Children’s books on gender identity ignite discussion in Solana Beach School District

One of the books donated to Solana Beach School District schools by the organization Gender Nation.
(Karen Billing)

This spring, the organization Gender Nation donated a set of 15 elementary-age books to all seven Solana Beach School District school libraries. The nationwide organization specializes in providing children with access to “uplifting, inclusive stories that demonstrate the full spectrum of sexuality and gender identity.” The books carry themes of self-acceptance with an emphasis on those who may not conform to gender norms and/or those whose gender does not match their biological sex assigned at birth.

Solana Beach School District Superintendent Jodie Brentlinger sent out a message to all district families on Nov. 5, making them aware that the board would be discussing the acceptance of the book donations at the Nov. 18 board meeting. All books were available for parents to preview at their school sites from Nov. 9-18.

Since the book donations were made public, the board has heard a variety of opinions, both in support and opposed of the books being on the shelves at school.

During public comment at the board’s Nov. 18 meeting, Skyline School sixth grader Hudson Fleming said the books provide a way to educate those who aren’t part of the LGBTQIA+ community and make students who are feel more accepted in the school environment.

“I know how it feels to feel like you’re not represented enough,” Hudson said. “These books have a chance to make the school environment happier, healthier and more inclusive for all students.”

Others have asked that the district reject the donations from Gender Nation, saying that the books introduce transgender ideology that could cause confusion, that elementary-age students are too young to be exposed to sex and gender and that these are topics that should be left to be discussed at home by parents, not taught to their children at school.

“I’m almost speechless as to how these books with undertones of sex can be equated with teaching kindness and inclusiveness,” said Jackie Combs, a Skyline and Solana Vista parent.

At the Nov. 18 meeting, Brentlinger announced she would be pulling the item from the agenda. Brentlinger recommended that the board schedule a special workshop to study board policies and regulations specifically around the selection of instructional materials and the role of elected officials in that process. She said the book donations would then be brought back to the board for a “more directed and informed discussion.”

The workshop has not yet been scheduled—the board’s next regularly scheduled board meeting is Dec. 9.

Viyan Stanko, a district school psychologist and the district’s social justice and equity committee chairperson, said she believes the books are age and content appropriate and are in alignment with both the Fair Education Act under California Ed Code and the Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) board policy enacted in June 2021. The DEI policy was controversial on its own—with many parents expressing concerns that the policy echoed the tenets of Critical Race Theory, compromises academics, confuses gender and creates more division than unity.

Stanko said that the donated books discuss the inclusion of individuals and families who choose not to conform to gender or “traditional” norms, like “Pride,” which tells the story of politician Harvey Milk, and “And Tango Makes Three”, the true story of two male penguins who successfully raised an egg.

“The majority of the other books included in this donation are articulate and creative in explaining that everyone is free to be who they want,” Stanko. “The books tell stories to teach acceptance, not judge others, to be true to yourself and to persevere when faced with an obstacle. They are about loving yourself. They have nothing to do with sexual preference or swaying toward one viewpoint.”

Gini Mann-Deibert, an art teacher at Solana Ranch, said she knew she was different by second grade but didn’t have the language for it and hid it for years because she didn’t feel safe at school. She said she can only imagine would it would’ve meant for her eight-year-old self to have exposure to a book like “Angie’s Plaid Shirt” about a girl who feels weird in dresses.

“We can help build resilience in elementary schools through something as simple as having a book that shows that they exist,” said Mann-Deibert, who serves as a board member for the San Diego chapter of GLSEN, a national organization fighting for every student’s right to a safe, supportive education.

In her comments, parent Neha Khetan remarked what a gift it could be for a child to find refuge in a book that represents them, tells their stories, answers questions and helps them communicate when they don’t have the words.

Some parents were concerned that the books expose children to sexual content that is inappropriate.

Several parents referenced the book “George,” by Alex Gino, pointing out that it was the number one challenged book in the country in 2020, according to the American Library Association. Every year since 2016, the book has been among the top 10 most challenged and restricted books for its LGBTQIA + themes, conflict with a religious viewpoint and “not reflecting the values of our community”. The novel for ages 8-12 is about the life of a transgender fourth grader.

Parent Emeri Daines said “George” includes adult material that has no place in any elementary school library. She said on one page, the book
discusses pornography: “That’s my little bro, growing up and looking at dirty magazines,” a character says.

“I’m appalled that I even have to say this to a school board charged with protecting and educating our elementary age children,” Daines said. “This book insidiously normalizes pornography use amongst children.”

Parent Diana Baldwin said she supports opportunities for sharing different perspectives but it should be done in way that honors students and parents and shouldn’t affirm or disavow world views, religious doctrine or political opinion.

In her comments, Solana Beach Teachers Association Co-President Neva Ayn Magalnick said teachers often use books to start class discussions, to bring closure to a difficult social interaction that happened at school or to share new points of view: “It would be difficult to justify banning a book called ‘It’s Ok To Be Different,” she said.

Magalnick said she was disappointed that books that reinforce the fundamentals of celebrating differences, empathy and acceptance would be under scrutiny.

“For those whose experiences are reflected in these books I hope these books give them a sense of belonging and courage to be who they are,” she said.

Two other groups’ books donation will also be considered by the board: The Conscious Kid donated 10 books to the Solana Vista School Library and local Girl Scout Troop 4524 also donated about 60 eco-books to the Solana Ranch School Library to provide conservation resources for the school’s EnviroHawks student club.