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Battle over books

How did a book on transgenderism, hormone therapy, and sex change surgery end up on a popular list for elementary school students?

Battle over books

Transgender author Alex Gino (Wolfgang Kumm/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

Robin Prather, a retired children’s librarian in Oregon and a Christian, volunteers at a school library in the district where she used to work. A fellow librarian pointed out a title to her in an upcoming popular reading competition for third- through fifth-graders: George by Alex Gino.

The story centers on a boy who is convinced he is a girl, and discusses genitalia, taking hormones, sexual orientation, and sex change surgeries. “We are talking about 8- to 11-year-old elementary students,” Prather wrote in an email. “Some of these children don’t even know about the facts of life yet.”

The competition is called Battle of the Books, a reading event that grew out of a Chicago radio show in the 1940s and is in school districts and libraries all over the country now. Once a year school teams meet to battle in a game show format, answering trivia questions about books on the Battle of the Books list.

George is on Oregon’s recently released Battle of the Books list for the 2018-2019 school year.

In one part of the book, George recounts watching a television interview with a transgender woman where they discussed sex change surgery. “So George knew it could be done,” the book says. “A boy could become a girl. She [George] had since read on the Internet that you could take girl hormones that would change your body, and you could get a bunch of different surgeries if you wanted them and had the money. This was called transitioning. You could even start before you were eighteen with pills called androgen blockers that stopped the boy hormones already inside you from turning your body into a man’s.”

The book is not just “raising awareness” for gender dysphoria or endorsing transgenderism for children—it is publishing risky health data. Pediatric hormone blocking is a relatively new practice (first undertaken in the United States in 2007), and the FDA hasn’t approved it. Giving cross-sex hormones like estrogen to a boy is also not FDA-approved.

A recent journal publication from a Washington University pediatric endocrinologist and two Johns Hopkins Medical School psychiatrists called hormone therapy in children “a drastic and experimental measure.” They argued that doctors often promise that the effects of hormone blockers are fully reversible when there is little scientific evidence to confirm that. (Doctors across the spectrum agree that the vast majority of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria later identify with their biological sex.)

But books like George are gaining more acceptance, and publishers are putting out more of them. “The next frontier for authors writing about transgender people seems to be middle-grade literature, or books aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds,” asserted The New York Times in a 2015 piece.

A children’s book editor at Scholastic, and the editor of George, David Levithan, told Publisher’s Weekly that he had been seeing more transgender titles cross his desk and added, “Hopefully more trans writers will write them.” Levithan, himself a YA author, featured in his first book in 2003 “a homecoming queen who used to be a guy.” Scholastic didn’t return requests for comment.

As publishers publish, critics give accolades, which lead to awards—the award might be from an LGBT group, but it allows the book to be called “award-winning,” a description I heard several times in defense of George. In 2016, the American Library Association (ALA) presented Gino with the Children’s Stonewall Award, the first of that award ever given specifically for children’s literature. (There’s been an ALA award for LGBT young adult & children’s literature since 2010.)

Awards help titles onto reading lists like Battle of the Books. These elementary-aged titles on transgenderism or gender fluidity are still few and far between—several children’s librarians at public libraries I spoke with had never encountered books on this topic. But the numbers are slowly growing and gaining gatekeeper endorsements.

The ALA awards and review accolades put librarians on the ground in a bind. Pamela Palmer is a recently retired children’s librarian in southwest Virginia, where she served at the county library for 23 years. She was in charge of acquisitions for the children’s section and had about $500 a month to spend on new titles. She would order books requested by patrons and then select the rest herself.

To decide on new titles, she would read School Library Journal, the most complete catalogue of children’s book reviews. When George was published in 2015, she saw that SLJ gave it a starred review. SLJ called the book “a required purchase for any collection that serves a middle grade population.”

“Drat,” Palmer thought. An SLJ starred review means most larger library systems would stock the book. The SLJ reviewer, Ingrid Abrams, wrote in the review: “While children can have a sense of their gender identity as early as the age of three, children’s literature is shockingly bereft of trans protagonists, especially where middle grade literature is concerned.” Abrams was also at the time the director-at-large for the ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table.

Shortly after the book was published, Palmer said her boss emailed and asked her to order George. Her boss, Joesephine Clark, doesn’t remember asking her to buy it and doesn’t have an email record of the request to Palmer. Clark said she would regularly send reviews of notable new books, of which George was one, to the children’s librarians for possible acquisition.

Palmer said her boss asked “nicely, not realizing what a big deal it was to me.” Clark said she made no demand to buy the book, and when I asked her about it, she had to check the library’s shelves to see whether they had the book. Whatever the case, Palmer acquired the book despite her reservations.

Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian/ZumaPress.com/Newscom

Third-graders from California compete in the Battle of the Books. (Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian/ZumaPress.com/Newscom)

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.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • Janet B
    Posted: Sat, 03/17/2018 09:42 am

    I can only shake my head...how did we get here?

  • Bob C
    Posted: Mon, 03/19/2018 10:51 am

    Answer: A lack of parental involvement in their child’s school.  When an article showed up describing a lesbian student sexual experience in my teen’s High School newspaper, a meeting was set up with the principle, the teacher overseeing the school newspaper and a handful of concerned parents, (me included).  Needless to say no more articles like that showed up again. That teacher was removed from overseeing the school newspaper.  I took time for my wife and me, and the other parents, to organize and I had to use a half of day vacation time to attend that meeting, but it was worth it to fight for our children.      

    I my opinion, the LBGT crowd will continue to push the envelope with whatever propaganda they can get away with to get their way.  Unless we boldly stand up and push back, we will get run over.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 03/26/2018 10:00 pm

    @ Bob C

    Lack of parental involvement is a huge factor.  I've been AWOL from this site for almost two years.  During that time I've come to understand what the acronym BUSY (being under Satan's yoke) really means.  I had never been able to see a problem with being busy; after all 1 Thessalonians 4:11 tells us to attend to our own business and to work.  

    Parents must feel intense pressure trying to make ends meet.  With the push toward "work-life integration" (hogwash, if you ask me), younger parents especially probably have a hard time learning how to switch off and turn their attention to other things, even if they do have an inkling of what's at stake.  Meanwhile, activists make a career out of pushing their agenda . . .

  • austinbeartux's picture
    austinbeartux
    Posted: Mon, 03/19/2018 09:57 am

    Betsy DeVos--I hope you read this article.  This is why Christian parents and children are running away from public schools as fast as they can.  People like the author of George are given credence by the left-leaning, anti-Christian media, and school administrators.  As long as this Christian exodus continues, public schools will continue their downward spiral into complete nonsense like this.

    I'd also like to add that this angers me because I'm *forced* to pay for a public school (via Property Taxes) that is completely, 100%, unsatisfactory.  Our taxes that go toward schools ought to be able to follow our children.  If our children are in a private school, 100% of the school taxes we pay ought to be able to pay toward private school tuition.

  • 4SkiBums
    Posted: Mon, 03/19/2018 11:47 am

    As a parent of a middle school child who participated in Oregon BOB this year, I had many reservations about the entire list of books. I personally reviewed all 16 books. Of the 16 books required to read to participate (and don't let them fool you - - you can't possible participate if you choose not to read a certain book!), only 4 of them did I even consider to be worthy of reading. The other 12 were complete YA fiction and a waste of time, trival, ill-written and the dumbing down of the YA mind.

    I appreciate this article, and next year will encourage my child to use his time elsewhere. Which is sad, because he loves to read and OBOB could be a great thing.

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Mon, 03/19/2018 01:34 pm

    Kudos to you for reviewing all the books in question: not an easy task! It makes me sad children are being pressured to read ill-written books as part of their education at any time: there are so many excellent books in this world.  

  • Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Mon, 03/26/2018 09:07 pm

    Clearly, sex change hormones and surgery are dangerous both physically and psychologically, and this is not considered.  So, the fact that many wish children to have an advanced sexual awareness at such a young age through children's literature is, I think, a political calculation.

    First of all, children will be encouraged to challenge parental authority when they have more personal autonomy that is related to sexual flirtations in the public school arena.  This greater sexual independence creates rebellion in the home sphere which leads to children rejecting their parents' authority in favor of the authority of those who support their new found feelings.  In the final analysis, it is essentially the progressive political left in government stealing our kids from the family and the home.

    In consideration of the effect of LGBTs fighting "discrimination," which is the new found designation for religious liberty, we see that they are infiltrating Christian organizations for political reasons such that they are being granted more rights to destroy those organizations by their cohorts simply because they are good at it.  It's all part of the conspiracy of the left.

    So, we should not accept that progressive and elitist politics should be the default setting in American political discourse.  If so, there will be no room for religious liberty in a world of secularism, personal autonomy and scientism, and already we are seeing many students in public schools yielding their independent thought to those who are more "educated and politically aware" than they are.  Such are the elites who would rule the world as a progressive and evil leviathan which is already quickly gaining power in the social sphere of American political discourse.

  • Jeff's picture
    Jeff
    Posted: Thu, 03/29/2018 06:57 am

    I cannot help but think we are at the terminus of God's Romans 1 judgment when Christians try to excuse and defend this grotesque sin. "And, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them."