When I started this blog, I was a public librarian with a clear mission for what I wanted to write about here. Now that I’m a school librarian who is settling into a whole new work culture, it’s become less apparent to me what I’m supposed to talk about on this blog, except to say, “This is really different from my last job and sometimes it feels like I have no idea what I am doing.” Though I have been a school librarian for almost 6 months, it somehow only feels like a couple of days. The newness has not worn off yet. Hence, the lack of blog posts.
I thought I would talk about how George, by Alex Gino, became a project that much of our Upper School became involved in: 2 sixth grade classes, me (the librarian), several teachers, and the school psychologist. It all started when the 5th and 6th grade teachers asked me to present some booktalks to their classes. First, I asked if I could include books that acknowledged the existence of gay and trans* people. This is what I mean when I say that I’m adjusting to a new work culture. I would have never asked if this was OK at the public library. It would never even occurred to me to do so. It was never an issue there, a place where I was heavily protected by the First Amendment and an environment that supported freedom of information. Schools, especially independent schools, are trickier places to navigate, especially for us rah-rah liberal librarians, and I felt compelled to ask permission. Luckily, the teachers were open to my book selections.
I presented several titles: Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (which none of them had really read, oddly enough. I know this is an obvious choice), Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle, The Marvels by Brian Selznick (I showed this trailer), The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (another older title they hadn’t read), and George by Alex Gino. While we saw increased circulation on all the titles, George generated the most discussion. I couldn’t keep a copy on the shelves and students were constantly asking when they could get their hands on it.
Here’s how I booktalk George: I say that it’s funny that the book is called George, because it’s actually about a girl named Melissa. Melissa gets home from school every day and does some pretty stereotypically “girly” things: She reads magazines written for girls, puts on lip gloss, and combs her bangs down over her face. However, before her mom and brother come home, she must fix her hair, clean her face, and put the magazines back in their hiding place. You see, while Melissa has always known she is a girl, her family sees her as a boy named George.
This last line usually elicits a good deal of confusion, so I ask that if I said Melissa was trans, would they know what this means? When Melissa was born, she was assigned the male gender, but she never identified as such. The teachers and I found that while the students were certainly curious about trans* people, their only exposure to a trans person is Caitlyn Jenner. And while I’m grateful to Caitlyn for giving the students some sort of access point to discuss this topic, she’s certainly not the default experience.
When talking to the class, I referred to the author, Alex Gino, with the pronoun “they“. I explained that beyond she/her and he/him, there are a myriad of other pronouns, including they/them. I quickly realized that they had never heard of anything like this before. Caitlyn Jenner has exposed them to the idea of transitioning from one end of the gender binary to the other, but otherwise, they had no concept of people who exist in the middle (or outside the gender binary altogether).
I thought the booktalks would sort of be a one-off deal, but conversations around George kept sprouting up around the library and the classrooms. Students were asking me if I had anything else like George (I don’t, outside of a copy of Beyond Magenta in the inaccessible professional collection). I mentioned to Alex on Twitter that our students were obsessed with George and they suggested that we have a little Skype session to discuss how that was going. I appreciated this, as talking to kids about the book and trans-related issues was way harder than I had anticipated. They had questions and I had answers (or at least I thought I did), but how were we going to tackle all this in the limited time I, as the librarian, have with students?
I mentioned to one of the teachers that I was going to Skype with Alex for some backup, and she suggested that Alex Skype in with the students, too. Why didn’t I think of this? Gah. We agreed that the students needed some prep for an author visit, not only to think of what questions they could ask Alex related to George and the process of writing, but to give them some lessons in what we started calling Trans 101. We wanted the Skype visit to focus mostly on the book, not on Alex having to speak for all trans* people and all trans* experiences.
I want to be clear that how we proceeded was not purely my invention. I had a great deal of help from several teachers, the head of the Upper School, and the Upper School psychologist. It took a lot of resources to get this off the ground! I was grateful for the assistance. First, we gave the students two different stacks of index cards: white and multi-colored. White cards were for questions about George as a work of literature and the writing process in general (these would be the ones used in the Skype visit with Alex). The multi-colored cards were for questions about gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything the students wanted to ask that wasn’t related to the book itself (these would be the ones that we, as the teachers, would try to address before the Skype visit so that Alex wasn’t burdened with the entire Trans 101 education). Questions were asked anonymously. White card questions varied from “How long did it take to write George?” to “Is Melissa based on a real person?”. Multi-colored questions included, “Do they people marry girls or boys or theys?” (at this point, the students were using the word “they” in place of genderqueer or nonbinary) and “When did you know you were trans?” The teachers and I gathered together, read the questions, and decided how to proceed.
