Bully Principal Missed Opportunity | Scales on Censorship

Parent with Caldecott concerns, a librarian fears "Vincent and Theo" content issues (again), and an administrator who cracks down on students' rights: Pat Scales sets them straight.

I read with interest a question posed on the ALSC list about “outdated language” in Caldecott books. Kindergarteners in the librarian’s area are required to read 40 Caldecott books. A mother complained about some titles. How would you deal with this? A Caldecott Medal on a title doesn’t label it a classic or of current interest to a child. The book received the medal because it was considered the “most distinguished illustrated book” the year it was published. Some early medal-winning titles are culturally and racially insensitive by today’s standards, and children shouldn’t be expected to read them. A good example is Abraham Lincoln by Ingri Parin d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, the 1940 winner. Some negative stereotypes of African Americans and Native Americans were changed in the 75th anniversary edition, but there is still troubling text and illustrations.

Librarians should periodically reevaluate all books in the collection, including award-winning ones, for cultural accuracy. A number of special collections of children’s literature around the country would be happy to take the books.

Host kindergarten teachers at the start of the school year and explain why some of the Caldecott Medal books have been sent to archive collections. This is an opportunity to introduce them to other awards, including the Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Geisel, and Boston Globe-Horn Book awards. Call their attention to these lists: ALSC Notable Children’s Books, BookList Editor’s Choice, School Library Journal Best Books, Horn Book Fanfare, and New York Times Best Illustrated Books. This may broaden teachers’ perspectives, and they may rethink the assignment.

I want to include excellent biographies in my middle school collection, but some titles have content that might be troubling to parents. I’m specifically referring to Vincent and Theo: The van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman. I’ve read Heiligman’s book, and it’s an amazing portrayal of the van Gogh brothers. A biographer has an obligation to present their subject in an authentic, honest manner. Otherwise, they’d be writing fiction. Many books have content that could be troubling to some people, but librarians shouldn’t base purchases on fear of a book challenge. Heiligman’s book is appropriate for middle school readers, and I hope you introduce them to it. Should someone raise an issue, the simple answer is: This is the way they lived their lives. Then, follow the procedure for reconsideration. The principal in my high school told students they would be disciplined if they walked out on National Walkout Day to protest gun violence. He also announced that he wouldn’t tolerate any talk about #NeverAgain (March for Our Lives). The students feel their free speech has been violated. The faculty support the students but feel their hands are tied. The principal bullied students and missed an opportunity to show solidarity over this national issue. Talking about volatile topics is the best approach. I suggest that faculty and student leadership go to the principal and ask that the school sponsor events around this issue. I suspect many students participated in the March for Our Lives in their city and want to share their experience.

• English teachers: Have students write a paper voicing their opinions about the war against gun violence. Those who marched should write about their experiences.

• Social studies teachers: Plan a lecture on historic protest movements and how they changed society.

• Art teachers: Sponsor a “Students Against Gun Violence” poster contest.

• Math teachers: Have students collect data on the number of deaths due to gun violence in their city and in the ­nation in the past year and report the data in a graph.

• Encourage students to express concerns about gun ­violence in letters to lawmakers.

• Above all, urge them to keep up with Never Again ­movement events and get involved.

I heard reports that some principals considered National Walkout Day a disruption to the school day. Students should know about the landmark ­Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines, a case where ­students wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The students won the case because wearing armbands wasn’t deemed “disruptive.” At your school, students should plan their own silent protest, because their First-Amendment rights have indeed been violated.

Send your censorship questions to pscales@bellsouth.net.

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