Column: A small book, a great debate and important issues | Opinion
When I read “George” recently, it reminded me of the words that would have been spoken by Abraham Lincoln when he met the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe: “You are so the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
I looked down at the slender volume: so it was the little book that sparked the great debate about what is right for children to read and who decides. Like many in our community, I have followed with great interest the discussion – sometimes rational, sometimes frantic – about this award-winning book by Alex Gino. Wanting to know for myself what it was about, I bought a copy and started reading.
After all, it’s one thing to go to your book club meeting even if you haven’t finished the title of the month, just to enjoy wine and camaraderie. But it’s quite another to enter into a serious debate about a book without having read it in full.
Even if I’ve heard opinions about a book before I’ve had a chance to read it, I try to approach it with fresh eyes and an open mind. But since the review of this novel was phrased in such inflammatory terms, it was hard not to have at least part of my radar tuned for cases of child pornography, filth, and grooming.
Impossible to find them. Of course, I encountered several passages that were repeatedly quoted out of context in desperate attempts to have copies of “George” removed from the shelves of Moore County school libraries. (Remember: this book is not included in the curriculum of any course in our schools.)
But what struck me about these sections of the book, in context, was that they presented important and often difficult topics with sensitivity and clarity. And this is characteristic of the novel as a whole.
A student who reads “George” with parental permission and the knowledge of a school librarian will have a much better chance of gaining healthy, accurate, and honest representations of these issues than those encountered haphazardly on the playground, in locker rooms or on the Internet – especially if reading the book is accompanied by a conversation with a supportive adult.
So what are “these questions”? Like most of the best young adult fiction, “George” addresses the core concerns of its readership: family dynamics, both supportive and challenging; the joys and disappointments of friendships with other young people; navigate the choppy waters of school life, through the storms of bullies and the safe harbors of understanding teachers; the vital questions of “Who am I?” and “Where do I stand?” And yes, there are concerns about the growth and evolution of bodies, with a growing awareness of sex organs and gender identity.
As a former English teacher, I am also impressed with the literary qualities of this book. The plot is carefully structured but not contrived. The characters are remarkably well developed for a book of less than 200 pages. The vocabulary is accessible but not condescending to young readers. Style and tone achieve a rewarding combination of emotion, intelligence and wit. And the recurring references to a children’s fiction classic, “Charlotte’s Web”, make it a particularly satisfying reading experience.
But as I progressed through this book, I was struck by another dimension of effective storytelling: the reactions of characters other than George – the child who, from birth, had been identified as a boy based on physical characteristics, but who knows that mentally and emotionally he’s a girl – give us readers a litmus test of sorts.
Faced with a person who walks such a difficult path, whether in fiction or in “real life”, how will we react? Like the best friend who is appalled at first but ends up being accepted and understood? Like the mother who resists and rejects such a possibility but ultimately finds loving ways to support her child? Or like the school bully, whose obvious insecurities manifest themselves in ignorance, fear, and physical violence?
As noted in successive articles in this newspaper, a series of reviews conducted in accordance with Moore County Schools policies – by panels of teachers, parents, students and administrators – have repeatedly concluded that the merits of this novel make it suitable for inclusion in the collections of the libraries of the two schools where “George” is now.
Even so, the matter was appealed to the Board of Education for its final decision. At its March 14 meeting, a majority of board members finally reaffirmed the findings of those review panels, and “George” will remain on those shelves. But this meeting revealed deeper currents in our community and our leaders that we should all pay attention to.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, we heard from outraged residents who launched abusive attacks on board members and derisively condemned anyone who differed from the speaker. But we were also inspired by a transgender woman who bravely shared her own painful journey to self-understanding and self-awareness.
Similarly, the pre-vote discussion within the council began with expressions of defiance, dismissing the results of the review process and threatening the proceedings of the council itself. Yet we also heard an affirmation of dedication and integrity from a member who, even though he personally found “George” to be inappropriate for his own children, would honor his sworn responsibility as an elected official, supporting the MCS review process and the judgment of its duly appointed committees. .
So what kind of leader should be responsible for overseeing Moore County schools, students, and teachers? Our first chance to answer this question will come soon, in the May 17 primary elections.
Bob Howell is a former high school teacher and resident of Southern Pines.