During the first class, the school psychologist reminded the students about the eight cultural identifiers that they learned about earlier in the school year. The teacher said that while George talks about gender identity, there are also other cultural identifiers at play. What were they? The students were given giant sheets of paper to write on and asked to think about how different characters and situations fit into these identifiers. This got the students considering not just the obvious identifier (Melissa’s gender), but how the book addressed other universal life experiences. For example, the character Kelly fits into race and socio-economic status, as she is biracial and we know that she and her father have less financial resources than Melissa’s family. Sexual orientation comes into play when Melissa’s mom says she can’t handle her child being “that kind of gay”. Age is a factor when Melissa’s mom assumes that Melissa is going through a phase and is too young to truly understand her own life experience. And so on. It was fascinating to watch the students navigate this exercise and understand George beyond the scope of its trans-ness.
For the second class, we tried to answer all the non-book related questions. It was not easy. While I found the experience rewarding, I feel like so many of their multi-colored index card questions went unanswered. We used several resources, including a series of continuums like the one below:
Though, I should say that I made it a point to say “assigned gender” instead of “biological sex” (more on that here). With these continuums, we tried to communicate that we are all made up of infinite combinations of assigned genders, gender expression possibilities, sexual orientations, and so on. Trans* and cisgender people can be gay or straight or pan/bisexual or asexual. One aspect does not affect the other.
We also showed several videos:
Who would have thought that Cosmo magazine would have such great resources? I thought that the Jazz Jennings one was especially important, as I wanted to convey what was fine to ask in a classroom setting as opposed to what was appropriate to ask a trans* person. I also enjoyed this video quite a bit, though we didn’t end up using it.
What I’ve learned about being a librarian in a school setting as opposed to a youth public library setting, is that often we’re educating the parents in addition to the children (at the public library, I might never meet the parents. At a school, they are part of our everyday experience. We hear from them regularly). The head of the Upper School wanted to make sure that parents were prepared for the discussions that they might be having with their child. She sent a letter home letting parents know that their children would be Skype-ing with Alex Gino, the author of George. Parents were made aware of the topics the book covered, and listed the library as a resource for additional materials that might shed some light on the kinds of discussions we were having. In addition, the parents were invited to a chat with the school psychologist, who would be offering advice on how to talk to children about gender identity and sexual orientation. The head of the Upper School said the response to the letter was overwhelmingly positive and the school psychologist said the talk with the parents was well-attended.
All of this, finally, led up to the actual Skype visit with Alex Gino. To say that it was rewarding for students and educators alike would be a massive understatement. Those white index card questions were asked by the students, who were all given a number so that they’d know the order of the asking. Alex answered their questions, even the difficult, slightly uncomfortable ones, with grace, warmth, understanding and humor.
The feedback after the Skype was incredible. Students I’ve never had the chance to speak to before will approach me in the hallway to tell me how great Alex is and how glad they are that they got to speak to them. A student said that she felt like we were all now friends with Alex. One teacher said she’s dedicated to reading anything Alex ever writes. Another teacher said that every student should have that experience, that having talked to Alex ensures that they will never bully a trans* person as long as they live.
Alex Gino, you are a treasure.
Reading over this juggernaut of a blog post, I’m realizing that all this preparation may seem like overkill, but we all felt that it was necessary. The students picked George, I merely offered it as an option. Choosing George meant they were curious and had real questions that they wanted answered. Discussions with them made us realize that the students didn’t have the vocabulary to even ask. Several times, it became apparent that the 6th graders’ favorite character was Kelly, the one who was Melissa’s most supportive friend. In seeing that they most related to the ally of the story, we wanted to equip them to be the best allies they could be. More so, we wanted to identify ourselves, the educators, as allies for the students, should they ever need us for any reason.
As a newcomer to this school, I’m adoring this shared experience. A solid 90 percent of 6th graders have read George, in addition to many 5th graders and a growing number of teachers in the Upper School. In our common love of this book, I feel we’ve formed a bond. I also have a better understanding of what kinds of literature speaks to these particular students.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid