Kidlitwomen: Combating Invisibility of Transgender Kids by Lindsay H. Metcalf and Traci Sorell
Starting March 1st, we’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry. Join in the conversation here or Twitter #kidlitwomen and access all the #KidlitWomen posts this month on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen/.
Personal and professional lives often intersect, sometimes in unexpected ways. We both write stories for children, many featuring the marginalized and invisible among us. Those stories are important to us and to who we want to raise our children to be as community members. But we also want to know that similar stories written by others are able to reach young people.
Witness what is playing out in Kansas, where we both live. Elementary and middle school children come together here every year to choose the winner of the William Allen White Award. Last year, a committee of librarians, teachers, parent-teacher group representatives and others, voted to include GEORGE by Alex Gino on the 2017-2018 master list of ten titles for third- through fifth-graders.
The committee distributes two lists, one for grades three through five, and one for grades six through eight. Both school libraries and public libraries participate, and any reader in those age ranges can vote, as long as they have read at least two books on their designated list. School librarians tally the votes for each book by grade and enter them online.
Enter GEORGE. Released in 2015 by Scholastic, GEORGE broke barriers by being one of the first middle-grade novels that featured a trans main character. Named George at birth, the main character knows she is Melissa but hasn’t told her friends and family. She desperately wants to try out for the role of Charlotte in the school’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.” The book explores gender absent any discussion of sexuality, and the content and voice are as innocent as they sound.
It seems that many school librarians disagree.
Schools are allowed to conduct the William Allen White Award voting however they want. And this year, some librarians kept GEORGE off their shelves and/or altered the ballots given to children to exclude this book from consideration.
Notably, many children in the state’s two largest school districts, Wichita and Olathe public schools, which comprise more than 80,000 total students, never had the opportunity to check out GEORGE from their school libraries. Only four of 57 Wichita schools that serve K-8 students stocked GEORGE, according to a September article in The Wichita Eagle. No elementaries initially did in the Olathe district, which serves a large section of southwest Johnson County, a wealthy suburban area of the Kansas City metro. After noticing GEORGE had been covered up on the William Allen White Award poster in their local elementary school, Traci joined two other parents, Beth Riekeman and Kelly Downs, to meet with the principal and later Olathe district officials to determine what was going on.
They wanted to know what happens when a child—any child—discovers which title is covered up? Trans students attend Olathe schools. Other students have transgender parents, siblings, other relatives, and neighbors. What message did the school and the district intend to send? Even if the book cover were displayed on the poster, if the book was not available to check out and read, what did this communicate to students?
The banning of GEORGE in Wichita evoked similar questions.
“We know there are trans students in Wichita elementary schools,” Liz Hamor, who co-founded GLSEN’s Wichita chapter, told The Wichita Eagle last year. “If we continue to treat it as a taboo topic, it’s going to continue to be taboo for people to live authentically.”
According to a representative of the William Allen White committee, 60 percent of its members—professionals who work with children—voted to include GEORGE on this year’s list. That’s no whim. Publisher’s Weekly recommends it for readers ages 8-12. Kirkus and Common Sense Media recommend it for ages 9 and up; and School Library Journal says grades 4-6. Still, librarians felt the need to override that in their local districts.
Gail Becker, Wichita schools’ library media supervisor, pointed to a handful of isolated references to porn and sex-reassignment surgery spoken by a school bully and secondary characters from GEORGE. But that only underscores the important secondary theme of bullying that children need to read as much as they need to empathize or identify with trans characters. Similarly, Lori Franklin, who holds the same position with the Olathe School District, expressed concern about the few porn references and the mention of tampons when Traci, Kelly, and Beth met with her.
Are those few lines really what caused gatekeepers to ban GEORGE? What message are they sending about gender identity and puberty? GEORGE focuses almost entirely on a trans child who grapples with how to safely share her true identity with family and friends.
Librarians at a diversity discussion during last year’s nErDcampKS talked about how they would approach access to GEORGE for the William Allen White contest. Several said they feared backlash from parents but understood the importance of letting children choose what they read. They strategized how they might stock the book. Some considered a slate of less-than-ideal options in an attempt to make everyone happy. Hidden in the stacks, rather than pulled out for display? Shelved in a section for older readers?
Anecdotally, Lindsay saw it shelved in the Young Adult section of her local rural public library. By doing that, how will the book find its audience? We know that kids like to “read up” about characters older than themselves. But with a 10-year-old protagonist in fourth grade, GEORGE will not appeal to teens.
The overarching concern among librarians we’ve spoken with pointed to the potential reaction of parents. If parents want to censor their children’s reading choices, they can do so. But that has nothing to do with libraries and library professionals, who have a duty to serve all their constituents. The American Library Association interprets its Bill of Rights this way:
“5) The American Library Association holds that any attempt, be it legal or extra-legal, to regulate or suppress library services, materials, or programs must be resisted in order that protected expression is not abridged. Librarians have a professional obligation to ensure that all library users have free and equal access to the entire range of library services, materials, and programs. Therefore, the Association strongly opposes any effort to limit access to information and ideas. The Association also encourages librarians to proactively support the First Amendment rights of all library users, regardless of sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”
We’ve highlighted GEORGE because it was chosen by professionals as an award candidate, and not even that freed it from the claws of censorship. GEORGE and I AM JAZZ, a picture book about a transgender girl, were among the top ten most challenged books in 2016, according to the American Library Association. These books are, sadly, but two examples of many books featuring characters from groups whose voices have been silenced for too long. An excellent February Nerdy Book Club post by Jennifer LaGarde and Travis Crowder highlighted that “whether LGBTQ, Hispanic or African American, the most frequently banned books in 2016 all featured characters whose stories reflect the life experience of underrepresented or marginalized groups.”
This is certainly what Traci, Beth, and Kelly found in their school district. When inquiring about how GEORGE had been treated in neighboring suburban school districts, they found that the decision had usually been left to each school’s librarian/media specialist. Those they spoke with had displayed the book on their shelves alongside other William Allen White Award nominees. Only after speaking with Olathe Public Schools’ executive director of elementary principals did the book get introduced into each elementary library for consideration. Additionally, the censored poster that started this discussion was replaced with a fresh one at their children’s elementary school.
While the three women succeeded in lifting the ban, the book is still subject to differential treatment. If a child in third through fifth grade wants to check out the book, the school media specialist must call a parent for permission. Thankfully, in a radical departure from the school library, GEORGE is featured prominently in the “Hot Picks” display of their local branch of the Olathe Public Library.
In most of the libraries where GEORGE has been withheld from children, the gatekeepers have been women—usually white women. #Kidlitwomen is about making the children’s book industry better for women, but it’s imperative to realize that feminism is intersectional. Women must support all races, genders, religions, and sexual orientations and allow transgender children to see themselves and be seen by others in books. Women must fight against censorship, because with censorship of any kind, we all lose—especially the children who will absorb and carry forward the antiquated values that censorship perpetuates.
Lindsay H. Metcalf is a children’s book author and freelance journalist who has worked for publications including The Kansas City Star, Lawrence Journal-World, and, most recently, The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. Follow her @lindsayhmetcalf and lindsayhmetcalf.com.
Traci Sorell writes poems as well as fiction and nonfiction stories for young people. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the author of two forthcoming picture books—WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA (Charlesbridge, 2018) and AT THE MOUNTAIN’S BASE (Kokila/Penguin Random House, 2019). Follow her @tracisorell and tracisorell.com.