Books have power, says Alex Gino.
Power to spark controversy. Power to spur discussion. Power to teach, to raise awareness, and perhaps even to save lives.
“Twenty-two trans people have been murdered this year,” said Gino, author of “George,” a children’s book about a transgender child. “Forty percent of trans people have reported that they’ve attempted suicide. Far too many have succeeded.
“Access to validating stories saves lives. … If younger folks learn to talk about queer and trans people in the world, the more we can hope to grow into a society in which queer and trans people are not only accepted, but celebrated.”
Gino spoke at Wichita State University on Thursday, a few weeks after “George” landed at the center of a debate in local school libraries. The visit was sponsored by the WSU Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Wichita chapter of GLSEN, an organization that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ students.
Gino identifies as genderqueer and prefers to go by “they” rather than a gender-specific pronoun. Sitting onstage in the CAC Theater, the author read from the book and talked about the recent controversy.
“They tried to sweep Melissa’s story under the rug,” Gino said, referring to the main character in “George,” a transgender girl who identifies as Melissa.
“Which says to me, be loud. … I want us to make so much noise that the next administrator who considers withholding a book decides that it draws less attention to just let it through. Because those book people? They show up.”
Earlier this year, a library supervisor for Wichita public schools decided “George” included references that are not appropriate for young children, so the district did not include it in a set of William Allen White master list titles provided to every elementary school. Prompted by the controversy, Gino donated about 50 copies of the book to GLSEN in hopes of distributing them to school libraries.
Gail Becker, the library supervisor, said the book always has been available to Wichita librarians if they chose to have it in their collections.
“We haven’t denied access to the book,” Becker said previously. “I just left it up to librarians who know their buildings, who know the communities they’re serving … to make that decision.”
On Thursday, Gino visited with fourth-graders at Irving Elementary School in Wichita and with members of the Gay Straight Alliance at East High School. About 40 people attended the evening talk and book signing at WSU.
“Some adults get all sorts of nervous when they think about how to talk about trans and queer issues with children,” Gino said. “But the thing is, kids don’t have a problem until they learn to.
“The question of whether stories like ‘George’ are age-appropriate are ridiculous, because there is no age before which it is appropriate to be compassionate.”
Gino joked about “George” being included on the American Library Association’s latest list of the most frequently challenged books. “I’m No. 3. Woo-hoo – bronze!”
But the author said it’s crucial that children are exposed to books that feature LGBTQ characters or deal with gender issues.
“Books written by authors who have the audacity to reflect a range of humanity in their writing,” Gino said. “Who show us examples of people finding themselves, being themselves, sharing themselves – people living.”
The author said hubbub over the book means people are at least talking about the issues it raises.
“Sometimes what gets me through the day is believing that backlash is a sign of progress, that these are the death throes of old ways,” Gino said.
“It’s not just trans kids who need trans stories. We all need to see each other as people if we have any hope of getting through the next century.”