November 18, 2017

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Offended at Open Mic | Scales on Censorship

A fourth grade teacher in my school loves Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and wants to read it aloud to her students. She asked my advice about using it because she has heard that it has been banned in some school districts. Are you aware of challenges to this novel?

I’m aware of challenges to Dahl’s novel, but to my knowledge there have been no recent ones. In the 1980s and 1990s, parents who felt that it encouraged bad behavior challenged the book. They cited smoking, alcohol use, and profanity. One group claimed that the “spider licking her lips” sounded “sexual.” It’s not likely that students would notice any of this. If so, then the teacher should be prepared to listen to her students’ thoughts. Open conversation rarely leads to challenges.

Some teachers feel they should let parents know when they plan to read aloud a book that might bring criticism. I don’t advise this practice, because it could invite trouble. There is simply no way to predict what different parents may find problematic. I suspect that many of the parents of these fourth graders grew up with Dahl’s novel and would find the complaints ridiculous.The teacher’s enthusiasm for the book will be contagious, and the students will love the experience. She should plan to use the book.

The poetry club in my high school sponsored an open microphone where students were invited to read aloud their own writing or the works of a favorite poet. The students weren’t required to tell the club sponsor what they planned to read. A few parents complained about the “sexual” symbolism and “offensive” language in some of the poems. Now they are demanding that the poetry club be disbanded. How do we handle this?
Perhaps the faculty sponsor should meet with the club and talk about the complaints. Ask club members to write a letter to the school administration about why the club should continue. Suggest that they write a defense of the poetry they read. After they have issued the written appeal, invite the administration to a club meeting so that students have an opportunity to verbally plead their case.

Students can’t be held accountable for their poetry choices if there are no rules. Involve them in writing guidelines for the open microphone events. My bet is that they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the club. I hope the administration allows them to continue. It’s tough enough to get students excited about poetry, so this natural interest should be celebrated.

I’m the director of children’s services in a very large public library system. I supervise all personnel in the children’s room and recommend the children’s books that are stocked on the bookmobiles. One of the bookmobile librarians asked me not to send “Captain Underpants” or the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series to her because she finds them offensive. I’ve had several calls from parents who want these books available on the bookmobile that visits their area. I don’t supervise this librarian, and the person in charge of outreach doesn’t want to deal with this. I’m at a loss about what to do.
It appears that the librarian is confused about her job description. Someone must let her know that she doesn’t make the call about the books that are shelved on the bookmobile. Patrons drive the decision about what to offer. Just because the books are available doesn’t mean that she has to recommend them. The popularity and the recent movies of these series sell them to readers. The librarian must also understand that she shouldn’t judge patrons who ask for the books.

I’m puzzled about why the person in charge of outreach is unwilling to deal with the librarian. Perhaps this is something that should be discussed in a staff meeting? If the librarian can’t comply, then maybe she should be reassigned to a position where she doesn’t come in contact with patrons.

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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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Comments

  1. Is this a regular column? I write periodic articles about book banning and censorship, and would like to bookmark this if it is. This particular column hits on some of the books that come up in my research all the time.

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