Questioning Ethnic Portrayals; When Teachers Denigrate YA | Scales on Censorship

Censorship expert Pat Scales fields questions on cultural misrepresentation in fiction, challenged books, and more.

This question has been bothering me for a few years. Where do we librarians draw the line between sensitivity and censorship? Several bloggers and library professionals argue that books containing any amount of cultural misrepresentation, stereotypes, or negative representation shouldn’t be purchased for libraries. I agree that authors must do a better job of representing all people as accurately as possible. But to refuse to purchase a title solely based on these issues sounds like censorship to me. What are your thoughts?
This is a tough question. It is our duty to purchase books that accurately portray the ethnicity of the main characters, but to remove or refuse to purchase a book because someone sees a small inaccuracy is censorship. Some bloggers and library professionals have strong opinions around this issue and sometimes use their online space to aggressively influence book-purchasing decisions. Instead of allowing bloggers to determine cultural accuracy, I suggest that librarians refer to the “resources” page of We Need Diverse Books for guidance.

A Fine Dessert received excellent reviews. Then it became the target of a few bloggers, and reviewers began to second-guess their thoughts about the book. Instead of removing the title because bloggers thought a few pages were problematic, librarians should engage young readers in conversation about the controversy. Often, young people are better at discussing such issues than adults.

Some years ago, Vamos a Cuba (A Visit to Cuba) was removed from libraries in the Miami-Dade, FL, school district. A Cuban-American school board member took issue with the book because the child on the cover was smiling. He said, “No child living under the Castro regime would be smiling.” Other Cuban Americans disagreed. Whom do you believe?

Yes, we must be culturally sensitive, but we must also use skills from library school to determine which reviews and online tools to trust.

 

I just read that a public library in Kansas is being pressured to put books focusing on transgender children in the adult or YA section. My library is facing a similar issue.
This is similar to what some libraries have done with books by Robie H. Harris. A title meant for children should remain in the children’s room. Moving it to the adult or YA collection because of the topic is censorship. Libraries should have a policy that deals with controversial books. If patrons complain, refer them to the policy.

 

The ninth grade Honors English students at my school have a prescribed curriculum that primarily uses the classics. Many students read YA books for pleasure, and their teacher is ridiculing them. I want to address this, but I don’t know how.
Praise the teacher for what she’s teaching in the classroom but inform her that students also need to read for pleasure. Emphasize that one of your goals is to develop lifelong readers, and the way to do this is to make available all types of books. The teacher may not know YA literature. Describe some popular titles and why students are drawn to them. You might even suggest YA books with similar themes to the classics. Students may respond better in class if she is less judgmental. No student should feel guilty for reading. You may have to be that blunt.

 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was challenged in a 10th grade class in my school. I have it in the library, and I’m worried that I could be forced to remove it. How should I deal with this?
Your school district should have a policy that addresses the use of controversial materials in the classroom and the purchase of such materials for the library. This policy protects teachers and librarians. A book that is challenged in the classroom won’t necessarily be challenged in the library. After all, libraries are about choice, and a student can choose to read, or elect not to read, any title. Make sure the library policy states this.


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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