“Should I send home a permission slip for this book?”

August 19, 2009

YOU, the certified school library media specialist (SLMS), are the intellectual freedom expert in your school.  So, one day a teacher comes to you and says, “There’s a book I want to use in my class, but it’s potentially controversial*.  Should I send a permission slip home with my students?”

It may seem, on the surface, like a simple and reasonable idea, but there are some serious issues imbedded in that little question …

The First Amendment Issue

Let’s start with the broadest issue: requiring parental permission for students to read a book.  In Counts v. Cedarville School District, 295 F.Supp.2d 996 (W.D. Ark. 2003), parents sued their school because they began requiring written parental permission in order for students to access the Harry Potter books.  The U.S. District Court Judge in the case ruled that requiring written parental permission to access the books stigmatized the books and created a “chilling effect” which violated students’ First Amendment right to read and receive information.  Yikes!

Informing Parents vs. Requesting Parent Permission

There is a huge difference between informing parents about what we are doing in school—what topics we’re covering or what books we’re reading—and asking parent permission to cover certain topics or read certain books.  When we inform parents, we are behaving as professionals; remember, we are trained in both our content areas and in human growth and development to determine what is developmentally appropriate and pedagogically sound.  When we ask parent permission—to cover certain content or read certain books—we give up that professionalism.   Requesting parent permission should be reserved for those special activities that are not part of the typical school day, e.g. field trips and after school athletics; that require contractual agreements, e.g. Acceptable Use Policy; or that involve student privacy or other rights, e.g. publishing student work or photos.  Parents expect us to be professionals, teachers who do our jobs delivering curriculum in an age appropriate and pedagogically sound manner. 

Parental Rights & Responsibilities

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) affords parents the right to “inspect, upon request, any instructional material used as part of the educational curriculum for students”.  Parents also have the right to request reconsideration of instructional materials.  In both of these cases, it is the responsibility of the parents to request to inspect instructional materials or to file the complaint requesting reconsideration of instructional materials.  It is not the responsibility of the teacher to seek out parental permission for using certain instructional materials.

So, here’s how I would answer the teacher’s question …

“There is no law or policy that requires you to get parental permission to use a certain book as part of your curriculum, but I think it’s a great idea to inform parents about what activities you’re planning, what books you’ll be reading, etc.”

“If you’re concerned about some aspect of the book, though, let’s prepare a Book Rationale.  It might help you rest easier. Even though you probably won’t need it, it will help you clarify why—the age appropriateness, the pedagogical reasoning, the professional recommendations—you chose that particular book.  And I’d be happy to help you prepare that Book Rationale …”

Ta-da! You’ve just made a friend!

Enjoy the start of a new school year.

(* Every book is potentially controversial…)

Advertisements

Defending Holes by Louis Sachar

August 6, 2009

One of my favorite books to defend is Holes by Louis Sachar.

In my six years as Intellectual Freedom Chair for the Maine Association of School Libraries (MASL), I have found myself twice in the position of having to defend Holes as quality literature for young people and it is such an easy book to defend against this charge, having won three of the major youth literature awards for the year it was published (i.e. National Book Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and the Newbery Medal), not to mention the 1999-2000 Maine Student Book Award.  Holes is one of those rare books that is both appreciated and honored by adults and loved by young people.

In January 2004, a parent objected to Holes being read aloud to a fourth grade class at the C.K. Burns School in Saco.  The complaint had to do with the book’s morality, i.e. that the book was more violent than the movie and that the book was not quality literature.

In March 2009, a family challenged Holes as a read aloud in a fifth grade class at Connors Emerson School in Bar Harbor.  Again, the parents thought the book was inappropriate for fifth graders and was not quality literature.

