Wichita district not buying transgender novel for elementary schools

Only four of Wichita’s 57 elementary and K-8 schools have a copy of “George,” a novel about a transgender fourth-grader.
Only four of Wichita’s 57 elementary and K-8 schools have a copy of “George,” a novel about a transgender fourth-grader. File photo

An award-winning children’s book about a transgender fourth-grader won’t be on most library shelves in Wichita schools.

Gail Becker, supervisor of library media for the Wichita district, said “George,” a novel by Alex Gino, contains language and references that are not appropriate for young children. She decided earlier this year that the book would not be included in a set of William Allen White master list titles provided to Wichita elementary schools.

Wichita school librarians are allowed to carry the book if they choose, Becker said, either by purchasing copies from their building funds or borrowing one from the district’s library department.

Four of Wichita’s 57 elementary or K-8 schools have the novel in their libraries, Becker said. Two Wichita middle schools and one high school also have it, she said.

“We haven’t denied access to the book,” Becker said. “I just left it up to librarians who know their buildings, who know the communities they’re serving … to make that decision.”

Some librarians and advocates for transgender youth say the decision is unwarranted and a missed opportunity to fill a void in school libraries – literature that portrays kids struggling with gender identity.

“All students deserve to see themselves reflected in curriculum, and one of the best ways to do that is through books,” said Liz Hamor, co-founder of the Wichita chapter of GLSEN, a national organization that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ students.

“We know there are trans students in Wichita elementary schools,” she said. “If we continue to treat it as a taboo topic, it’s going to continue to be taboo for people to live authentically.”

Judging appropriateness

“George,” published in 2015 by Scholastic, is a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl who doesn’t know how to tell her family and friends. George decides to try out for the part of Charlotte in her school’s production of “Charlotte’s Web” in hopes of helping others see her the way she sees herself.

The book, geared toward children 8 to 12, was selected for the William Allen White Children’s Book Award master list for third- through fifth-graders. It won a 2016 Children’s Choice Book Award, a Stonewall Book Award for LGBT books and was a finalist for the E.B White Read-Aloud Award for middle readers.

In a starred review, the School Library Journal called it “a required purchase for any collection that serves a middle grade population.”

Becker said her decision not to purchase the book for Wichita school libraries was based on language and mature references in the book, not its theme of gender identity.

“When I read this book, I kept reminding myself to look at it through the eyes of an 8-year-old, because that’s the intended audience,” Becker said. “I made the decision that … the maturity level of third grade was not appropriate for that book.”

She pointed to one passage in which a school bully refers to George, saying, “It looks like someone’s finally starting to grow some balls.”

In another passage, George’s older brother makes a reference to a magazine George leaves in the bathroom: “Dude, I thought you had porn or something in there, so I took a peek.”

In another, a character asks George about sex reassignment surgery: “‘So, like, do you want to’ – he made a gesture with two fingers like a pair of scissors – ‘go all the way?’”

“So I’m looking at the words and going, ‘Hmmm,’ … Would the average 8-year-old be familiar with these terms?” Becker said. “Does she know what ‘dirty magazine’ refers to, or is that a magazine that dropped in a mud puddle?

“When I approached this book, I tried to read it from the point of view of a child and not from an adult who’s seen some of these words before.”

Officials with other Wichita-area school districts, including Andover, Goddard, Haysville and Valley Center, said “George” is not part of their elementary school library collections either.

“Librarians felt that the grade level and reviews of the language – not necessarily the topic – was not best suited for our elementary libraries,” said Cory Gibson, Valley Center’s superintendent.

‘Uncomfortable conversations’

Gino, a self-described genderqueer author, said local school districts’ reaction to the novel is “disappointing, but not surprising.”

“What it means is that someone is afraid of exposing children to reality,” Gino said.

“They’re either afraid that the book is going to turn them trans – I promise you that doesn’t happen – or they’re afraid of uncomfortable conversations. … People are afraid of talking about what they don’t know how to talk about.”

The body of children’s literature about transgender people or gender identity – particularly books geared toward elementary school readers – is small.

Beverley Buller, chairwoman of the selection committee for the William Allen White Awards, based at Emporia State University, said “George” was mentioned during the first round of last year’s nomination process, and it seemed to gain steam as committee members read and discussed it.

The committee, comprised of Kansas librarians, teachers, school administrators, parents and others, winnowed more than 100 nominations down to the final master list, using guidelines established in 1952.

Members recognized that “George” deals with a potentially controversial subject, Buller said. But several commended the author’s “light touch” and courage in addressing a difficult topic.

“One person spoke in favor, saying we’ve got elementary kids in our schools that are transgender, and this is something kids need to know,” she said.

Librarian speaks out

One Wichita school librarian said she disagrees with the district’s decision to omit “George” from the bundle of books supplied to libraries. She ordered a copy of the book herself, alerting her principal and school counselor that she planned to do so.

“If I refuse to offer the book, that’s a tacit message that there’s something wrong with the book or something wrong with being transgender, and I was afraid of sending that message,” said the librarian, who works at a Wichita elementary school.

She asked not to be identified because she wasn’t authorized to speak about the issue.

“Books are written to be mirrors or windows to the world – either I see myself in a book, or I learn about someone else’s experience and learn empathy,” she said.

“There aren’t many transgender books, and I know there are kids living with that. … We all want to feel like we’re not weird, that there’s someone else who feels like us.”

The librarian said she presents the William Allen White master list to students each year, showing the book covers and offering brief blurbs about each book.

After she summarized “George,” several students told her it sounded like “I Am Jazz,” a television show on the TLC network about a transgender teenager. The star of that show, Jazz Jennings, also co-wrote a children’s picture book about a transgender girl.

“For a lot of kids, this isn’t some huge mystery anymore. It’s part of society,” the librarian said. “I’m sure there was a point where if you had a black and white person dating in a book, or any gay characters, that was verboten.

“I feel like I’m on the right side of history on this.”

Parental control

Buller, of the William Allen White selection committee, said she understands concerns about the book and emphasized that parents should take an active role in what their children read.

“If they say, ‘You know what? You’re only in fourth grade, and I don’t want you to read about a transgender fourth-grader,’ that’s between them,” she said. “We don’t want to be parents.”

School libraries tend to be more selective than large public libraries, Buller said. When she worked in a middle school, students occasionally would ask her for a Stephen King horror novel, which she didn’t keep in her collection.

“I’d say, ‘Stephen King is an adult book. If you’d like to read him, go to the public library,’” she said.

The Wichita Public Library has 14 copies of “George” in its collection, said Sarah Kittrell, collection development manager for the library. The book has been checked out 70 times, she said.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias