February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Columnist Pat Scales Addresses Censorship Concerns in Libraries


SLJ columnist Pat Scales.

I’m a collection development librarian for a very large public library. It’s our job to order books for the entire system. One of the bookmobile librarians is extremely conservative and doesn’t want us to send the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (Abrams) or “Captain Underpants” (Scholastic) series to her bookmobile. She says she’s read that these books have been banned in some libraries, and she can’t defend them. Circulation data reveals the popularity of these books, but we can’t seem to convince her.

The first thing this librarian needs to understand is that the bookmobile doesn’t belong to her. It belongs to the public, including children. These are extremely popular books among young readers, and the readers need access to the books, whether in the children’s room of the main library or on the shelves of a bookmobile. It’s true that these series have been challenged, but they also have been successfully defended. Present the situation to the library director. It may be time to review the library’s collection development and circulation policies. I hope these policies include a procedure for dealing with challenged materials. The bookmobile librarian must understand that it’s not her job to judge what patrons are reading, and she mustn’t let her personal views affect her professional services. She may need reassurance that she won’t have to face challenges alone.

I work in a private K–12 girls school that serves an international population. I recently recommended Little Women to a sixth grader. The girl did an oral book report on the novel in class. The teacher, who isn’t Christian, complained to me because she didn’t like the Christmas scene in the book. I was left speechless. How do I respond?


Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”

The story is about the March family, and they just happen to celebrate Christmas. This doesn’t mean that everyone who reads the book is Christian. Ask the teacher how she would feel if a student reported on a book set during Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan. I would hope she’d engage students in conversation about religious or secular observances in their families. This seems especially appropriate for a school that serves an international population. You aren’t promoting Christianity by recommending Little Women. Neither is a reader by reporting on it.

I’m a librarian in a high school with a student body of 2,500. Many of our girls belong to sororities. The school doesn’t sanction these organizations, and some of the behaviors generated by rush create issues at school. Last fall, the girls had a contest to see who could lose the most weight. This prompted uproar among parents, and they have requested that we ban books that deal with eating disorders in the library. One of the books they specifically wanted removed is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls (Viking, 2009).

I can’t think of a book that promotes eating disorders, but I can think of many that ask teens to think about the health risks. One of those books is Wintergirls, and I wish the sorority girls would take the time to read it. Do not remove any book from the library just because parents have requested it. Tell them they can file a formal challenge, and then let the process work. Speak with the school administration and counselor, and suggest that the school sponsor a series of eating disorder workshops for parents and their daughters. There are health professionals who’d volunteer their time to work with the groups. Perhaps you could lead a mother-daughter book club and focus on books that deal with eating disorders. Let the parents know that some of the most important books are ones that give pause. These proactive measures may save the books and the girls.

I’m on a committee to select summer reading novels for middle school readers. Some on the committee want all students to read the same book. I would like to offer choices. How do I make my case?

There are many different thoughts about summer reading. It makes sense for middle school students to have choices to promote reading. There is also an access issue, unless the school intends to purchase the summer reading choice for every student.

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2014 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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  1. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Cpt Underpants: My son LOVES the Weird School books, and while I really like that they’ve been a constant source of reading for him, I’m realizing that he’s a bit young and therefore tends to repeat some of the characters’ nastiness. It’s the same way I feel about the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books. There are better things to read. I happen to think that Cpt Underpants is awesome and actually does’t model the same obnoxious peer-to-peer as the others. That all being said, it should be a family choice. I don’t believe in banning. Just let people know what’s up.

    About Little Women: My experience is that discomfort like that about the Christmas scene usually comes from families who don’t think religion is being taken seriously enough in literature or during discussions. I agree with what’s above. Religion is part of culture and students should know about other people’s beliefs. Fight for opening up “the bubble.”

    The summer reading thing is an interesting question. I used to try to strike a middle ground. Students who were most capable and willing to take suggestions (AP Lit) had to read two books from a short list of choices. Everyone else (grades 6-12) had to read two books of their choosing, but had access to that list and a list of grade appropriate “challenge reads” so that teachers who took the time to build relationships with kids could push them in that direction. I would be amazed to learn that all or most students in a “one school, one book” summer reading program would come back having read the book. In my experience, this doesn’t even work with faculty reading.