Below is the Book Rationale that I prepared for (the more recent challenge to) Holes:

Book Rationale for Holes by Louis Sacharimages-1

Prepared by Kelley McDaniel

Intellectual Freedom Chair

Maine Association of School Libraries (MASL)

March 3, 2009 

Title: Holes

Author: Louis Sachar

Publisher: FSG / Frances Foster Books

Date: 1998

Location: Connors Emerson School, Bar Harbor

Use: read aloud in fifth grade class to be followed by watching the movie, based on the book

Complaint
Parents do not think that book is appropriate for fifth grade class read aloud

Summary (from the publisher)

Stanley Yelnat’s family has a history of bad luck, so he isn’t too surprised when a miscarriage of justice sends him to a boys’ juvenile detention center, Camp Green Lake. There is no lake – it has been dry for over a hundred years – and it’s hardly a camp. As punishment, the boys must each dig a hole a day, five feet deep, five feet across, in the hard earth of the dried-up lake bed. The warden claims that this pointless labor builds character, but she is really using the boys to dig for loot buried by the Wild West outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow. The story of Kissin’ Kate, and of a curse put on Stanley’s great-great-grandfather by a one-legged gypsy, weaves a narrative puzzle that tangles and untangles, until it becomes clear that the hand of fate has been at work in the lives of the characters – and their forebears – for generations.

Honors & Awards

1998 School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

1999 ALA/ALSC Notable Books for Children

1999 ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults

1999 ALA/YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers

1999 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction – acceptance speech included 

1998 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature acceptance speech included

1999 Newbery Medal for Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Childrenacceptance speech included

1999 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

1999-2000 Maine Student Book Award Winner

Fanfare: The Horn Book Honor List Selected from the Books of 1998

Instructor Best Books of the 90s

Reviews –  included

Book Report, May/une 1999.  pp.66-67 – highly recommended

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, September 1998.  p.29

Cricket Readers Recommend.  Cricket, July 2003.  p.16

Horn Book, September/October 1998.  pp.593-594 – starred review

New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1998.  p.52

Publishers Weekly, July 27, 1998.  p.78. – starred review

 School Library Journal, September 1998.  p.210. – starred review

Alternative Readings

The following books are similar to Holes in that the stories involve a young person (or young people) who have adventures through which they encounter unusually quirky characters and that lead to the redemption of self (selves) and the rescue or salvation of others, i.e. friends, family, society.  All of the books listed below have been adapted into feature-length films.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (The movie is titled The Seeker.)

On his eleventh birthday Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones, destined to seek the six magical Signs that will enable the Old Ones to triumph over the evil forces of the Dark.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Rescued from the outrageous neglect of his aunt and uncle, a young boy with a great destiny proves his worth while attending Hogwarts School for Wizards and Witches

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Four English school children find their way through the back of a wardrobe into the magic land of Narnia and assist Aslan, the golden lion, to triumph over the White Witch who has cursed the land with eternal winter

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

The first three books in the series–The Bad BeginningThe Reptile Room and The Wide Window–begin to chronicle the catastrophes and misfortunes of the resourceful Baudelaire children, as they become wealthy orphans and must elude a distant relative, the greedy and dastardly Count Olaf.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony diTerlizzi

The moment the Grace family moves into the dilapidated Spiderwick Estate, strange things begin to happen. Jared, a curious, adventurous boy, quickly seeks out and finds the hidden laboratory of his great great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. He unleashes a mysterious force when he locates a field guide full of the secrets of the magical creatures that inhabit the forest surrounding the mansion.  Based on the five-book series.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

In both cases, the challenges were handled informally, through personal correspondence with the complainants.

Book Rationale: Running with Scissors

August 6, 2009

Below is a Book Rationale for Running with Scissors, the memoir  by Augusten Burroughs.  I prepared this when I was contacted by a Middle/High School librarian about a potential challenge to the book …

Book Rationale

Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

Prepared by Kelley McDaniel

Maine Association of School Libraries (MASL) Intellectual Freedom Chair

May 2009

Title: Running with Scissors: A Memoir images-1

Author: Augusten Burroughs

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Copyright Date: 2002

Location: Material is located in the school library, which serves grade 6-12 and is available to be borrowed by any member of the school community

Objection: Parent thinks book is inappropriate for sixth graders.

Summary: “Running With Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. So at the age of twelve, Burroughs found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor’s bizarre family, and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year-round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull, an electroshock therapy machine could provide entertainment. The funny, harrowing, and bestselling account of an ordinary boy’s survival under the most extraordinary circumstances…” – http://us.macmillan.com/runningwithscissors

 

Awards & Honors:

New York Times Best Seller List  – 150 weeks

Publishers Weekly Paperback/Trade Best Seller List – 34 weeks as of 2/19/07

 

Reviews:

1. Running with Scissors.  Burroughs, Augusten (author).  Booklist. July 2002. 288p. St. Martin’s, hardcover, $23.95 (0-312-28370-9). 818.  First published June 1, 2002.


