November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Value Judgment | Scales On Censorship

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SLJ columnist Pat Scales

This year, I questioned the company I contract for book fairs as to why Raina Telgemeier’s Drama was labeled “Mature Content.” The company responded that they didn’t want younger students to think that it was a comic book. I suspect the real reason is a chaste kiss between two male characters. None of Telgemeier’s other titles are labeled, and professional journals recommend the books for grades four and up. Is there anything librarians can do to stop outside companies making value judgments on books? I am concerned that parents may use these labels to challenge books in my school library.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard concerns about book fair companies labeling books. You are right to be concerned. Companies have a right to set their business practices, and I suspect that the company you use made the decision to label books because of pressure from a few school librarians and administrators who believe these labels “protect” them against challenges. Labels are more likely to “promote” rather than “protect.” Parents may see the label and, indeed, launch a witch hunt to identify similar books on the library shelves. Kids may purchase the books, search for the “Mature Content,” and entertain an afterschool crowd by reading aloud the passages that may have gone unnoticed without the label. The company has clearly made an unwavering decision to label books. My suggestion is to cease doing business with them.

A teacher in my school wants the library books labeled by reading level. She suggests that teachers write the label in the books as students check them out. I’m very worried that students could become discouraged if they are so aware of their reading level.

No one wants their reading level staring them in the face every time they open a book. The answer is good reader- guidance practices. A struggling reader may select the longest and most difficult book in the library, because the student doesn’t want to be labeled a poor reader. Allow the student to take that book, but tell her that you know another book she would like, and send her home with both books. My bet is that she reads the book you suggested.

Last year, the social studies teachers in my middle school planned a program about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Ramadan. Some ministers appeared before the school board and demanded that the program be canceled. The school board allowed the program, but the ministers told their congregants to keep their kids home from school that day. A man in the community ran for the school board and used his opposition to this program as his platform. He didn’t want students learning about Islam.

World religions are a part of the social studies curriculum in middle school. There are some politicians and religious leaders who want to keep students ignorant, but students must have knowledge if they are to exist and succeed in a global society. It sounds as if the school board recognized this by supporting the program. You didn’t tell me if the guy won his bid for the school board. If he did, I’m confident the other school board members set him straight.

The world religions program was saved last year, but when a teacher and curriculum director were set to introduce What I Came to Tell You by Tommy Hays, the principal read the first page about the mother being Buddhist and nixed the novel study.

This is a knee-jerk reaction, because the school board allowed the world religions program to take place. I wonder if this principal would now want social studies teachers to edit how they present religion in countries such as Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It’s possible that he accepts Buddhism as a global religion but is threatened by the fact that someone living in the mountains of North Carolina (where the book is set) could follow such beliefs. If this is true, perhaps he needs to be reminded that the U.S. is part of the global community. If he read the book, he would learn that it is about family, friendship, love, grief, and the power of art.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Pat Scales About Pat Scales

Pat Scales is the former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. You can send your questions or comments on censorship to her at pscales@bellsouth.net.

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