When a Volunteer Oversteps | Scales on Censorship

Training volunteer parents to hold opinions; requests to create a booklist about overweight adolescents and to remove books about suicide.

1606-Censorship-Chain-books-tnA parent volunteer in my high school library saw a sign in a local used bookstore that said, “Warning to parents about all Ellen Hopkins’s books.” Hopkins is one of the students’ favorite writers, and this parent wants me to remove these books from the library. I even caught her telling a student that she shouldn’t be reading Hopkins’s books. What should I do? This is a multilayered question. First, it’s too bad that the bookstore owners use such “warning” signs. I suspect that a customer complained, and they don’t want to lose business. I would be curious to know whether the books are in the YA or children’s section of the store. But this type of signage is exactly the problem with labeling. The parent probably doesn’t know the books, but someone has called her attention to “troublesome content” and she wants to censor.

Second, tell the parent that Hopkins deals with tough subjects—and teens read her books because they identify with her characters, or they need to understand a world that is completely different from their own. Suggest that she read one of the books, and then engage her in a conversation about it. My bet is that she will realize what a great communicator Hopkins is—and may grow to understand why teens are drawn to her.

Third, remember that parent volunteers need training. They should never judge what students are reading. Caution them that students should expect complete privacy about their reading choices. If volunteers find that they cannot honor these guidelines, then the library isn’t the best fit for them.

Finally, do not remove the Hopkins titles. Share the school’s materials selection policy with the parent, and let her know that she can file a formal challenge if she likes. But the challenge shouldn’t be based on a bookstore’s “warning” sign.

I’m on a committee to select the novels that fifth grade teachers will use during the next school year. A first-year teacher really wants to use Lois Lowry’s A Summer To Die, about a girl who loses her sister to leukemia, because she remembers how much she loved the book when she was a student. I can’t seem to convince her that the novel is better for middle school readers. Ask the teacher how old she was when she read the book. I suspect she was in seventh or eighth grade. Did she borrow the book from the library, or was it a novel studied as a class? Remind her that fifth graders are 10 years old, and she may be expecting them to respond to a novel she read as an adolescent. Some 10-year-olds are emotionally equipped to handle the novel and may read it on their own. Most, however, need to grow up a little. While A Summer To Die is too good to miss, students who are forced to read it too soon will miss the important elements of the novel.

A physical education teacher asked me to develop a bibliography of titles that deal with overweight adolescents. I made suggestions and indicated which titles were in the middle school library. A parent brought the list to me and said that she didn’t want her child to be singled out and labeled “overweight.”

This isn’t a library issue. You provided a service to a teacher who asked for guidance. The parent should go to the teacher if she is unhappy with the way her child has been treated.

A student in another high school in my town took his life in the winter, and my principal wants me to remove any title that deals with suicide. He worries about copycat actions.

That student didn’t take his life because he read a book about suicide. You should tell your principal that most young adult novels that deal with suicide focus on those who have been left behind. Such novels create empathy and sympathy.

EH160114_PatScalesPat Scales is the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and recipient of the 2016 ALSC Distinguished Service Award. You can send your questions or comments on censorship to her at pscales@bellsouth.net.

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