Lake Oswego School District stands behind book at center of state 'battle'
Oregon Battle of the Books, a statewide literary competition for elementary, middle and high school students, has suddenly become a battle over a single book: "George," by Alex Gino.
"George" tells the story of a 10-year-old transgender girl as she transitions from George to Melissa and struggles for acceptance in school. It has garnered generally positive reviews since it was published in 2015, but it has also appeared twice on the American Library Association's list of the 10 Most Challenged Books.
Now, some parents in Oregon are demanding that the book be removed from the 2018-19 reading list for students in OBOB's division for third- through fifth-graders. They launched an online petition at tinyurl.com/RemoveGeorge that had garnered more than 1,000 signatures by Wednesday, and both the Cascade and Hermiston school districts have pulled out of OBOB altogether.
In Lake Oswego, however, the reaction to "George" has largely been supportive. Last week, LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck wrote in her online blog that the district will remain a participant in OBOB, a voluntary extracurricular activity.
"Our students have a choice whether or not to participate in OBOB. If they choose to participate, students will read from the entire list, not an edited list," wrote Beck. "The OBOB selection committee found it to be age-appropriate for grades 3 through 5, and appropriate in furthering students' understanding of a diversity of experiences and perspectives."
Beck wrote that if the Lake Oswego School District wants to live up to its slogans "All Means All" and "Better Together," then it must be open to stories like the one told in "George."
"Living in a diverse, equitable and inclusive community does not mean just accepting a person's race or color or religion or ability. It means accepting their gender identity and the whole person they are," she wrote. "'George' offers our students an opportunity to build their awareness and deepen their understanding of diversity and inclusion of all people."
That's an important goal, school officials said. A 2015 study conducted by the Family Equality Council, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing equality for LGBTQ families, revealed that 75 percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school because of their gender expression.
Battle of the Books is a popular program, supported by the Oregon Association of School Libraries, in which teams of students are tasked with reading 16 books and answering quiz show-like questions about them. An estimated 8,000 students participated aross the state in 2017-18.
The mission of the program is "to encourage and recognize students who enjoy reading, to broaden reading interests, to increase reading comprehension, to promote academic excellence and to promote cooperative learning and teamwork among students," the organization says.
Alex Gino, the author of "George," responded to the controversy earlier this month, expressing sadness that students would not get to read the book or participate in the program because of the "overreaction" of parents and administrators.
"My book will not make anyone transgender, but it can help make people trans-aware and bring connection to those who already are trans, and I believe that those are good things," Gino said in a written statement. "I don't believe that there's any age before which it is appropriate to learn compassion."
OBOB administrators apparently agree, saying in their own written statement that "George" met all of the organization's selection criteria and will remain on the reading list for 2018-19. And so do the more than 1,900 people who had signed an online petition at tinyurl.com/KeepGeorge through Wednesday to keep the book.
"Books are a key to walking in the (footsteps) of another and to opening fruitful discussions about that experience," wrote Molly Fauth on the petition, which is called "No 'George,' No Peace." "What could possibly be negative about understanding a bit more about your neighbor?"
Copies of "George" and other books featuring diverse perspectives were given to all Lake Oswego elementary schools in February through a partnership between LO Stronger Together and LO for LOve. Kimvi To, a member of LO Stronger Together, told The Review in February that the groups wanted to get diverse books into the school libraries.
"We care deeply about our kids and our community, and want it to be a place where people of all backgrounds and cultures are welcome," To said. "We feel very strongly that multicultural books are powerful tools to help get us to that place."
Although some parents have objected to "George" simply because it features a transgender child, others have pointed to a few specific references that they say are inappropriate for third- through fifth-graders. Most of those passages involve Melissa's older brother Scott, who tells her how to clear her internet browsing history and makes a few surface-level references to pornography.
But Amy Waterbury, the co-founder of LO for LOve, told The Review that "while there are a couple passages in 'George' that some may consider mature, and while some parents may opt to not have their third-grade child read it for reasons other than the transgender main character, we feel that removing it from the OBOB list or using an alternate list sends a strong and wrong message of unacceptance for the overall theme of the book."
OBOB is an entirely voluntary program, so no children are required to read "George." Even students who participate do not read the entire book list, which is often split between a team of students.
Waterbury says LO for LOve is grateful that the district has chosen to take a stand in support of "George."
"We're grateful that our LOSD administration, School Board and school staff have been very clear, especially over the past year, that equity, diversity and inclusion is a top priority," she said. "The inclusion of 'George' on the OBOB list is an appropriate selection and reflects the district's policies and commitment to 'All Means All.'"
Waterbury commends OBOB for having such an inclusive book list and advancing trans visibility.
"The goal of having this and other multicultural books in our libraries is to underscore the importance of having kids in under-represented groups see themselves in the books to which they have access," Waterbury said, as well as "to nurture in all of our kids an understanding of, and empathy for, all cultures and identities."