Sunday, October 3, 2021

Book Report


The book: Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe. 2019, Simon & Schuster. Format: Graphic Novel. 2020 ALA Alex Award Winner, 2020 Stonewall — Israel Fishman Non-fiction Award Honor Book.

What School Library Journal says:

A book to be savored rather than devoured, this memoir will resonate with teens, especially fans of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best. It’s also a great resource for those who identify as nonbinary or asexual as well as for those who know someone who identifies that way and wish to better understand.


 [Kobabe] describes common situations from the perspective of someone who is asexual and nonbinary: starting a new school, getting eir period, dating, attending college. The muted earth tones and calm blues match the hopeful tone and measured pacing. Matter-of-fact descriptions of gynecological exams and the use of sex toys will be enlightening for those who may not have access to this information elsewhere.

What some parents in Howard County are saying:

  • Porn
  • Sexually explicit
  • Promotes pedophilia
  • Smut 
  • Disgusting
It’s almost as though they have read completely different books.

Oh wait. The reviewers at School Library Journal have actually ready the whole book. The outraged parents are responding to isolated photographs.

If I were in the position of choosing books for a school library, I would be relying first on my own education, training, and experience. I would consider specifically the needs of my students. I would be interested in knowledgeable reviews which provide background and context. 

Emotional responses from people who haven’t even read the books are not informed sources. 

Everyone has a right to their own opinion. But anyone who has ever gone to school knows that you will not get full credit if you don’t read the whole book. Knowledge, background, and context are essential. So,  knowledge: read the whole book.

Now here’s some background:

LGBTQ children’s books are critically important for children, for a myriad of reasons:

For kids that are grappling with how they identify and who they have feelings for, seeing characters like them in stories is like finding a trusted confidante. Books provide safe spaces for children, allowing them to exhale freely knowing they aren’t alone with their feelings.

For kids who may struggle because their families look different from the “norm,” books help children recognize that love makes a family. If love is the foundation of a home, nothing else should ever matter — especially not how parents and siblings identify.

For LGBTQ youth who are met with disapproval at home, books may be the only resource to help them feel supported through a challenging time. This may in turn help prevent serious harm to a child’s mental health and self esteem.

How about some context? A book like Gender Queer: A Memoir is very likely written as a graphic novel precisely because its author and illustrator has an MFA in Comics from the California College of the Arts. In addition, this format is highly accessible to today’s adolescent audience. An illustration in this autobiographical work is a piece of a whole, a story-telling device that extends throughout the book to communicate themes of confusion and self-discovery. It’s purpose is not to be “sexually explicit” in a pornographic sense. Its goal is to educate.

I’ve written before about how LGBTQ kids are at a much higher risk for suicide and self harm. 

I’ll be blunt here. Issues that impact LGBTQ+ students are life and death issues. Bullying, the experience of minority stress in school situations, and elevated risk for homelessness due to parental rejection all contribute to an increased risk for suicide. Incidents of suicide and attempted suicide for Transgender students are linked with whether or not young people are supported by the use of their correct name and pronouns. Numerous scientific studies bear all of this out.

To those who say their objections have nothing to do with the fact that this is LGBTQ content? It may not matter to you. But it deeply and desperately matters to LGBTQ kids who are trying to make their way in a world that, more often than not, rejects them. Your emotional response to some pictures is not what should determine whether life-affirming materials are available in our school libraries. 

I promised you another story. I’m not proud of this one. 

Some years after my grocery store anecdote (same daughter, now mid-elementary, maybe a bit older.) We were at the surprise birthday party of the same-sex partner of a good friend. In fact, we had helped to orchestrate the surprise. I was helping to greet guests at the door when one of them handed a book to our friend, saying, “Here’s the book I borrowed.” I saw him put it on the kitchen counter.

I glanced at the cover. Yes, dear readers, it was a book about…”kinky sex.” I didn’t open it. I saw the title and the cover photo and I went into parent panic. My daughter was there and I freaked out. I can’t really explain it. Without much thought or analysis I determined that she should be protected from this particular adult content and I put the book in their freezer.

I didn’t choose to have the uncomfortable talk with my friends asking them to put the book away for now and explaining I wasn’t ready to have that talk with my daughter during a birthday party. I also could have chosen to let the situation evolve naturally, dealing with it if it came up. But I didn’t.

I acted without knowledge, background, or context. I didn’t consider my friends’ feelings. I didn’t consider the consequences of my actions. In short, I didn’t think. And of course, at the time, I felt completely justified. 

I was wrong. I was refusing to have the difficult conversations with my friends and with my child. I chose censorship instead. I also violated my friends’ trust in me by saying, essentially, “You are not safe to be who you are, even in your own home.”

And so…

It is crucial that we, as parents, let our school libraries be safe places for students to be themselves. Our responsibility is not to censor content that makes us uncomfortable, but to be willing to do the work necessary to have the knowledge, background, and context to understand the materials that challenge us before we pass judgment on them. 

It is also our responsibility to have those difficult conversations with our kids. 


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