May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

When Colleagues Need Clarification About Restricting Books | Scales on Censorship

As a K−6 elementary school librarian, I frequently hear other librarians debate the question: What grade level do you let borrow the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (Abrams) and “Captain Underpants” (Scholastic) series? Everything I learned in library school, and all American Library Association (ALA) documents, promote free choice, regardless of age. ALA policies also state that only a parent can restrict what a child borrows. Can you offer clarification and a sensitive way to raise this issue with my colleagues?

 Unfortunately, not all library schools spend enough time dealing with issues related to intellectual freedom. Consider yourself lucky. Don’t be afraid to enter the discussion, and be firm when stating your opinion. You have done your homework and can quote the supportive ALA documents. Better yet, copy and distribute them to the other librarians. Make the point that librarians shouldn’t allow fear of complaints or their personal objections to particular titles affect collection development. Restriction is a form of censorship. The series you mentioned have turned a lot of kids onto reading. That alone validates their importance. If parents don’t want their child to read certain books, then they need to address it with their child at home.


At my high school, we celebrate a Book of the Week. The title is displayed; an announcement is made on the school news; and it’s included on the school blog. A while ago, Meg Medina’s Pura Belpré Award winner Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, 2013) was chosen. My principal didn’t want the book on our website, because he feared parents would think it was advocating violence. I explained that this was censorship, and if a parent called to complain, send them my way. He stood firm and refused to allow it to be advertised in any school media. What else can I do?

There are so many reports where principals lack the courage to face controversy. I bet your principal is simply reacting to the words “Kick Your Ass.” I hope that students are invited to discuss the Book of the Week. If so, hit the issue head on. Ask them to role play a conversation with adults who may object to the idea of violence. Encourage English teachers to ask students to write an open letter to the administration that asks why other selections have been featured on the school website, but not Medina’s. Involving kids in this way gives them the language to discuss the issue with their parents should it come up.


I just read your response to a librarian who raised a question about book fair companies that label “mature content.” I understand the librarian’s concern; however, I appreciate that some companies do this. I am in a K−8 school, and it isn’t possible for me to be familiar with all the books. I am grateful that I can direct students to titles that are appropriate for their age and maturity level, and I know that the parents want that too. I do not agree that librarians should cease business with companies that label. There are many of us who feel a moral obligation toward our students.

I must restate that any book fair company has a right to make a business decision to label. But, librarians also have the right to choose a company that reflects their decision to make selections without labels. I understand some companies allow a librarian the choice to accept or reject such labeling. It’s actually very frightening that librarians put such labeling in the hands of companies or committees. Who decides what constitutes “mature content”? Is it one four-letter word or a dozen? A chaste kiss or questions about sex? Sometimes such labels tantalize students. Would you then refuse to let students get these titles?

I’m curious about your “moral obligation” comment. Parents should be the only ones to make such “moral” judgments. Schools serve students from all types of families, and they may not appreciate a librarian who judges their “morals.”

I understand the challenges of serving students in a K−8 school. My suggestion: two different book fairs—one for younger students and another for older students—might solve your problem.

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2015 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



  1. MaryAnn Miller says:

    I appreciate your stating that you were curious about the librarian above who was talking about her “moral obligation” to their students and not just putting them down. I felt comfortable trying to explain my point of view, because I didn’t feel like you judged the other librarian, but were just seeking to understand. There are a lot of us out there that feel that “moral obligation” to our students and I would like to explain why (in my case at least). I do realize that I have no business censoring what my students read in my 7th thru 12th grade library, but I am obligated to know my students and that is where my “moral obligation” comes in. I have a wonderful array of readers in my library, and some I know that are offended by certain things. Most of them censor for themselves, but if they don’t know certain things about a book, I like to be able to let them know. Not to tell them not to read a book, but to give them a heads up. I have never not checked out a book to a student because of something in the book. On the other hand,there is nothing I hate more than having a kid bring a book back to me and say, Mrs Miller! Did you know that they did/said blah, blah, blah… this book with a look of disappointment on their face. I feel like I have let them down. I guess I mean moral as in trueness to self and others, not moral as in “to sin or not to sin”. I feel morally obligated to do my best by these kids. I really can’t speak for the other librarian, but I think that is what they were talking about. So, I guess I fall into the group of librarians who appreciate the “heads up” from the companies that flag their books. Just as a service, not to tell me what age limit, or type of student I can check a book out to.