiatrists called hormone therapy in children “a drastic and experimental measure.” They argued that doctors often promise that the effects of hormone blockers are fully reversible when there is little scientific evidence to confirm that. (Doctors across the spectrum agree that the vast majority of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria later identify with their biological sex.)
But books like George are gaining more acceptance, and publishers are putting out more of them. “The next frontier for authors writing about transgender people seems to be middle-grade literature, or books aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds,” asserted The New York Times in a 2015 piece.
A children’s book editor at Scholastic, and the editor of George, David Levithan, told Publisher’s Weekly that he had been seeing more transgender titles cross his desk and added, “Hopefully more trans writers will write them.” Levithan, himself a YA author, featured in his first book in 2003 “a homecoming queen who used to be a guy.” Scholastic didn’t return requests for comment.
As publishers publish, critics give accolades, which lead to awards—the award might be from an LGBT group, but it allows the book to be called “award-winning,” a description I heard several times in defense of George. In 2016, the American Library Association (ALA) presented Gino with the Children’s Stonewall Award, the first of that award ever given specifically for children’s literature. (There’s been an ALA award for LGBT young adult & children’s literature since 2010.)
Awards help titles onto reading lists like Battle of the Books. These elementary-aged titles on transgenderism or gender fluidity are still few and far between—several children’s librarians at public libraries I spoke with had never encountered books on this topic. But the numbers are slowly growing and gaining gatekeeper endorsements.
The ALA awards and review accolades put librarians on the ground in a bind. Pamela Palmer is a recently retired children’s librarian in southwest Virginia, where she served at the county library for 23 years. She was in charge of acquisitions for the children’s section and had about $500 a month to spend on new titles. She would order books requested by patrons and then select the rest herself.
To decide on new titles, she would read School Library Journal, the most complete catalogue of children’s book reviews. When George was published in 2015, she saw that SLJ gave it a starred review. SLJ called the book “a required purchase for any collection that serves a middle grade population.”
“Drat,” Palmer thought. An SLJ starred review means most larger library systems would stock the book. The SLJ reviewer, Ingrid Abrams, wrote in the review: “While children can have a sense of their gender identity as early as the age of three, children’s literature is shockingly bereft of trans protagonists, especially where middle grade literature is concerned.” Abrams was also at the time the director-at-large for the ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table.
Shortly after the book was published, Palmer said her boss emailed and asked her to order George. Her boss, Joesephine Clark, doesn’t remember asking her to buy it and doesn’t have an email record of the request to Palmer. Clark said she would regularly send reviews of notable new books, of which George was one, to the children’s librarians for possible acquisition.
Palmer said her boss asked “nicely, not realizing what a big deal it was to me.” Clark said she made no demand to buy the book, and when I asked her about it, she had to check the library’s shelves to see whether they had the book. Whatever the case, Palmer acquired the book despite her reservations.
ALA AWARDS AND SLJ STARRED REVIEWS are one thing. But volunteer librarians and teachers are often the ones selecting titles for Battle of the Books, state “master lists,” and state awards. Which brings us back to the question: How did George end up on the Battle of the Books list in Oregon?
A national Battle of the Books organization comes up with one list, but it hasn’t released its titles for 2018-2019 yet, and every BOB chapter I talked to around the country comes up with its own list, rather than using the national list. Some BOB chapters are just one library, some cover several school districts, and some like Oregon are statewide.
Oregon draws on a statewide group of librarians to volunteer to curate the state’s list. First, the group accepts reader nominations for the list, and George was one of the nominees. Then the OBOB selection committee considers whether nominated titles meet the organization’s criteria to be on the list. The criteria include whether the book (1) “is an appropriate reading level for 3-5th grade;” (2) “adds diversity of character, plot, perspective, and genre” to the OBOB list; and (3) “is an award winning book that has high-quality writing and is well-reviewed.” The committee decided George met the criteria.
