February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Assessing Controversial Books | Scales on Censorship

You previously made reference to FactsonFiction.org, a site that labels books that have controversial content, and I can’t find it. Please advise.
Thankfully, it appears that the site no longer exists. I’ve tried to uncover information about what the people behind it are up to, but any reference to the site leads to nowhere. I did find this review (http://ow.ly/XkG5Y), but there is no date. Sometime last year I saw on FactsonFiction.org a call for monetary donations. These types of sites with the mission to alert parents to controversial books come and go—and the fact that this one is gone is a real win for librarians, teachers, and students.

I’ve been following the various blog posts about A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat (Random) by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall and The Hired Girl (Candlewick, both 2015) by Laura Amy Schlitz. Is the pressure from the liberal left less or more nuanced than pressure from the right to censor books? How do we walk the selection line? Should libraries that already purchased these books based on the starred reviews keep or withdraw them because of the recent controversies?
First, this isn’t an intellectual freedom issue until libraries begin pulling books they have already purchased based on Internet chatter. Libraries depend on starred and favorable reviews to make purchases, but they also have collection development teams and selection policies that guide them. Some libraries include policy statements that address issues related to cultural stereotypes and historical accuracy. If yours doesn’t have such a statement, now is the time to develop one.

There is so much that is really good about A Fine Dessert and The Hired Girl—all the reasons mentioned in the starred reviews. I encourage school and public librarians to take the opportunity to turn the issue at hand into a teachable moment. The books lend themselves to discussion, and it’s too bad that some librarians won’t allow children the opportunity to discuss, listen, and learn about the issues that have been raised about these books. Children are smart and articulate, and they deserve the right to open conversation about any issue. Lead them to the statements that Jenkins, Blackall, and Schlitz have made about their research, including Jenkins’s apology. Encourage them to talk about the objections of those who oppose the books. And send home open-ended questions that families might use with the books.

Pressures from the right and left are different. Libraries don’t usually hear from the right until people want a book removed from the collection. These complaints are usually related to sex, language, and violence. The pressure from the left is often more nuanced, having to do with race, cultures, and gender issues, and tends to influence purchases. The birth of the Internet and blog culture has made voices from all sides louder. The best thing libraries can do is to have sound selection policies and make purchasing decisions after considering all sides of an issue. Libraries should never allow themselves to be bullied by any group.

I read that The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is still being challenged in some middle schools. I loved that book when I was in middle school, and my students love it. What is the problem? Should I worry that a parent may complain?
I haven’t read of a recent challenge to the novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some parents, and even some school administrators, are troubled by the “gang” culture. Don’t create a problem for yourself. Tell your students how much you loved the book when you were their age, and ask them to share their thoughts. There is a reason the book is still popular, and that should be celebrated, not feared. Gangs exist, and talking about them is much safer than not talking about them.

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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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