“Hello! I’m an elementary school teacher and the librarian at my school recently included the book George by Alex Gino in her student book club. Several parents came forward saying that the book was inappropriate and made a huge fuss, but so far the Principal and Administration are standing by the librarian. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Sara Schmidt-Kost
Thank you for your question and for your support for your Elementary students! As a High School teacher, I don’t have much experience with these issues at an Elementary School level, and I haven’t, luckily, faced a situation like this before, but I do have some ideas for how you can help!
While I haven’t read the book itself, I do know that George is a children’s story about a transgender girl who wants to come out to the world via the starring role of her school’s performance of Charlotte’s Web. Since the Librarian and your Administration approved the book, it is safe to assume that the story is wholly appropriate for upper elementary students to read. While parents are welcome to disagree with the content, there is nothing in the book that talks about sex or other age-inappropriate themes. Just as books about boys or books about girls are not inherently about sex or genitals, a book about a trans student isn’t inherently about sex or genitals. I teach High School Social Studies, so when I teach about Bayard Rustin, the gay civil rights activist, I am no more teaching about sex or anything age-inappropriate than when I teach about Abraham Lincoln.
In addition, since the book club is a chosen activity and not forced on students, the parents are welcome to encourage their children to read a different book, or, if they feel so inclined, take them to a different school. As much as these parents might disagree with the content for whatever reason, children like George exist in our schools. They have always existed in our schools, and they will continue to exist whether we support them or not. This is not about some imaginary fictional foe that—like Voldemort—doesn’t really exist and so doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. Though the story is fictional, trans students like George are real, and they deserve to see themselves in literature. Our children need to be prepared to meet diverse people, including trans people, out in the “real world”, and exposing students to wonderfully diverse literature and curriculum, helps young students imagine a more diverse world around them.
Another argument I imagine a disgruntled parent could make would be that children could be influenced to “choose” that lifestyle. Of course, we know that no child chooses to be trans, or gay, or whatever their gender or sexual orientation may be. However, we do know that children who are in supportive and welcoming schools are less likely to be bullied or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These students also do better in school (based on their GPA and their attendance) if they feel supported and welcomed. Check out the GLSEN Student Survey for more data on how a supportive school environment affects LGBTQ+ students.
Lastly, you can think of additional ways you could add to and enhance diversity in your classroom and in your school. When do you talk about diverse people and diverse experiences in your curriculum? Could you add more diverse perspectives? What other books are you reading that include characters of color, different family arrangements, different abilities, or different gender roles (like a Princess rescuing a trapped Prince instead of the other way around)? You can find many examples at We Need Diverse Books for your classroom or school library.
If you really feel up for a challenge, you might also think about starting a GSA at your elementary school. They are rare, and they are difficult to get started (mostly because of parent push-back), but they are still important. Most elementary school GSA’s gear more towards anti-bullying and community building activities rather than specific LGBT topics. The GSA Network has tons of information on starting a GSA and dealing with pushback from teachers, parents, and peers.
Thank you for wanting to help create a more welcoming and diverse environment for the students at your school. Continue the hard fight, it will pay off for your students in the end, I promise!
Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer Educator in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently leads the after-school GSA at the high school where she works, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into fully-functioning adults. She has also created a training workshop on LGBT Issues in Schools and has presented it to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.