Saturday, April 6, 2024

Aftermath of a book challenge

This blog represents my personal views and not those of my employer or of the library as an institution.

To recap, last December a parent challenged over 400 books at the middle and high school libraries. This Book Riot article gives a good overview of the initial events. Because of the policies in place at the time, all the books were removed from the library shelves. In February, the principals of the two schools completed the book review. Some books were moved from the middle school to high school, all books were returned to the shelves, and a number of books were "restricted." In order to access the restricted books, parents had to "opt in" and give their child permission. The school district also sent out a draft of a new policy for challenged materials. The challenge and subsequent events led to a hotly contested School Board election, the end result of which in April was the return of two incumbents and the addition of a new School Board member who had campaigned against the book challenges. For context, like many school districts, the school is facing budget cuts and the fallout of a failed referendum (which was actively opposed by some School Board members at the time).
These are my thoughts on the current aftermath/state of the book challenges, again, I do not speak for the public library (nor for the school district, which I am not employed by in any way).

Speaking not as a representative of any particular institution but speaking as a degreed librarian with over 15 years of experience, there are several things about the decisions made that deeply trouble me and I think might be worth considering.
  • We are fortunate to have experienced, certified school media specialists, as well as resources at the school and public library available, but, as far as I know, they were not consulted or used in reviewing the materials. In one interview [the school superintendent] mentioned that he wished there was a book rating system - well, apart from the current lawsuits ongoing about that exact thing (and the many, many reasons it's problematic) there just happens to be a professional guide to this exact thing -it's called professional review journals. None of which were consulted. Instead, the principals were instructed to use for-profit, crowd-sourced sites, the equivalent of asking a random group of users on Facebook to figure out what's wrong with your car. Maybe some of the advice will be good, maybe it won't, but you don't know where it's coming from!
  • Following on from the use of for-profit, crowd-sourced sites to review books, instead of professional journals and librarians, I have questions about the restriction process. I did not see any explanation of how books were chosen to go on the restricted list. For example, Drama by Raina Telgemeier was restricted at the middle school. This is a frequently challenged and banned book. It is also the recipient of multiple awards, hugely popular with young readers, and recommended for grades 5-8 by School Library Journal. Callie, a middle schooler, is involved with her school's theater production and the story follows all the drama that ensues. A side plot is her crush on a boy she meets, who doesn't return her interest, but eventually realizes he has a crush on another boy in the play. I've attached the TWO panels that people most frequently complain about.

  • The unprofessional and random restriction of books is especially problematic because the restriction process is opt-in, not opt-out. I strongly suspect that many parents will just not bother to fill out the form OR assume that if the school district is restricting books they must necessarily be sexually explicit, which is certainly not the case. Another example of a restricted title is Bomb by Steve Sheinkin, an award-winning nonfiction title of WWII that follows the development of the atomic bomb. Why are students being denied access to well-written, intriguing books about our country's history? I wouldn't expect most adults to be familiar with this title - which is why we have professional librarians!

There are many kids struggling to read, either due to a lack of interest or to struggling with the mechanics, and it's a frequent topic of conversation among librarians, teachers, and parents as to how we can get kids to love reading. Putting barriers in place that they have to surmount to choose award-winning, well-written, popular books is certainly not the way to go about it.

A final issue with restricting certain books, with no clear criteria for said restrictions, is that it sends a devastating message to students who have experienced or are experiencing some of the things included in these books - you are inappropriate, you don't belong here, your experiences are not valid. It leaves them lost and alone, with no windows or mirrors for their experiences. Jarrett Krosoczka wrote a heartfelt letter to those who seek to ban his books and one of the things he says is "There are difficult truths in books for young readers because our young readers are living with those difficult truths."

I don't know what, if anything, can be done about these issues. As I said earlier, it may well be that it's better to move on and focus on the other issues the district is facing. But I think that, at the very least, we should keep these thoughts in the back of our mind as we seek to support the librarians and teachers of the school district and make sure that all students are supported, seen, and offered a strong education and a safe place to explore and grow.

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