It’s About Choice: Tactics for Fostering Intellectual Freedom | Scales on Censorship

Censorship expert Pat Scales tackles the trouble with trigger warnings, the finesse of Banned Books Week planning, and the problem with narrowing options for reading.

Our public library is making program plans for Banned Books Week that target adult patrons, but the director also wants at least one program for children. We have done things for middle school and teen patrons, but I don’t have a clue how to involve younger children. Display books like Shiloh, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 and then engage children in a discussion about the reasons these books have been banned or challenged. Ask these students to prepare an oral defense of one of these titles.

The most important point to get across, regardless of age, is that everyone has the right to make his or her reading choices, and only parents have control over what their kids read. If you are successful in conveying that, then you will have just introduced them to the principles of intellectual freedom.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is taught in the fifth grade language arts curriculum in my school. The teachers have asked that I not allow fourth graders to borrow the book from the library because they don’t want students to have already read the book. I told the teachers that I couldn’t put that kind of restriction on the book. Am I being unreasonable? You are absolutely right not to restrict the book. What would the teachers say if a student borrowed the book from the public library? Students should have free and open access to all books in the school library, even those taught in the curriculum. Let teachers know that most students enjoy reading books more than once. If they’ve already read the novel, then they begin studying the work with an advantage. A really good novel study includes class discussion and writing activities that ask students to think critically about the themes and topics in the book. You might suggest that the teachers allow students who have already read the novel help struggling students.

An 11th grade writing teacher in my high school complained that her students were reading too much young adult literature, and not enough “good” literature. She noticed it when she read their reading journals. She thinks I could control this by not buying so many young adult titles, and by monitoring what her students read. How do I deal with such a narrow-minded person? Let her know that you don’t monitor reading, because that is a form of censorship. Then tell her that you buy books that speak to the students. They read young adult literature because they can identify with it. Ask the teacher how many of these books she’s read. My bet is none, or she would know that most young adult books are “quality literature.” Then ask if she provides her students with a reading list, or if she allows them to make their own selections. If she doesn’t offer guidance, then she has no right to complain. You are doing your job. Is she doing hers?

I’m a teen librarian in a public library, and I’ve read a lot of YA blogs on books that feature teens with mental health disorders. I think it’s important for readers to find books with characters that they identify with, and I have been thinking about creating a list of these books. I wonder, though, about the current trend of including trigger warnings. I understand that trigger warnings can help readers who have experienced trauma avoid books that may cause painful flashbacks, and YA fiction that addresses mental health often includes content that may be triggering. I don’t want to get into the habit of providing subjective labels. What is your take on this? Trigger warnings are a form of labeling, and libraries should avoid using them. I don’t think librarians, in spite of how well we know patrons, can ever predict what may trigger a behavior or a flashback to a painful experience. And, it’s possible that some teens may find comfort from reading such books. If mental illness contributes to the conflict of a novel, then the book description on the jacket flap will likely reveal it. Always encourage teens to read these descriptions and make their own decision about reading the book. Finally, make sure that teens understand that they should quit reading any book that doesn’t appeal to them, regardless of the reason.

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