This story first appeared in The Pilot on March 5, 2022.
The Moore County Board of Education on Monday is expected to discuss whether “George,” a children’s novel about a transgender girl, should remain in the libraries of two schools, ending a months-long review of the book’s appropriateness for students.
Alex Gino, the book’s nonbinary author who uses they/them pronouns, has been following the local controversy surrounding “George.” They said they were not surprised that a resident filed a complaint in December calling for the book’s removal from McDeeds Creek Elementary and Union Pines High schools.
School districts across the U.S. have fielded similar complaints about “George,” which last year topped the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books. The novel is usually challenged for “LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting ‘the values of our community,’” according to the association.
Gino said their book is “at its heart, a traditional middle-grade story” about a transgender fourth-grader who wants to play Charlotte in her school’s stage production of “Charlotte’s Web.”
“There is a difference between a book that is challenged because of what an author chose to do in it versus a book that is challenged because of who the author is,” Gino said in a Zoom interview. “My book is being banned because there’s a trans character, and that says that my existence is so monstrous, so terrifying, that it is not appropriate for children. That’s gut-wrenching.”
The local push to remove “George” was prompted by a complaint from Carthage resident Jim Pedersen, who argued that it was not the “government’s business to introduce children to transgenderism.” He does not have children enrolled in either of the schools that carry the book.
Philip Holmes, a member of the Moore County Board of Education, vowed in January to have “George” removed from circulation.
“We teach reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he told The Pilot at the time. “You can teach ‘be nice to everybody, treat them equally,’ this, that and the other, but when you start diving deep into a person, how they recognize themselves, I’m not ok with that.”
Gino disagreed, saying that positive depictions of transgender people in books can help others to become “more aware and accepting.” Promoting acceptance, they said, is crucial at a time “when trans people, especially trans women of color, are at risk of violence.”
About 86 percent of students surveyed in 2019 by the national LGBTQ group GLSEN reported they had been harassed or assaulted “based on their sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity.” More than half of those same students did not notify school officials because of doubt that “effective intervention would occur or fear the situation would only worsen once reported,” according to GLSEN.
Carter, a transgender eighth-grader attending Moore County Schools, said books like “George” are “a source of representation” for students like him.
“I think a lot of people believe that if a cisgender or non-LGBTQ child stumbles upon the book then they might be influenced by the transgender themes in the book, which I don’t think is true,” said Carter, whose mother requested be identified using a pseudonym for safety reasons. “The book is talking about how hard it is to be trans and how difficult it is. It is not trying to tell people to live alternative lifestyles.”
He pointed out that “George” is not required reading for students and must be checked out from school media centers.
“It’s not being pushed on other kids,” he said. “It’s simply a book in the library, and it’s really important to have books for every kid in the school. It’s our decision whether to pick up the book or not.”
His sentiment was shared by Gino, who also feels that restricting access to certain books stifles the autonomy of young readers.
“One of the lines I hear is, ‘It’s ok for you to decide what your kid reads, but you can’t decide what my kid reads,’” they said. “But that kid over there has now been denied access, and that kid over there might be a trans kid who is exactly the kid who needs to get that book. No, you don’t get to decide what your children read. Your children are whole human beings who have the right and deserve to learn about the world. They deserve tools, and you holding that back from them makes for adults who are ill-prepared, and that’s a travesty.”
After receiving Pedersen’s complaint, the Moore County Board of Education tasked an advisory committee with reviewing the book’s suitability for students. The committee, which is made up of both teachers and parents, determined last month that “George” should remain in the two schools.
In its recommendation to keep “George” at McDeeds Creek Elementary School, the committee wrote that the book “addresses positive messages about acceptance, diversity and inclusion.” The group’s recommendation for Union Pines High School states that the novel “meets the diverse needs of members of the school community and reflects a relevant perspective on current issues.”
The committee’s recommendations have been forwarded to the school board for final consideration.
“I’m actually not worried that they’re going to vote against it,” Gino said. “I believe in the people in that room, and I believe that they know the systems that books go through to get into the classroom. These challenges don’t pass most of the time, however, they’re going to keep coming so it’s important to get policies in place so that it can’t take up so much time and so much energy.”
Gino urged the school system to establish a more “onerous process” for dealing with challenged books in the future. Getting something like “George” banned from school libraries, they said, “should be as hard as it was for me to get it published.”