April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Foster Stronger Schools by Supporting Reading Freedom | Scales on Censorship

The House of the ScorpionA third-grade teacher in my school has Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion in her classroom library. She told her students that they could read the book if they got written permission from their parents. Parents are asking my opinion. I didn’t purchase the book for the elementary library, but I understand that the book is a big hit in the neighboring middle school. What should I say to parents without making this teacher look bad?

The House of the Scorpion is an excellent novel, but I doubt that many third graders will be drawn to it. Tell the parents that the book is a better choice for middle school students because of its complex themes and conflict. I recommend that you explain to the teacher that it isn’t a good idea to have any book in the classroom that requires parental permission. Such a practice sends a red flag that can cause nothing but trouble from parents and make students think that the novel deals with “forbidden” subject matter. This isn’t a good message for readers of any age. Also, tell the teacher that you didn’t choose the novel for your library because reviewers recommend it for older readers, and offer to help her select books for her classroom library.

Each fall, the government teacher in my high school does a unit to help students distinguish between fact and opinion. He usually has them search five newspapers for articles on one topic and then use different sources to fact check them. This year, the principal told him he couldn’t do the unit because some conservative parents had complained about some of the opinions expressed.

It appears that the principal is more interested in appeasing parents than teaching students. I don’t know if your school district has adopted the Common Core State Standards, but these support your case for such instruction. Take a look at English/language arts standards:

Reading: Informational Text: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas RI. 9-10.8 – “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; Identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.”

This is the best argument I can offer. It’s called “Information Literacy,” and schools have the responsibility to teach it.

bullying prevention monthI’m a middle school librarian and am always seeking new programming ideas. This year, I decided to develop programming centered on the national observance of Red Ribbon Week, Bullying Awareness Month, Mental Illness Month, etc. I had an incredible planning session with teachers. Our ideas included a display of books and materials that deal with these specific issues. Then the principal told me that such observances have no place in middle school. He doesn’t want the community to think that the school has a drug or bullying problem.

Most communities celebrate such awareness campaigns. Talk to community leaders and ask them to work with the school district to develop programs that communicate such issues to students. I doubt that the school district will say “no” to these leaders. Let the principal know that creating awareness doesn’t mean that the school has a problem, but the school does have a problem if it doesn’t help students understand these social issues. Maybe the kids are being bullied and don’t know how to report it. Perhaps drugs are a problem where they live and they are too frightened to tell anyone. Through awareness campaigns, students learn where to go for help. Schools have the responsibility to protect children. The best protection is through information and awareness.

A fifth-grade language arts teacher in my school told her students that they weren’t allowed to read a book that wasn’t in our elementary school library. I’ve had several parents call and complain to me. I asked the teacher why she would make such a demand, and she said that several students turned in book reports on dystopian novels and she didn’t think such books were age-appropriate. What should I do?

Turn to the policy manual of your school district. I doubt it restricts students to materials in the school library. This teacher is clearly allowing her personal beliefs to abridge the rights of kids to choose books that interest them. If she is so concerned about what they are reading for book reports, then she needs to make the assignment more specific. Instead of telling them what they may not read, she should suggest certain titles or genres from which to choose. Then, do the students a favor and lead them to dystopian novels in the school library collection. They may enjoy the books more if they don’t have to write book reports on them.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2013 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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Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. As a retired high school teacher and author of a YA novel aimed at high school students, I know how narrow the system can be. My book, Children of the Knight, has already shown great appeal for teen and young adult males, always a hard demographic to engage, yet I haven’t gotten far interesting school libraries in stocking it, despite extremely positive and hopeful messages for youth contained within the story. As a teacher, if a kid wanted to read any novel that was all right by me. If we just force them to read books they hate, they’ll hate reading. BTW, The House of the Scorpion is a great book.