As grown-ups start to shop for summer reading, school kids are laying into the titles they’ll read for next fall’s Oregon Battle of the Books, or OBOB.
It’s a statewide competition, in which kids read from a list of about dozen books, curated by a team of librarians. They duke it out answering Jeopardy!-style questions about the books.
One of the books contenders will read this summer is unlike any before it.
The novel "George" by Alex Gino is the first OBOB selection to feature a transgender protagonist. Gino’s fourth-grade heroine thinks of herself as Melissa, and the narrative identifies her with female pronouns throughout, but she’s carrying the male name she was born with and hiding feelings she can only let loose when she’s totally alone. Here’s a bit from the book’s first chapter:
George slipped to the ground. As she tipped the denim bag on its side, the silky, slippery pages of a dozen magazines fell out onto the tiled bathroom floor. George was only a few years younger than the girls smiling at her from the glossy pages. She thought of them as her friends.”
There’s plenty here for readers to digest — and still more when George’s reverie is interrupted a few pages later by the entry of her brother, a high school freshman.
Sorry if I busted in on you when you were taking a dump." Scott wiped the juice off his lips on his bare forearm.
I wasn't taking a dump," George said.
Then what took you so long?
Oh, I know," Scott said. "I bet you had a magazine in there.”
When "George" was published in 2015, Gino intended it for middle-grade readers, ages 8 to 12. That's close to where OBOB's selection committee placed it, on the list for competitors in grades three through five. (OBOB's teams are divided up by grade level: 3–5, 6–8 and 9–12.)
Korie Buerkle, a librarian in Newberg and a member of the committee, said books can be nominated during a September–November window by anyone: students of any age, teachers, parents, school librarians, municipal librarians. The minimum requirement to get a book on the list is a yes vote from three committee members. For “George,” she said, there were definitely more than that. Most members had already read the book and approved.
“We liked the story,” Berkley said. “We liked that it was about a trans child — something we’ve never had on the elementary list before.
"Books are both windows and mirrors for kids. We want to have books on the list where kids can say, ‘Hey, that child is like me,’ and feel empowered. And we want books on the list where kids can say, 'I’ve never considered somebody’s point of view like that before.'”
2 Districts Drop Out
But the book has raised some hackles. Two Oregon school districts will withhold their third- through fifth-grade students from regional competitions, in which kids might be asked about “George.”
Maria Duron, a spokeswoman for the Hermiston School District, said principals from Hermiston’s elementary schools thought the book didn't match with the district curriculum.
“It was not about the subject matter,” Duron said, “but the content of the book."
"George," Duron said, didn't align with what the district suggests kids are supposed to be learning about health and their bodies in grades 3–5.
Duron said younger Hermiston students will still compete within the school using all the other books this year. Kids at older grade levels can still participate in regionals. And Duron added the district wants to be supportive of its transgender students. The book itself, she said, is available in Hermiston’s middle and high school libraries.
“You’re talking about 8-year-olds,” Duron said. “The district is able to address certain things. But this particular content is not within the district curriculum for that age group.”
Cascade School District south of Salem also pulled out of the competition. Superintendent Darin Drill told OPB's "Think Out Loud" some of what's in the book is not "developmentally appropriate for third- and fourth-graders." Drill emphasized the district's decision was not because the protagonist is transgender.
Parents React To 'George'
Every winter, OBOB holds an open comment period. This year, only three people came forward to talk about “George”: two in support of the book, one suggesting a transgender protagonist might be controversial.
It’s not clear whether the discussion will mean any changes for the OBOB selection committee. Buerkle said this was, by far, the most time the committee has spent talking about any one book on any of the three lists.
The range of reactions to "George" varied. The conservative group Parents Rights in Education rolled the debate over "George" into their existing arguments against transgender rights (arguments in direct conflict with existing science on the mental health of transgender people).
PRIE director Suzanne Gallagher suggested that a reading list including stories about transgender people could cause children to question their gender identities for "attention."
“All that attention they’re getting, everybody ‘celebrating my new identity.’ Young children need attention. They thrive on it. It happens,” Gallagher said.
Some parents said they don’t object to the book or subject matter, but couldn’t get behind the book’s references to pornography. (Drill, the Cascade superintendent, brought this up, too, along with internet privacy as among the district's concerns.) Some said they're not ready to talk about transgender people with their third graders.
Erica Brown, a parent of two OBOB contenders in Scappoose, said the book has been a topic in her community. The daughter of a retired librarian, Brown said she’s in favor of the book remaining available to kids. If parents read the book, Brown said, it might initiate conversations with their children.
“Maybe the subject matter is a little more in-depth than the third-graders are ready for," Brown said. "I’ve had this conversation with moms in my area: We are way more comfortable with violence than having our children see or hear about things of a sexual nature.”
Some districts are taking a moderated approach. Newberg Schools asked parents to read the book and discuss alternate plans with teachers if they found it inappropriate. Bend-LaPine schools will require the youngest readers to get a permission slip to compete in OBOB.
But the point, “George” advocates say, is that the book presents an opportunity for parents to talk to kids — in whatever way they see appropriate.
For some families, “George” is a game-changer for their own kids, who see themselves in the pages.
“It’s such an opportunity to help teach about the diversity of people and to accept people for who they are,” said Holly Polivka, a librarian working in Washington County who read the book with her daughter Evie.
The story packed a lot of punch for Evie, an energetic, vivacious trans girl with waist-length blond hair, whose latest favorite thing is twisting herself into gymnastic poses. (She hopes of being a contortionist someday.)
“It was one of my favorite books I’ve actually read,” Evie said.
Evie transitioned in kindergarten; she’s in fourth grade now. It was a long process, beginning with things Polivka noticed about Evie when she was 3 or 4 years old. That continued in preschool when Evie's teacher asked Holly and her husband about their child. After a series of conversations with their school — which Polivka characterized as “wonderful” — Evie started wearing girl clothes to school, with minimal reaction from other kids and teachers.
“George” was published a few years later, but Evie wanted to read it right away.
“Knowing I’m not the only one going through all of what George went through,” she said, “I like having something I can read that I can relate to.”
Polivka said, “It’s their right as a parent when they want to have discussion like this with their children, whether it’s about about [transgender people], or porn or the internet. But I don’t feel like it’s their place to make for everybody else. And it’s a missed opportunity.”
A few years out from Evie’s transition, the family is so far past any sense of drama. It’s hard to recognize the hot rhetoric of the debate in their living room, with Evie’s brother playing noisily in the yard with a friend, and Evie scarfing a couple of coveted Oreos at the dining room table.
“Would you have been given an idea,” Polivka asked her, “reading that there’s such a thing as being transgender, of, 'Oooo! I think I’m going to be a girl?'”
Evie rolled her eyes with all the authority at a 10-year-old’s command.
“Noooo! I’d never even heard of that until I started feeling those feelings,” she said.
Evie will be among the kids reading “George” for OBOB this fall.