Facing the PTA | Scales on Censorship

Parents' concerns about a YA collection; a grandmother questions a Newbery honoree.

I work in the children’s room of a small public library. A grandmother who provides after-school care for her grandson called and complained that she thought Breaking Stalin’s Nose is heavy reading for a fourth grader. She said she didn’t want him reading about the Holocaust. I tried to explain that the book isn’t about the Holocaust, but she still wants to challenge it.

This award-winning book is appropriate for a fourth grader, and you took the first step in dealing with the issue by explaining to the grandmother that the book isn’t about the Holocaust. I hope you described the entire story to her and pointed out the praise this Newbery Honor title has received. That said, if she still wants to challenge the book, you should explain the library policy and ask that she complete a reconsideration form. Most forms ask that the person bringing the challenge outline the themes of the book and the parts that are concerning. Don’t be surprised if the form is incomplete if and when the grandmother returns it. Just send the challenge through the proper channels and allow the process to work.

There have been cases where caregivers have caused havoc in public libraries about books and materials available in the children’s room. Sometimes they don’t understand children’s interests and aren’t completely aware of their abilities.

Though Breaking Stalin’s Nose isn’t about the Holocaust, I should point out that many fourth graders want to read about the Holocaust and World War II. Look at the popularity of Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson. The grandson appears to be interested in history, and these may be the next books he wants to read. I hope he enjoys them.

I read The Outsiders when I was in middle school. I recently suggested it to a seventh-grade student. He took the book but brought it back because he said his mother read that it had been banned.

It sounds as if the mother hasn’t read the book but is simply reacting to the American Library Association’s “banned books” list. This has happened a lot in school and public libraries. Just reassure the boy that you understand and that it’s okay to return the book unread. The issue is really between the student and his mother, but don’t be surprised if you see him reading it in the library. Just allow him to do so quietly, and don’t make further comments. In my career, I had many students who elected to read a book at school rather than at home. Whatever the reason was their business and not mine.

In workshops, I’ve asked adults to share a book that they remember from their middle school years. The Outsiders is one of the most often named. Hinton’s novel was groundbreaking when published in 1967, and it has withstood the test of time. Middle school students still love it, in spite of those who disapprove.

A group of parents in my high school have complained about a number of young adult titles in the library. The president of the PTA asked if I would consider addressing the parents and their concerns at a PTA Meeting in the fall. I’m very nervous about this and feel as though I’m being thrown into the lion’s den.

Thank the president of the PTA for asking you to do a program, and begin planning now. I suggest you ask students to write a paragraph about a book they would most want their parents to read and why. Allow them to remain anonymous, but request that they put their age at the top of the page. Plan to read some of the responses from each grade. This allows parents to see how students mature from freshman to senior year. Make an annotated bibliography of all the books mentioned, and distribute it to the parents.

Also, think about the books that students study in literature classes. Identify contemporary novels that parallel the themes in these novels. For example, Jake, Reinvented by Gordon Korman is a retelling of The Great Gatsby. Help parents see that reading young adult books with similar themes may actually help them through the novels they are studying.

Don’t forget to make the case for pleasure reading. Students are under so much academic pressure that they sometimes need downtime to simply dive into a good story.

I think that you may be surprised at how well the parents receive you. Look at it as an opportunity to advocate for teens and the books they read.

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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