March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Formal Challenge Process Provides Teaching Moments | Scales on Censorship

A children’s librarian in a small public library, I announced a monthlong storytelling festival for school-age children. A parent of a third grader complained that the program involves fairy tales. I’m worried that the library director will ask me to pull the program. What should I do?

One parent shouldn’t be allowed to dictate a program. I suggest that you try to reason with her about the value of fairy tales. If she insists that her daughter isn’t to take part, then that is her choice. Let the director know that fairy tales are a large part of the oral tradition, and that no one else has complained. It should be treated in the same way as a book challenge. A formal complaint process solves the issue most of the time.

Junie-B-BooksI’m an elementary school librarian and have once again been hit with a challenge to the “Junie B. Jones” series. The specific complaint is “disorderly conduct” and the grammar in the books. I’m tired of the challenges. I fear that I’m about to cave.

Do not cave! The purpose of a library is to serve all students. This doesn’t mean that everything in the collection satisfies every child or every parent. The way to solve the problem isn’t to remove the books, but to help children see that the “disorderly conduct” and the “bad grammar” define the character of Junie B. Jones—and contribute to the humor. Turn the discussion into an English lesson by asking them to correct the grammar. Children read these books to be entertained and don’t necessarily emulate the character. Trust their intelligence.

Students in a sophomore English class in my school were asked to write an original short story. One student used a lot of profanity in his. The teacher thinks the language is inappropriate and is afraid that she may get in trouble with the principal. She wants to fail the student. I told her that would be a mistake. What should we do?

If she didn’t specify that students weren’t allowed to use profanity in their stories, then she doesn’t have ground to stand on. Please advise the teacher to judge and grade the story on its merit, and not on issues of language. Are the stories for publication, a contest, to be read aloud in class? If not, then why is she afraid that the principal will question the assignment? She will create a larger problem if she reprimands the student.

hunger gamesI had no problems withThe Hunger Games in my middle school library until the movie was released. A parent who hasn’t read the book took her son to see the movie and she was bothered by the content. She called me because she doesn’t think the book should be in a middle school library. She added that neither the movie nor the book disturb, her son, and that makes her nervous. Help!

Tell her that the book is appropriate for middle school students, and that it was selected for the library based on reviews. Share the reviews with her and ask her to consider reading the book. Encourage her to discuss it with her son and ask him to reflect on its powerful themes. Sometimes conversation solves a disagreement. She needs to understand that she can guide what her son reads, but she doesn’t have the right to guide what other children read. Let the complaint go through a formal process if the mother isn’t satisfied.

I have seen a recent push by the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) to report any challenge to library materials. I’ve been afraid to let ALA know when there has been a challenge in my library. Why is reporting so important?

Don’t be afraid. The ALA OIF is there to help you. The information that is reported is kept confidential unless the person filing the complaint wishes for it to go public. ALA uses the data to help guide other libraries in the nation with similar cases. In addition, the data is used in determining the most challenged materials in a given year. It is especially helpful when the office knows the resolution to a case.

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

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