2. “Saturday Review: She is walking through the kitchen…: Ian Sansom is not wholly convinced by a tale of dysfunctional American family life.” Ian Sansom. The Guardian. London (UK): Feb 15, 2003. p. 15


3. “Childhood in Wackiland, Painful but Outrageous” [Review]  Janet Maslin. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Jun 20, 2002. pg. E.9


4. “Take my family, please: Two memoirs explore the mysteries of childhood in the 1970’s

Virginia Heffernan. New York Times Book Review. New York: Jul 14, 2002. p. 7 (1 page)


5. “A Childhood So Strange, He Had to Turn It Into Satire” [Book Review]  Merle Rubin. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Jul 22, 2002. pg. E.3 [HOME EDITION]


6. “Review: Books: Did Golda Meir deserve this?: Welcome to dysfunctional America, toothpaste sandwiches and all”  Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs Atlantic Books pounds 14.99, pp320.  Rachel Cooke. The Observer. London (UK): Feb 23, 2003. pg. 17


7. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS (Book).  Preview  By: Zaleski, Jeff; Gold, Sarah F.; Rotella, Mark; Andriani, Lynn. Publishers Weekly, 6/3/2002, Vol. 249 Issue 22, p77, 2p.


8. “Book reviews: Running with scissors: Don’t try this at home … growing up in the psychiatrist’s asylum” John McTernan. Scotland on Sunday. Edinburgh (UK): Feb 9, 2003. p. 6  [REVIEW Edition]


9. “When life gets too real, retire to the tub – privately” Craig Wilson. USA Today.  McLean, Va.: Aug 14, 2002. p. D.01 [FINAL Edition]

See Also …

Made into a feature length film released in 2006 …

“I write everything fully expecting to some day end up on Court TV, and I’m fully prepared to be challenged legally. Everything I write is the truth and I know that I would win. I’ve got journals–I mean, I was walking around with a tape recorder, basically, throughout my childhood. So… go ahead, challenge that one line, you know? Some things, you do have to creatively recreate, and that’s fine, but I like to know the essence of it is true.” –AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS’S RESPONSE WHEN ASKED ABOUT THE VERACITY OF Running with Scissors, WHICH IS UP TO A WHOPPING 2.4 MILLION COPIES IN PRINT. (PW, 2/19/07)

The producers of the movie and the author were threatened with a lawsuit by the Turcotte family for defamation.  Both suits were settled …

 “Family settles with Sony over `Scissors’; suit against author remains” [1 Edition]  David Mehegan. Boston Globe. Boston, Mass.: Oct 18, 2006. pg. D.2

 

“Scissors Author Settles Suit” [Brief]  Lawrence Van Gelder. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Aug 31, 2007. pg. E.2

 

Why this book may have value in a secondary school library …

  • Although the book was written for and marketed to an adult audience, it is a coming-of age story about a young adolescent–which is subject matter appropriate for and relevant to young adults.
  • Books that have been made into movies often have special appeal, and the book (upon which the movie is based) is frequently requested after someone watches the movie.
  • Studying and writing memoirs are often curricular activities in English Language Arts classes.  Running with Scissors is a memoir that offers the unique perspective of growing up with a dysfunctional family. 
  • The fact that the author of this memoir was sued for defamation—and the resulting settlement—raise an important issue in memoir writing and provide a unique opportunity to discuss libel, slander and defamation.
  • This memoir deals with some difficult issues (coming to terms with one’s sexuality, sexual abuse, growing up with a dysfunctional family) that are still relevant for young people today.

Remarks about “Objectionable Content”

August 6, 2009

The following was originally posted on the MELIBS listserv by Kelley McDaniel <mcdank@portlandschools.org> on Sun, 17 May 2009 14:27:32 under the subject: Remarks about “objectionable content”

 

I was attending the Comic Arts Festival at Ocean Gateway this morning and heard a talk for librarians and teachers by Peter Gutierrez. His talk was good, but there was one thing that he said that bothered me.

