February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Foiled by Curses | Scales on Censorship

I’m in a K–12 library. The books are shelved by high school, early elementary, and upper elementary, but in a room with no physical barriers. I have elementary students wanting to check out books from the high school section. I either let them take the materials they want or occasionally guide them toward other choices. A teacher has complained that one of her students isn’t mature enough for a book he borrowed. Am I censoring if I don’t let elementary students check out books for older readers?

This is a common issue in K–12 schools, but it’s not a good idea to restrict students to certain areas of the library. There are always books in school libraries that are too mature for some students, and your idea of leading them to other titles is a good practice. Most students return books they aren’t ready for. If the teacher keeps insisting that the student not take the book he wants, she will only make him more determined. The student may lose interest once he knows that there are no barriers. Restriction is a form of censorship. Also, please don’t fall down the rabbit hole of requiring parental permission. This practice almost always causes more problems than it solves.

The public library in my community is very active. We traditionally bring in school groups to become acquainted with the services of the library. I always end each tour by introducing them to books that may interest them. I shared Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh with a fourth grade class. The teacher very quickly said, “That book has curse words.” I was at a loss for words.
You should simply say to the students that the villain, Judd Travers, is so mean that he doesn’t name his dogs. He just calls “one, two three, dammit,” and they come running. Explain to them that Marty is the hero in the novel, because he sets out to save the dog he names, Shiloh. This explanation teaches readers about the elements of character analysis. Challenge them to read the book, and then encourage them to return to the library to share their thoughts with you. Ask them to contrast Marty and Judd’s character. It sounds as if their teacher is more focused on words than their understanding of literature.

I’m a librarian in a private school, and we have had parents of sixth graders complain about Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die being taught in the language arts curriculum. The teacher who was teaching the book had used it successfully at another school. Now the headmistress is allowing parents to scrutinize every book taught.
Does your school have a board policy about the selection of novels and other supplementary materials used in the classroom? If so, did the teacher follow the policy? I would think that the headmistress would want teachers to call upon their expertise in literature and craft their own curriculum. The entire English department should schedule a meeting with the headmistress and express concerns about allowing parents to engage in curriculum development. That said, you didn’t tell me at what grade the teacher had used the novel in the past. A Day No Pigs Would Die is a good book, but it is better for students who are older. Accelerating students doesn’t mean the same thing as using books that are too mature for them.

Last year we had a writer visit our elementary school, and she liberally used damn and hell in her presentation. The principal has said that we can no longer have visiting authors. The students and their parents are wondering which writer will visit this year. What do I tell them?
I would tell them the truth. Explain that the principal was unhappy with parts of the presentation and is now uncomfortable having visiting writers. I suspect that parents and students who were pleased with the program will approach the principal and urge them to change their mind. I don’t know in what context the writer used the words, but an entire program shouldn’t be shut down because one writer may have forgotten their audience. This places undue blame on all writers, and students lose out.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2018 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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Comments

  1. Morher of Four says:

    The lack of discretion and respect for parents is mind-boggling. Just because somebody writes a book, doesn’t mean I want my kid exposed to it. I grew up in the 80’s where permission forms were sent home about questionable books or movies in the classroom. It disgusts me that certain people think they have the right to teach my kid about subjects that I did not authorize. These are the same people who cry respect, but can’t respect parents.

  2. If we really want our libraries to be welcoming places, why are parents consistently unwelcome? It greatly concerns me that, in my perception, this publication and its contributors, foster a combative and condescending attitude toward parents. Imagine the power, creativity, wisdom, and joy that could be possible when the caring adults in a student’s life work together!

    • I’m sorry you feel that parents are consistently unwelcome in libraries. In my experience, as a parent and a librarian, I have not had that experience. Caring adults do work together, and I don’t think you have to look very far (SLJ, for example) to find examples of librarians who work tirelessly to foster the things you mention: power, creativity, wisdom and joy. In fact, I’m guessing that this is the mission of most librarians!

      I have had constructive and respectful conversations with parents who do not feel comfortable with some of their child’s selections. I feel confident in saying that the feeling was mutual. The reality is my library serves a student population of 650 children – each with their own life experiences. What is good for one student may not be right for another, that is true. This is why I remind students each year that if a book makes them uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with closing it up and returning it. Have candid conversations with your children and make decisions together about what you feel is appropriate for them and at what age. They will come to the library feeling secure and empowered in their choices. Additionally, librarians will continue to purchase developmentally appropriate books that reflect the culture and needs of their student population.

  3. lata nair says:

    two minutes of reading and i learnt so much. thank you SLJ and Ms Pat Scales

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