I’m a big fan of Battle of the Books. My son was on his middle school team some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. And it’s more important than ever to encourage kids to read books of all kinds. But when adults take it upon themselves to limit those opportunities, even with the best of intentions, it makes me sad.
That was my reaction to a decision by the Hermiston School District to bar third- through fifth-grade Battle of the Books teams from competing at the state level because one of the books selected for this year’s competition is a novel about a fourth-grader who appears to be a boy but knows she is really a girl.
First, a little background: In Battle of the Books, students form teams, read the books on the official list, and compete in a quiz-show format that challenges them to demonstrate their knowledge of the books. The competitions get intense, and promote reading comprehension, teamwork and quick thinking.
The book list is adopted by a statewide title selection committee, in a process that includes public feedback.
The book in question is “George,” by Alex Gino. In the book, 10-year-old George was born a boy, but feels she is really a girl. She keeps this knowledge to herself, but longs to be accepted for who she really is. When her school puts on a stage production of “Charlotte’s Web,” she decides she wants to play the female spider, Charlotte, rather than one of the male characters, but is told she can’t because she’s a boy. George and her friend, Kelly, come up with a plan to make it happen anyway.
In Hermiston, a group of elementary school principals made the decision to keep their students out of the state competition. The district will compile its own list of books for elementary competitors, who won’t advance beyond the district level. Older students will be allowed to read the full list of books and compete if they wish.
It’s understandable, I guess, that the principals were concerned about introducing this subject to elementary students. But here’s the thing: Battle of the Books is completely voluntary. No student is required to participate. And no student is required to read every book on the list. In fact, teams often divide the workload, so each team member has a more thorough knowledge of the books the team did read.
The state administrative chair for the competition issued a statement saying that “no content of a mature nature will be used in the writing of questions for this book,” and “Those students who participate in OBOB competitions but do not read George will not be subjected to any content in questions that might reasonably be seen as objectionable for third-grade students.”
The Hermiston principals felt it necessary to protect students from voluntarily participating in a program in which some of them might read a book that might make some adults uncomfortable.
Children’s author Tim Federle, reviewing “George” in the New York Times, writes, “ ‘George’ may be the most right-now book imaginable. How do you talk to children about Caitlyn Jenner? Give them ‘George’ (and watch ‘I Am Cait’ together). Also, trust that when you tell a contemporary child that some people are born into a body they don’t identify with, most will blink, say, ‘OK, cool,’ and ask what’s for dinner.”