May 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Age-Appropriate Reading? | Scales on Censorship

The libraries in my district frequently share books through interlibrary loan. My fifth and sixth grade students are asking to borrow YA books from the high school that I don’t have in my collection because they fall outside the age recommendation of all review journals. One request was from a 10-year-old asking for Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007). I’m extremely uncomfortable with filling these ­requests, but I’m equally concerned about any type of restriction. A colleague suggested that we allow students to borrow these books if they have written permission from a parent. Some of us are worried that this practice might encourage censorship. What is the best way to handle this?
I applaud the fact that your district engages in interlibrary loans, but it may be time to examine policy statements regarding this practice. You are on the right track to consider what review journals say, and your policy should make a statement about age recommendations. Fiction that is suggested for high school students is often too emotionally complex for fifth and sixth graders, but requiring parental permission to borrow the books isn’t a good idea.

Most potential censorship problems are solved through strong reader guidance programs. You may solve this dilemma by guiding students to books in your library that tackle the same issues as the YA titles they are requesting. For example, engage in nonjudgmental conversation with the fifth grader who wants to read Thirteen Reasons Why. Find out if the student is searching for a book about bullying. Or is it suicide that draws attention? Then let the student know that you can suggest a similar book from your library that may appeal. If the student continues to insist on Thirteen Reasons Why, then allow them to borrow it. My bet is that the book will be returned to the library unread.

What should a teacher or librarian do when children show interest in a particular book but say their parents won’t allow them to read it? Should you allow them to borrow the book anyway?
What a child borrows from the library is between the parent and child. It’s not the role of the teacher or librarian to judge a parent’s decision—or to police what students borrow. Always tell a child that you respect the parent’s decision, and direct the student toward other books that may spark interest. Some students may elect to read certain titles at school without their parents’ knowledge, and that’s OK, too.

I’m a children’s literature student, and my class read your book Scales on Censorship (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). I was particularly interested in the chapter on privacy. Do librarians have a legal obligation to inform patrons of privacy laws?
No library I have ever visited has informed me of such laws. Privacy laws regarding libraries vary by state. These laws should be posted in a prominent place at the library so that all patrons are aware of their privacy rights. If you don’t see the law posted, inform a librarian that you have privacy concerns and request a copy of your state’s law.

How does the separation of church and state come into play when involving religious texts and religious-themed books in a public school library?
Public school libraries do contain many religious-themed books. “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis is a good example. Most libraries have copies of the Bible. Stocking such titles doesn’t violate the separation of church and state. You aren’t requiring that students read them. Issues related to separation of church and state include the fact that school personnel aren’t allowed to profess their faith to students or exercise religious-themed programs. They may teach religions of the world from the cultural standpoint but must avoid theological teachings.

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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