Nel's New Day

May 9, 2018

Take a Journey with ‘George

I love to read. Not just politics and other news that inundates my blog but also books. Each year, I read about 200 books for adults—mostly mysteries—and hundreds more books for youth, many of which I review for a local organization. My main requirement for a quality book is that the language has a cadence like music, that it sings. Although I lack that skill in writing, I greatly appreciate it in others.

Recently I talked with an author who had received editing notes on her most recent book from a first-time editor. The extensive notes provided hundreds of suggestions for improving the book, a few of them quite helpful in identifying inconsistencies, repetitions, and awkward writing.  Keeping track of these problems in a book of 80,000 words can be hard. An author grows very close to the writing and can overlook some of these problems; therefore a fresh reading is invaluable.

Other editing recommendations for this specific book, however, suggested eliminating much of the novel’s narrative, including conversations, descriptions, and events that break the linear nature of the plot. The editor also urged that the author rewrite the protagonist’s personality, making her more authoritarian to fit the editor’s image of realism. After long consideration, the book’s author chose to keep the approach that corresponds with how she perceived the personality and actions of her protagonist.

As I talked with the author, I began to think about her process in evaluating the editor’s recommendations for improving her book in the light of readers’ expectations and their relationships to books. Reading a book is like taking a road trip, I decided. One way might be to thoroughly study a map before departure, use a GPS in the car, and stay on interstate highways, stopping only for necessary stops such as meals. Totally in control of the passengers, the driver would keep to the speed limit and obey all other traffic laws. This would be one way to approach writing a novel. An alternative to writing fiction could be an expedition on back roads with side trips while different sights call for exploration. During the trek, the reader open to unexpected experiences could revel in a variety of perspectives.

Now when I pick up a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, I immediately contemplate that I don’t know what to expect. Each book is a different adventure with varying subjects, styles, and approaches. One example of that concept has recently been highlighted by the controversy in Oregon about a choice of a book for the state’s “Battle of the Books,” a reading program in which students volunteer to join teams, read the books, and compete in a gameshow-style tournament with questions about the books’ content. Each year, titles for the program are selected by professionals and vetted with public comment. Students are not required to participate in the program or read every book if they choose to compete. Yet one book chosen for the upcoming year has caused two Oregon school districts, Cascade and Hermiston, to refuse participation in the program, and Tigard-Tualatin School District considered requiring permission slips to take part in the program until parents objected.

The book causing some districts to reject the entire program is Alex Gino’s George. Kalpana Krishnamurthy, the national field and policy director at Forward Together, explains why she supports the book’s presence in the “Battle of the Books.”

My 10-year-old son and I love books. We can spend hours reading a new book—or re-reading one of our favorites again and again. We both get so engrossed in our book that we can’t even hear when people say our name or talk to us.

When I first heard about the Battle of the Books, I was jealous. Where was this kind of thing when I was a kid? I would’ve ruled at this sport.

For those that don’t know, the Battle of the Books is a reading event that grew out of a Chicago radio show in the 1940s and is now in school districts and libraries all over the country. Once a year, kids in grades three through five, six through eight and students in high school read selected books for their age range. Kids form teams and meet to battle in a game-show format, answering trivia questions about books on the Battle of the Books list.

The trivia questions are mind-bendingly detailed. As in, “In which book, did a character sneeze during the talent show?” And they have to be able to name the book and author. Yikes. I can’t even remember what I read this morning in the newspaper, let alone that level of detail.

Getting my son to read has never been a problem. But getting him to read new things—new genres, nonfiction, books that feature girl lead characters? That’s a problem. Left to his own devices, he would read adventure, spy stories, manga and anything by Rick Riordan.

But as part of his Battle of the Books team this year, he’s read almost all of the books on the list. My son never would have picked up Esperanza Rising and read about a girl and her mom who leave Mexico and go to work in a southern California agricultural labor camp before the Great Depression. He wouldn’t have read Dash and dove into Mitsi’s world, a Japanese American internment camp where she is separated from her home, classmates and her beloved dog. He wouldn’t have dug into the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s or Helen Keller’s life.

As a young boy, I want him to see the world through these characters’ eyes. They have something to teach him about their experiences in the world. Even if it’s a fictional one.

That’s why the controversy around George, a book selected for the 2018-2019 Oregon Battle of the Books, is frustrating. George, written by transgender author Alex Gino, centers on a story about a transgender fourth-grader who increasingly learns to be herself, the reaction of the people in her life and the struggle to live her truth.

In the past few days, the Hermiston and Cascade School Districts both announced that they will not participate in the program because they felt the book wasn’t suitable for elementary students. In fact, George went through the entire selection process, which included time for public feedback. It met a rigorous selection criteria and was chosen by a committee of educators and librarians.

As any parent who is raising a child that has complicated identities will tell you, what our kids read and watch matters. We all want our children to see themselves reflected in popular culture. But the truth is, if you have biracial kids, a black nerd, gay or lesbian kids, or a kid with cerebral palsy—there just aren’t that many books out there that show your kid’s experience. And even fewer books are written by authors who share those same complex identities. Parents raising trans kids know that it matters to have a main character who is struggling to put into words the person they hold inside, who is navigating friendships and bullying. It shows trans kids they are not alone.

But it’s not just parents raising trans kids who ought to be dismayed. As someone raising a child who doesn’t identify as transgender, this is an opportunity for my child to be immersed in the struggle and experience of a trans kid. It is a chance for him to put aside what he thinks or knows is true — and see the truth of someone else.

That’s called empathy. And it’s one of the most important lesson that any book teaches us.

Basic Rights Oregon has started a petition to show support for George and for trans inclusion in our schools across Oregon. If the selection of George can stir up this much controversy in our state, we must all pay attention to our schools and make sure that adult fears and transphobia don’t get in the way of kids learning and inclusion.

Several of the posted comments about Krishnamurthy’s op-ed in the Oregonian criticized the mother for pushing her agenda for social justice on her son (their opinion)—just as the commenters pushed their personal agenda of exclusion. They might be surprised that the Oregon Health Education Standards for grades K-12 designated Grades 3-5 for teaching students about gender identity and expression.

Books are journeys. As a former librarian and avid reader, I encourage everyone to take trips into the minds of others. As Krishnamurthy wrote, “That’s called empathy.”

AGR Daily 60 Second News Bites

Transformational News In 60 Seconds; What Works For Seven Future Generations Without Causing Harm?

JONATHAN TURLEY

Res ipsa loquitur - The thing itself speaks

Jennifer Hofmann

Inspiration for soul-divers, seekers, and activists.

Occupy Democrats

Progressive political commentary/book reviews for youth and adults

V e t P o l i t i c s

politics from a liberal veteran's perspective

Margaret and Helen

Best Friends for Sixty Years and Counting...

GLBT News

Official news outlet for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of ALA

The Extinction Protocol

Geologic and Earthchange News events

Central Oregon Coast NOW

The Central Oregon Coast Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW)

Social Justice For All

Working towards global equity and equality

Over the Rainbow Books

A Book List from Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

%d bloggers like this: