June 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What To Do When Kids Aren’t Allowed To Read Digital Books in School | Scales on Censorship

Parents who visit our library’s children’s room have told me that ereaders have encouraged their kids to read. My son is a struggling reader, and he was very excited when I bought him one. But then we found out that his reading teacher won’t allow her students to read ebooks—they can only read books from the school library. How do I handle this?

Rather than focusing on a book’s format or where it’s shelved, his teacher should concentrate on getting the right title into your son’s hands. There’s nothing wrong with asking her to explain her rationale. Is she attempting to control her students’ reading choices? Let her know that you’re willing to experiment with any format that’ll help your son. Perhaps she isn’t aware that many of the school library’s books are also available in digital form, and may be found at the public library. I’ve heard many censorship cases that deal with the content of library materials, but this is the first I’ve encountered in which a book’s format has been censored. The teacher needs to enter the 21st century. Show her some articles about schools that are successfully using iPads and ereaders with their students, such as September 2012 SLJ cover story, “Travis’s Excellent Adventure”.

Our library’s technology manager told me that under CIPA we’re required to block all social networking sites. Is that true?

No. CIPA requires libraries that receive E-rate funding to teach students about cyberbullying and the appropriate use of social networking sites. There are various ways to do that, including offering programs for children and teens or weekend programs aimed at families. Dori Hillestad Butler’s The Truth about Truman School (Albert Whitman, 2008) is a perfect book to help kids understand the perils of online bullying.

One of our social studies teachers requires her eighth graders to read a book of their choice about the Holocaust. After one of them chose Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, she got a complaint from his mother, who told her that theliteratemother.org had recommended the book for older teens because of its language and violence. Now our principal wants me to remove it from our collection. When I explained that the parent needed to file a formal complaint and then the case would go before a reconsideration committee, he told me to skip that step. What should I do?

Sites that rate books are popping up everywhere, and they’re causing librarians a lot of grief. I visited “The Literate Mother” and discovered that it’s using the same criteria as Common Sense Media. I wouldn’t call anyone “literate” who takes words and scenes out of context like these sites do. If you do your homework, you’ll find that none of these sites use professional reviewers. It’s also not uncommon for them to take a simple kiss out of context and then point out that a book has sexual content. Remind your principal that students should be offered choices, and any book set during the Holocaust is bound to contain violence. This is a case in which a teacher is expected to teach, but a parent, and even the principal, doesn’t want students to learn. Stick to your guns. It sounds as if your district has a formal process for dealing with book challenges, and you should stick to that, too.

Our elementary school library’s parent volunteers don’t understand the importance of confidentiality. In fact, one of them even told her fifth-grade daughter that a particular classmate wasn’t a good reader and still checked out Beverly Cleary books. Any advice?

Parent volunteers can be invaluable, especially when you’re short-staffed, but it’s important that they understand their role. At the beginning of the school year, offer a workshop for your volunteers. Tell them that library records are confidential, and you’d prefer to do all of the reader guidance yourself, since you understand students’ reading preferences. Keep the problematic parent on your radar screen and give her a job that doesn’t require interaction with students—there are always books to be shelved.

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.



  1. I think there were probably other issues at play than simply book format. Limiting reading to “library books” makes sense in that many e-readers have other functions such as wifi, games, and videos. While I certainly can’t blame a 10 year old from wanting to surf the web or play online games while the rest of the class is reading, I am not sure I would have responded different from the teacher. In addition, while I know BYOD is the in thing now, many schools ban mp3 players, cell phones, and e-readers because of theft issues. Do they leave them in their locker, are classroom teachers responsible for all electronic toys Jr. brings to school. While a subject heading like schools ban ebooks is eye catching, it inaccurately describes the complexity of students bringing their own devices to school.

  2. My issue with what the parent asked it that she said her son was “excited when we bought him one” (an ereader). She did not say that he was reading more because of it. I wonder if he is actually doing a lot of reading on it.
    We do not discourage ereaders in our school, we have even given after school classes on how to check out from the public library. However, we too have the bandwidth issue. Luckily I control the Wi-Fi code and we just don’t give it out to kids. I am hoping we can get the BYOD policy in place soon and release that!!