In the past month, school districts in two states have tried to ban Call Me Max, a delightful picture book about a transgender boy by a transgender author, calling it “not appropriate” for the children who heard it read to them. This would be awful at any time, but at a moment when trans youth are under threat from anti-trans bills in at least 24 states, it feels like the tip of a much bigger iceberg.
In February, a third-grade student in Utah brought the book into class and asked the teacher to read it at storytime, which she did. According to school district spokesperson Doug Perry, students then asked some questions that the teacher “deflected,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune. Afterwards, “A few families then called the district, angry that the book was shared with their kids without permission.”
The teacher made a “mistake,” Perry said. “That book is not appropriate at the grade level it was being shared.” In response to the complaints, the district suspended its “equity book bundles,” a program to bring more inclusive literature, particularly around race, to the classroom. Call Me Max was not part of those bundles, but the district spokesperson said they were reviewing them “to see if any are similar to Call Me Max in topic or might otherwise cause concern.”
Author Kyle Lukoff told Newsweek that he can’t believe the district is withholding whole equity book bundle while they deliberate. “I only want my career to be in conversation/solidarity/support of others, and this feels awful.”
Lukoff explained to the Tribune that his book was written for a kindergarten to third grade audience, and that he’s read it to first graders who were unfazed when he explained what “transgender” means. “I find in my experience that adults think that term unlocks a lot of confusion in children when it really doesn’t,” he said. “It’s only a problem if you think that being transgender is itself wrong. And it’s not.”
As further proof that kids get it, a number of Lukoff’s former students, from first to seventh grade, wrote a letter to the school board in support of him and his book, saying, “By pausing the program, and doing so on the basis of a children’s book about a transgender child, you are telling children who may be a bit different than others, and transgender children especially, that you do not value them, their lives, or their experiences.” (I wrote something similar back in 2007 in relation to attempts to ban books with same-sex parents.)
Earlier this month, too, a teacher in Texas read Call Me Max to her fourth grade class. The book was on a list she had shared for the annual Read Across America observance, and included books related to Black and Women’s History Months. Some parents protested when they learned that Max had been read, reported CBS Austin. The district’s chief learning officer, Susan Fambrough, then sent a letter to parents (republished at Lukoff’s blog) stating that the list had not been “appropriately reviewed” and calling the book “not appropriate to be read aloud to an entire elementary-age class.” She added that “the subject of gender identity may be addressed instructionally—but only with proper caution and prior parent awareness.” After the book was read, she said, “Counselors were made available to support students, and the school administration worked with families to provide an explanation and reassurances.”
Lukoff, who was an elementary school librarian for eight years himself, wrote a thoughtful answer to Fambrough in which he asked her to explain the district’s actions of providing counselors and reassurances to families—a response he’d only seen before after crises like a death in the school community or the school shooting at Sandy Hook. “Do you believe that a readaloud about a transgender child is an equivalent trauma? How do you think transgender people in your community felt having their identities treated like a disaster?” he inquired. He also asked if the district provided similar support and resources after a student experiences homophobia, transphobia, racism, or ableism.
More than Books
These attempts to ban Max are infuriating but not surprising. LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books have long been among the most challenged in the country, according to the American Library Association (ALA). In 2012, the same Utah school district where there was a fuss about Max removed Patricia Polacco’s In Our Mother’s House, about a two-mom family, from elementary school shelves, making it available only with written permission from a parent. And in just the past couple of years, several other authors of LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books have been banned from talking at schools even when it wasn’t clear that they’d mention those titles.
But the baseless fury around Max comes at a time when transgender people themselves are under attack more broadly. Just this week, Mississippi enacted a law banning transgender girls in Mississippi’s public schools and colleges from competing on girls and women’s sports teams. It’s one of a slew of anti-transgender bills now before legislatures around the country. If you are in any of those states, please reach out to your legislators and tell them to vote against these bills.
If you need to report that a book is being challenged in your local school or library, you can use this form from the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
Also, let’s show Lukoff some direct support, too. His When Aidan Became a Brother, about a transgender boy preparing for a new sibling, won the prestigious Stonewall Award last year. Call Me Max is wonderful as well, and its sequels, Max and the Talent Show and Max on the Farm, give us more adventures about the personable protagonist and his friends. The second two books are less “about” being transgender, but Max still responds to certain things in ways that reflect his transgender identity. Lukoff is one of the best at finding this balance. His first middle grade novel, Too Bright to See, comes out April 20. Stay tuned for a review—but if you want to take a chance on it (I would), it’s available for preorder at Bookshop and Amazon. You can also look up more children’s books with transgender characters in my database. (Start typing “transgender” into the Tags box and you’ll see various options.) If you aren’t in a position to buy these yourself, please recommend them to your local library, and leave online reviews—I’ve heard many authors say this helps.
Max—and real transgender children—shouldn’t have to bear this alone.
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