A School Library should challenge students.
As an Intermediate public school Library Specialist, intimately acquainted with over 9,000 books in circulation, I can attest to the fact that over two dozen of the books on the American Library Association list of frequently challenged children’s books are either checked out or resting comfortably on the bookshelves in my library.
This is my eighth year working in a public school library. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times a book in my library has been challenged. A couple of times, a student came to me and said, “Mrs. Branstiter, there’s something bad in this book.” In these cases, the offense was taken at a profane word. The reason the child condemned it was because the use of the word was discouraged at home. I thanked them, congratulated them on knowing better words, and reshelved it.
Managing an elementary school library is especially challenging since grade levels range from preschool to 4th grade or even 6th grade. I remember having to weed numerous boxes of books from an elementary school library when the district moved 5th and 6th graders to another campus, like one I manage now. We do not hide older elementary book selections in locked cabinets, and therefore, some enterprising or curious first graders can and occasionally do check out a book far above their interest and reading level. This is generally not a problem, as often the child quickly loses interest in the book and returns it for another.
I once showed a cartoon video of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (a once-banned book) to a group of first graders and all heck broke loose when the dreaming naked cartoon kid came floating on the screen. Instead of joining the freak-out, I stopped the film and had a conversation with the students about babies in their own families. Crisis averted. The book remained on the shelf.
Taking into consideration the media saturation this current generation experiences, provocative language, sexual innuendo, and realistic violence are no longer as taboo as in the past. If parents do not practice due diligence in having frank discussions with their children about these topics, teachers, and school counselors fill in the gaps. Our job, as “grownups” is to address the issues with understanding, logic, and grace. We are educators, after all.
It is counter-productive to react emotionally when a parent or child complains about something in a book that offended them, or promise its instant removal with apologies, or pass the book around the school office pointing out the provocative bits to coworkers.
Erring on the side of caution, not emotion.
My supervising Librarian knows that I have a high standard of appropriate reading material. I have removed many books from my library circulation that I am not comfortable defending to students or their parents. My subjective guidelines are determined by how the book progresses in maturity and the context of the provocative text. For example, while my Intermediate Library contains A Troubled Peace, and Across a War-Tossed Sea, by L.M. Elliott. I rejected the third book in the series, Under a War-Torn Sky, because, after reading every page, I decided that the intense violence of torture, coupled with the sexual feelings of the protagonist was too provocative. I sent it to the Middle School campus.
I consider it an important part of my job to be able to discuss books with my students. That means, sometimes, I have to read them. And that’s what I do with every book that gives me pause. My supervisor adamantly concurs. After reading Making Bombs for Hitler, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, I put in on the shelf and have recommended it several times.
I keep a book called The Boy Who Dared, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, on the shelf. It is a fictional account of a young man who defied the Hitler Youth Program in Nazi Germany. When students (usually boys) bring it to the circulation desk, I look them in the eyes, tell them that they will not “enjoy” reading this book, because is it painful and disturbing, but I’m glad they want to read it because it is important.
During a recent challenge regarding the passages in a shallow tween book titled Thirteen Plus One, part of a popular girls’ series by Lauren Myracle, my supervising Librarian repeated the school district policy that does not allow a book to be pulled from circulation based solely on an offense taken by a parent, student or teacher. The text that caused distress graphically describes young teenage girls viewing photos taken at a nudist camp and being disgusted by them. The book also mentions the awkwardness of parental romance.
If it has been professionally reviewed for that age group and the resident Library Specialist is comfortable with it, the book remains in the Library unless the parent or teacher successfully wins a formal challenge before the school board and district Librarians. As you can imagine, this process is rare. And it should be. If Librarians and Library Specialists banned every book from their shelves that offended anyone in some way, we’d have even fewer books available than our restrictive budget currently allows.
Books should speak for themselves.
Important books that should be readily available to readers of all ages have been banned throughout history. This includes many classics, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fahrenheit 451, Grapes of Wrath, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and Gone With the Wind, to name a few.
Banned books have also included those that have influenced our culture. By its very nature, controversial topics must be embraced, considered, and discussed freely to forge responsible communities. These include Catch-22, Invisible Man, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby, among others.
The bottom line is, no child is forced to read any specific book in a school library. And that makes all the difference.
Please also read Art Should Reveal Uncomfortable Truths.