May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Should ‘Girl’ Books Be Labeled? | Scales on Censorship

I’m a teen librarian in a small public library. We have had so many challenges to YA literature that the library director has suggested that we merge the teen and adult collection. She thinks this may eliminate some of the issues.

A library that has a sudden increase in the number of challenges is likely the target of an organized group. It’s frustrating to deal with such groups because they mobilize via the Internet and are relentless. I’m sure you must have a selection policy that includes a reconsideration process. This should be followed to a tee. Require that those bringing the challenges complete the form in its entirety. My bet is that these people haven’t read the books. They have a right to challenge, but they don’t have a right to control the way the library serves its patrons.

I sense that the library director is simply tired of constantly dealing with challenges, but to merge the collections would not solve the problem. What would happen to the teen program if this were done? Would teens even want to come to the library if identifying interesting books is so difficult? Teens need to be embraced, not dismissed.

A local women’s organization has complained that our public library doesn’t have enough books that present a positive image of women and girls. I pointed out a number of titles, but they want them labeled with a girl silhouette so that girls may spot them quickly. This isn’t something that the library wants to do, but this organization is taking the issue to the library board.

Hopefully the library board will leave this decision to the professional staff. Does the library have a policy on labeling? New issues related to labeling are cropping up in public and school libraries. The American Library Association is currently updating its statement on labeling and will eventually make it available on the Office of Intellectual Freedom website. It can serve as a guide for libraries as they update polices.

I’m sure the women’s organization has good intentions, but labeling books is a slippery slope. Male readers may not give books like Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Mighty Miss Malone (Random, 2012), Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie (Candlewick, 2005), or Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Holt, 2009) a chance if they are labeled with a girl symbol. Suggest that the library provide a bibliography of books with strong female characters for the organization to distribute to members or on their website if they have one. Let them know that the library will work with them and provide a display for Women’s History Week in March. Suggest that the organization develop a brochure that lists such titles and place it in bookstores in town.

A parent sent a link to the Facts on Fiction website to the school superintendent in my district who directed the English consultant to call a meeting of all English teachers and ask that they not teach any books that are on the site. This leaves out titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Sounder, which they have traditionally taught. The teachers are concerned that they may have very few books to teach.

This site actually uses graphs to rate books for “Mature Content,” which includes a detailed graph for Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence/Illegal Activity, Tobacco/Alcohol/Drugs, and Disrespectful/Anti-Social Behavior. The ultra-conservative organization appears to target books typically used in the English or Language Arts curriculum. Take time to peruse the site, and you will quickly see that these “reviewers” don’t really know the books, because according to them, To Kill a Mockingbird won the Caldecott Medal and the main character is 12. There are no illustrations in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the character telling the story is an adult remembering an event that happened when she was six.

Ask teachers to look up every book they teach, and take note of misinformation. Then ask for a meeting with the superintendent. Let him know that teachers know the literature better than the folks at Facts on Fiction, and assure him that they know how to present it to students. This may seem time consuming, but it may be the only way to win this battle. Encourage teachers to ask students to think about the issues that organizations like Facts on Fiction have with books they study. Trust their intelligence to analyze the literature and express their personal opinions, orally and through writing assignments, regarding each work. There will be varying reactions, but literature is intended to make readers think.

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 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