Librarians Cannot Self-Censor or Capitulate To "George" Complaints | Opinion

The Oregon Battle of the Books is facing controversy because a book about a transgender child is on the reading list. Librarian Miranda Doyle calls on her colleagues to stand up to the critics.

Alex Gino’s novel George is suddenly among the most requested books in my district’s libraries. Students have checked it out all along, but now several principals and teachers want a copy as well.

[Miranda Doyle, pictured]

The book—about a transgender fourth grader who prefers to go by Melissa—is charming and well-reviewed, but much of the heightened interest is because two Oregon school districts are refusing to allow their elementary schools to compete in next year’s Oregon Battle of the Books (OBOB) because George is on the reading list. Every year, thousands of students in Oregon form teams and read from a list of carefully selected titles. Teams answer questions about each book in a quiz-show format at a school level then regional and, finally, in a state championship round.

Statewide participation in OBOB is estimated between 15,000 to 30,000 students. It is usually overseen by teachers, library staff, or parents. The program is voluntary, and participating students do not have to read every book on the list.

As the Oregon Library Association (OLA) and the Oregon Association of School Libraries (OASL) explained in a recent joint statement, “Any decision on whether to have a student participate in OBOB or read a specific book is most appropriately made by a student's parents or guardians, who can best determine if their student's intellectual and emotional development matches the book's content.” Typically, only team members, their parents, teachers, and school and public library staff pay close attention to OBOB titles as they are nominated and selected. The 2018-19 list for third to fifth graders features 16 titles, including Hana’s Suitcase, about the Holocaust, and In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, which addresses the tragic history of Native Americans in the United States.

However, it is the story of a fourth grader who wants to play Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web that has attracted attention. Two school districts decided not to participate in OBOB because they say George is not appropriate. Other schools have discussed the issue as well.

Opponents of the book cite specific “inappropriate” passages. For example, George’s brother briefly mistakes her carefully hidden fashion magazines for "dirty" magazines. In another part of the story, George wants to clear her Internet browser history on her mother’s computer, because she has been reading websites on transitioning and is worried that her mother won’t be supportive.

Some critics of the OBOB book selection argue that third through fifth graders are too young to learn about gender expression. That is simply not true. Oregon’s new health education standards state that kindergarteners should be able to “recognize that there are many ways to express gender” and “recognize the importance of treating others with respect including gender expression.”

Starting age-appropriate conversations with younger students and building on them each year may help reduce or prevent the discrimination that so many ­LGBTQ students face. As the intellectual freedom chair for the Oregon Association of School Libraries and the district librarian for Lake Oswego (OR) School District, I find it disturbing that George was one of the most challenged books of 2017, according to the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, but I know it fits a pattern. Many challenged books deal with gender, sexuality, or diversity.

As librarians, we must defend these titles. It’s important that students see themselves in books and also see the perspectives of others who are different from them. We must also ensure that we do not self-censor to avoid controversy with George or any book challenged in school or public libraries. There is the danger that library staff or administrators may remove the title without following a district’s materials reconsideration policies. Other schools may decide not to purchase books with transgender characters. The OBOB committee followed their selection criteria, which includes choosing a variety of “high quality, well-reviewed, age-appropriate titles” and not excluding anything “in an effort to avoid controversy with parents.” They made the right decision, and librarians must stand by them and George.

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I also don't think the book should be censored. However, I think trans issues are taking up a much larger space than makes demographic sense (0.6% of the population). I also worry that children and adolescents who don't fit into stereotypical gender roles (but have no real discomfort about their sex), will be pushed towards this, as it is easier to define. People who are pro-gender-affirmative care, don't often talk about the risks of things like puberty blockers (including permanent sterilization) for kids who almost by definition as kids are constantly changing and trying on new identities.

Posted : May 24, 2018 02:50

Sarah C.

I agree with Frederick. I was a tomboy growing up. I loved playing with boys and in one year only wore boy's clothes. But I never wanted to be a boy... at least not that I can recall! I do wonder if I would have been pushed into something I would have ultimately regretted. Once you take hormone blockers etc., there is no going back! Most kids do grow out of this. This does not mean that we shouldn't be there to support those kids who TRULY are transgender. The issue is, who is really trans and who is just confused?

Posted : Jun 07, 2018 03:36

Emily B.

You're worrying about something that isn't a problem. We have no evidence to indicate that children are being "pushed towards" identifying as trans. On the other hand, we have overwhelming evidence that trans kids without support suffer devastating consequences. The more we talk about the societally constructed nature of gender roles and teach kids to accept diverse gender performances, they'll be better equipped to make well-informed and truthful decisions about their own identities.

Posted : Jun 13, 2018 06:29


As a parent and educator I feel it is important for us to have a vehicle to talk to our kids about issues that may be controversial. Use this opportunity to listen to what kids are thinking and have questions about. Most of all we can talk about having compassion for each other.

Posted : May 22, 2018 07:56


Thanks for this. Self-censorship, in particular, is insidious and often unconscious. (I did it as a magazine editor -- which I only realized years later -- so I'm sympathetic to librarians here! Nevertheless, Miranda is right and it's our job as gatekeepers not to kowtow to censorship.)

Posted : May 19, 2018 05:56