By: Rebecca Slocum
Recently, Oregon Battle of the Books (OBOB) released its reading list for the 2018-2019 school year. On this list is the award winning middle grade novel George by Alex Gino. The story centers around a young transgender child, George, who was born a boy but knows she is a girl. The book tackles the difficult, and too often undiscussed, situations and emotions a young transgender child might experience. Many parents in Oregon have taken issue with this selection, saying that the book is not appropriate for the grade level for which it was chosen.
Let’s first take a look at the OBOB competition. OBOB began in the 2007-2008 school year as a voluntary statewide competition between schools in Oregon that celebrates reading. It’s mission states that it seeks “to encourage and recognize students who enjoy reading, to broaden reading interests, to increase reading comprehension, promote academic excellence, and to promote cooperative learning and teamwork among students.” Each year, students read any or all of the books selected by a committee. They then form a team or teams to “battle” it out, testing their knowledge and comprehension of the books. Schools registered in the competition may then send one team to the regional competition. OBOB is sponsored by the Oregon Association of School Libraries along with a Library Services and Technology Act grant. Students in 3rd-12th grade may participate; the reading lists are broken down into divisions of 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grades. George was selected for the 3-5 grade level competitors.
That sounds great, right? A fun competition that incorporates the reading of diverse books, increased reading comprehension, and promotes team work? I can’t think of any teacher or librarian who wouldn’t want to motivate and encourage their students to participate in a similar competition.
However, not everyone feels the same. The controversy began as many complaints do–on Facebook. Parents began to express their concern and complaints on the OBOB Facebook page, some merely stating their thoughts and others going as far as to demand George be taken off the list. (As of the time of this post, OBOB has refused to remove the book from the list.) The momentum of these complaints then spread to conservative groups, such as Prepare the Way. Their blog post regarding the controversy, entitled Battle of the Books…Now a Moral Battle in Oregon, begins with the following:
“Next year during Oregon’s Battle of the Books, 3rd-5th graders will be encouraged to live, breath [sic] and study a book with references to “p0rn,” “going all the way,” and sex-change operations.”
The post goes on to discuss different sections of the book, such as mentions of transitioning, dirty magazines, and hiding internet searches. The post ends with selected excerpts from the book that do indeed sound as if the entire book focuses on these topics only, which is not accurate.
Firstly, to this post and the parents who feel this way, I have to quote the musical Hamilton here: “Have you read this?” Have you read George? Picking and choosing choice phrases, paragraphs, or pages does not tell you the story. While it does broach the topic of transgender children, it does so in a thoughtful and age-appropriate way, a way that might help a struggling young person realize that other children feel as they do. The story also tackles bullying, the importance of friendship, and, most significantly, accepting and being who you are. Those are important and necessary messages for children of all ages.
Secondly, I have to circle back to the rules of the competition. Have you read those? Because it clearly states that, one, participation in this competition is voluntary. As in, your child does not have to participate, if you so choose. And two, a child or team does not have to read all of the books in order to participate. So, if the objection is to only one book, you can choose to have your child not read that one book. Your child, your choice. However, it is not okay to make that choice for another parent or child.
Rather, I encourage parents to, instead of barring your child from reading a book that tackles big and important issues such as transgender children, read it with them and open the lines of communication to discuss it. When George was published in 2015, librarians, teaches, and booksellers around the country knew the importance of such a book because they all knew someone who had experienced a similar situation. If your child does not know someone already who is struggling with their identity, they certainly will in the future. Rather than allow them to be blindsided by those who are different from them, introduce them to such differences in a relatable format and in an environment where they can ask questions.
Parents, myself included, like to think we can control everything our child experiences in order to protect them. Quite simply, we can’t. However, we, as parents, teachers, and librarians alike, can prepare children to face the world and the many challenges and wonders it offers through books. Books offer their readers a chance to see themselves mirrored back or to catch a glimpse of people different from themselves. They often answer questions and validate feelings children didn’t even know they had. They encourage friendship and teamwork. And, best of all, they teach understanding, compassion, and acceptance. For yourself. For friends and strangers. For everyone.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.