Transgender Children’s Books Under Attack in Wichita

georgeKansas has decided to attack Alex Gino’s George again along with other LGBTQIA children’s books. This time the challenge has come from Marci Laffen who questions the age-appropriate nature of books like George, I am Jazz, and Lily and Dunkin being shelved with children’s books and says she wants them moved to the adult or young adult section. According to a local Kansas report, Laffen “cited the ‘sexual content’ of the books, as well as issues such as bullying, rebelling against police and refusing to take medications.” All three books cited in the challenge have transgender protagonists.

According to one library board member, Laffen’s challenge accused the books of being part of the “sexual revolution agenda, indoctrination of children.”

The library has many nonfiction picture books, which are usually shelved with picture books. According to the library’s youth services manager, Jennifer Clark, “We have many (nonfiction) picture books — we have a Martin Luther King picture book, we have a Revolutionary War picture book — all about factual events. But they are illustrated, they have a certain word count, they are geared toward a certain audience. The same way I am Jazz is.”

I am Jazz was moved from the picture books to the nonfiction section, with other books concerning “institutions pertaining to relations of the sexes” according to its Dewey Decimal system number. To some, this may seem like a simple thing, but making it more difficult to find books like I am Jazz they are depriving kids who might connect with the character or book from a chance to discover it on their own.

JazzBoard member Cindy Pfieffer, who has experience working as a middle school and high school librarian, spoke about the problems with misshelving books at a library board meeting held in early January. The meeting was attended by more than 50 people invested in this challenged to the intellectual freedom of the Andover Public Library.

Pfieffer said,

“What happens when you move books to different categories is they can get lost from their intended audience,” she said. “And ‘George’ is set in fourth or fifth grade. In my experience with middle school and high school kids, they will not read down. If you’re in sixth grade, you do not want to read about fourth-graders.”

Members of the LGBTQIA community came out to speak up for the children in their community. Elle Boatman, who said when she was a child and had questions she turned to the library and eventually found a book that helped in the adult section, however, she pointed out, “I know that if I had these books at an age-appropriate time, it would have saved me a considerable amount of emotional issues and professional problems I experienced.”

Jocelyn Bannon added,

“I didn’t have these books growing up. I didn’t know how to deal with all the thoughts and feelings I had. I just think that kids today are incredibly lucky that they are able to access material that can help them understand their reality.”

Lily and Dunkin coverBut not everyone at the meeting was as supportive of children’s right to read freely. Executive Director of The Culture Shield Network, Donna Lippoldt, argued the books would still be accessible if they were moved, but children wouldn’t be able to stumble across them “haphazardly found by children that would be confused.” She equated the library providing a wide range of diverse viewpoints in the books they offer, to them teaching sex-education to children, and claimed that a single experience with a confusing topic can scar a child forever.

Stephanie Yeager smartly countered that when she was in 5th Grade she checked out Go Ask Alice, a young adult book that deals with drug addiction and even prostitution. “It taught me that there’s a range of experiences in this world. It did not lead me to drug abuse.”

This isn’t the first problem George has experienced in Kansas. In 2017, the Wichita school district decided not to buy copies of Alex Gino’s book for district libraries, citinglanguage and references that are not appropriate for young children” as the reason why despite the book’s inclusion in the William Allen White Master List for grades 3-5. The list is compiled by Emporia State University based on the feedback of a selection committee that includes Kansas educators and librarians and voting by Kansas school children. Like many major awards, libraries often purchase the honored books, but Gail Becker, the supervisor of library media for the district, decided that George would not be included in the Willian Allen White master list sets provided to area schools. 

Becker didn’t go so far as to prevent the book from being added to district collections. However, Becker did prevent district librarians from using system funds to purchase the book, instead insisting they use building funds or interlibrary loans to facilitate the availability of the book. So in response, Alex Gino, the book’s author took to Twitter to raise enough money to purchase copies of the book for all libraries in the district.

At the time Liz Hamor, co-founder of the Wichita chapter of GLSEN, told the media,

“All students deserve to see themselves reflected in curriculum, and one of the best ways to do that is through books. We know there are trans students in Wichita elementary schools. If we continue to treat it as a taboo topic, it’s going to continue to be taboo for people to live authentically.”

In that regard, nothing has changed. It is just as important now as it was in 2017, to keep access to these books unfettered for the children who need to see themselves or their loved ones in the protagonists from these books. Creating any type of barrier between children and literature creates a sense that there are good books and bad books, and inherently implies these book they cannot access on their own are bad for some reason, or that they are bad for wanting to read these books.
The Andover Public Library board will convene to make their final decision on February 13th at 6pm as to where each of the three books challenged will be shelved. If you live in the Witchita area, please consider reaching out the library and letting them know you stand with intellectual freedom for all.