ALA AWARDS AND SLJ STARRED REVIEWS are one thing. But volunteer librarians and teachers are often the ones selecting titles for Battle of the Books, state “master lists,” and state awards. Which brings us back to the question: How did George end up on the Battle of the Books list in Oregon?
A national Battle of the Books organization comes up with one list, but it hasn’t released its titles for 2018-2019 yet, and every BOB chapter I talked to around the country comes up with its own list, rather than using the national list. Some BOB chapters are just one library, some cover several school districts, and some like Oregon are statewide.
Oregon draws on a statewide group of librarians to volunteer to curate the state’s list. First, the group accepts reader nominations for the list, and George was one of the nominees. Then the OBOB selection committee considers whether nominated titles meet the organization’s criteria to be on the list. The criteria include whether the book (1) “is an appropriate reading level for 3-5th grade;” (2) “adds diversity of character, plot, perspective, and genre” to the OBOB list; and (3) “is an award winning book that has high-quality writing and is well-reviewed.” The committee decided George met the criteria.
“There was not sufficient feedback to cause concern for the committee to exclude the book from the list,” OBOB’s selection chair Courtney Snyder wrote me about George. Snyder told me that according to the handbook, once a title is on the list, it cannot be removed. After I asked about the inclusion of George, OBOB added a statement about the choice on its website, repeating most of what Snyder wrote me.
Now even Oregon public school districts are debating what to do with the list for next year, as students will likely start reading the titles on next year’s list over the summer. Roseburg Public Schools’ director of human resources Robert Freeman said the district was still discussing how it was going to inform parents about George’s inclusion on the BOB list, but initially the staff has talked about emphasizing to parents that the program is voluntary and that students who do decide to participate don’t have to read all the titles. He also underscored that “school districts have no say in these selections.”
Sheila Shapiro, a longtime public librarian and a Christian who works in the Portland, Ore., area, said her library buys copies of everything on the OBOB list so they’re available to check out; they’ll load up the shelves with next year’s list by the summer so kids can read over break.
Shapiro noticed these kinds of children’s books are becoming more of a “norm,” but she added that “the community has not been, as far as I know, clamoring for books on these topics.” She has read books on transgenderism for older age groups and said it has helped her understand some struggles that people with gender dysphoria go through. “You have compassion for them,” Shapiro said. “But for a young child … I would want a parent right there.” She said she can’t refuse the book to patrons but wouldn’t have her own child read it.
SOME BOOKWORM KIDS live for Battle of the Books—I was one of those in middle school and high school, reading through every book on the list sometimes multiple times over. It allowed me to discover diverse books I never would have read on my own. Carly Brust is a mother of six in Wheaton, Ill., and her oldest daughter Calla, 10, is in her first year of Battle of the Books at Wheaton Christian, a local private school. Calla loves it. She doesn’t play sports, according to her mom—she reads books. Battle of the Books is her World Series.
Wheaton Public Library puts together the book list for Wheaton Christian and the 10 surrounding public schools and manages the battles. The schools do eight rounds of battles to determine a champion. Wheaton Christian’s team was in second place of the 12 schools contending, heading into the final round. The library posts the points each team receives, and Calla would go to the library daily to check the points. Her team meets four times a week.
“She is not messing around,” said Brust.
George isn’t on the list in Calla’s district, but Wheaton Christian’s librarian combs through the list to find any titles that might be of concern to Christian parents, and Brust largely leans on the librarian’s judgment. The librarian emailed parents this year to alert them to one title, Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, that may not fit the “Christian worldview.”
The school emphasized to parents that the students did not have to read the book and suggested that parents read it first if their children were going to read it. Brust read Ghosts and then let her daughter read it. One other student read it too, so they are the designated hitters for Ghosts questions.
But with a book like George, Brust can see that approach falling short: “I wonder if that will scare people away from even having their kid on the team at all, from an exposure sense.” Her daughter hasn’t had sex education yet, so many of the graphic details in George would be new to her. For now Brust doesn’t see a book with that kind of controversial material making it onto a list in their conservative, largely Christian district.
Those books are going on other lists in Illinois, though. Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart won the state’s Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award. In Lily and Dunkin, which the list says is for sixth to eighth grade, Tim is an eighth-grade boy who is certain he is a girl (Lily). It also talks about hormone blockers, sex change surgery, and taking estrogen. Tim narrates: “I need to start hormone blockers right now or things are going to happen that can’t be reversed.” One librarian told me the public school district in Lincolnshire, Ill., determines its Battle of the Books list from the Caudill awards list, so Lily and Dunkin will likely be on next year’s Battle of the Books list.
George won a similar state award in Kansas. Emporia State University hosts a committee of parents, teachers, and librarians who choose the master list for the William Allen White Children’s Book Award every year, which becomes a basis for many school library acquisitions. Last year they awarded George, putting it on the master list for third- to fifth-graders.
Despite the award and inclusion on the master list, Wichita public schools decided not to put George on its master list for elementary school shelves, with the supervising librarian Gail Becker telling The Wichita Eagle that the book was not age-appropriate. Becker pointed to the passages about porn, male genitalia, and sex change surgery, and said she didn’t think the “average 8-year-old” would be ready for those topics.