“There was not sufficient feedback to cause concern for the committee to exclude the book from the list,” OBOB’s selection chair Courtney Snyder wrote me about George. Snyder told me that according to the handbook, once a title is on the list, it cannot be removed. After I asked about the inclusion of George, OBOB added a statement about the choice on its website, repeating most of what Snyder wrote me.
Now even Oregon public school districts are debating what to do with the list for next year, as students will likely start reading the titles on next year’s list over the summer. Roseburg Public Schools’ director of human resources Robert Freeman said the district was still discussing how it was going to inform parents about George’s inclusion on the BOB list, but initially the staff has talked about emphasizing to parents that the program is voluntary and that students who do decide to participate don’t have to read all the titles. He also underscored that “school districts have no say in these selections.”
Sheila Shapiro, a longtime public librarian and a Christian who works in the Portland, Ore., area, said her library buys copies of everything on the OBOB list so they’re available to check out; they’ll load up the shelves with next year’s list by the summer so kids can read over break.
Shapiro noticed these kinds of children’s books are becoming more of a “norm,” but she added that “the community has not been, as far as I know, clamoring for books on these topics.” She has read books on transgenderism for older age groups and said it has helped her understand some struggles that people with gender dysphoria go through. “You have compassion for them,” Shapiro said. “But for a young child … I would want a parent right there.” She said she can’t refuse the book to patrons but wouldn’t have her own child read it.
SOME BOOKWORM KIDS live for Battle of the Books—I was one of those in middle school and high school, reading through every book on the list sometimes multiple times over. It allowed me to discover diverse books I never would have read on my own. Carly Brust is a mother of six in Wheaton, Ill., and her oldest daughter Calla, 10, is in her first year of Battle of the Books at Wheaton Christian, a local private school. Calla loves it. She doesn’t play sports, according to her mom—she reads books. Battle of the Books is her World Series.
Wheaton Public Library puts together the book list for Wheaton Christian and the 10 surrounding public schools and manages the battles. The schools do eight rounds of battles to determine a champion. Wheaton Christian’s team was in second place of the 12 schools contending, heading into the final round. The library posts the points each team receives, and Calla would go to the library daily to check the points. Her team meets four times a week.
“She is not messing around,” said Brust.
George isn’t on the list in Calla’s district, but Wheaton Christian’s librarian combs through the list to find any titles that might be of concern to Christian parents, and Brust largely leans on the librarian’s judgment. The librarian emailed parents this year to alert them to one title, Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, that may not fit the “Christian worldview.”
The school emphasized to parents that the students did not have to read the book and suggested that parents read it first if their children were going to read it. Brust read Ghosts and then let her daughter read it. One other student read it too, so they are the designated hitters for Ghosts questions.
But with a book like George, Brust can see that approach falling short: “I wonder if that will scare people away from even having their kid on the team at all, from an exposure sense.” Her daughter hasn’t had sex education yet, so many of the graphic details in George would be new to her. For now Brust doesn’t see a book with that kind of controversial material making it onto a list in their conservative, largely Christian district.
Those books are going on other lists in Illinois, though. Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart won the state’s Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award. In Lily and Dunkin, which the list says is for sixth to eighth grade, Tim is an eighth-grade boy who is certain he is a girl (Lily). It also talks about hormone blockers, sex change surgery, and taking estrogen. Tim narrates: “I need to start hormone blockers right now or things are going to happen that can’t be reversed.” One librarian told me the public school district in Lincolnshire, Ill., determines its Battle of the Books list from the Caudill awards list, so Lily and Dunkin will likely be on next year’s Battle of the Books list.
George won a similar state award in Kansas. Emporia State University hosts a committee of parents, teachers, and librarians who choose the master list for the William Allen White Children’s Book Award every year, which becomes a basis for many school library acquisitions. Last year they awarded George, putting it on the master list for third- to fifth-graders.
Despite the award and inclusion on the master list, Wichita public schools decided not to put George on its master list for elementary school shelves, with the supervising librarian Gail Becker telling The Wichita Eagle that the book was not age-appropriate. Becker pointed to the passages about porn, male genitalia, and sex change surgery, and said she didn’t think the “average 8-year-old” would be ready for those topics.
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