I feel the need to say my piece regarding his comment, so I am using the MELIBS forum to do that—I am also cc-ing Peter my remarks.

Peter’s comment was in reference to the Marvel Adventures line of comics; Peter said, “These contain no objectionable content.”

My intellectual freedom fighter ears perked up. What does that mean, “contains no objectionable content”?

TANGENT: Last fall I attended the YALSA YA Lit Symposium in Nashville and the issue of age ratings on manga comics came up. There was, on the part of the panelists universal agreement that these were a good thing. Later, a National Board Certified school librarian referenced Tokyopop’s age ratings guide as a good thing for librarians to use. I was horrified. This issue—age ratings on books—is a hot debate topic in our profession, not a we-all-agree-this-is-a-good-thing decided issue. The ALA has an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights on Labeling and Rating Systems. This debate is still alive and well and is by no means a done deal. Why was it being presented as a done deal, and a good done deal at that?

Now, back to the story …

My remarks about the “objectionable content” comment are as follows:

1) There is no agreed upon definition of “objectionable content”, so the phrase is meaningless.

Some people think that children should not be exposed to the words for sexual body parts and functions. Is reference to body parts or bodily functions objectionable?

Some people think that depicting same sex couples is “objectionable” for children. Are homosexual people objectionable?

Some people think that showing children depictions of male and female characters in gender stereotyped clothing is objectionable. Are gender stereotypes objectionable?

So what does it mean to say that something “contains no objectionable content”? As my thirteen year old son says, “The only thing that contains no objectionable content is a blank page.”

If the creators of the work say that the work contains no profanity, or no violence, or no sexuality, then that may have some meaning. *Although I would caution that someone may bring the material back to the creator and point out something profane (‘In our family “darn” is not allowed as we consider it too close to its profane counterpart.’) or violent (“In this story, two children were arguing and the argument was not resolved in the context of the story.”) or sexual (“In our religion boys and girls are not allowed to touch, and in the story boys and girls touch each other …”).

This leads to my second remark:

2) Talking about literature as containing or not containing “objectionable content” is looking at literature with a censor’s eyes rather than with an intellectual freedom advocate’s eyes. We can look at a work of literature (or music or film or video game) by searching it for flaws, things we don’t like—“objectionable content”; or we can look at a work of literature (etc.) as a whole and complete thing.

Making a big deal about a literary or artistic work having “no objectionable content” invites—no it actually encourages us to look at literary and artistic works through that lens, the lens of a censor.

This is already a problem that teachers and librarians have. We preview material looking for “objectionable content” when we should be considering the work as a whole. We choose not to read a book or show a movie in a class because of a “potentially objectionable” scene.

We should be asking ourselves, “Is there any educationally or pedagogically sound reason to have and use this material?”; but instead we find ourselves asking, “Is there any reason that this work might (might!?) be considered objectionable?”

I think that, as professionals, we need not only to talk about censorship, but to talk about how we talk about censorship, i.e. engage in meta-conversations. I am frustrated with careless use of language contributing to the problem of teachers and librarians thinking like censors.

A Personal Story about a “Controversial” Book

August 6, 2009

The following was originally posted on the MELIBS listserv by Kelley McDaniel <mcdank@portlandschools.org> on Fri, 5 Dec 2008 21:49:51 under the subject: A personal story about a “controversial” book.

I wanted to share a personal story about how I handled a situation involving a student and a “controversial” YA novel …

I work in an urban middle school library. Last month, before I went to the YA Literature Symposium in Nashville, I was approached by a student–a young man I’ll call Jay.

Jay held up the book Tyrell by Coe Booth and said, “I just read this book for the second or third time. This is my favorite book. Do you have anything else like it?”

I said that the author had a new book out, but that I knew nothing about it. I also said that I was going to a conference later in the week where the author, Coe Booth, would be speaking and that I would try to get an autographed book for him.

“Get the new one,” he said.

I was able to get a galley of “the new book”. I told the author about my student and asked her to sign it to Jay, which she did.

51z5GYcMGVL._SL500_AA240_

The following day, I attended a panel discussion about “controversial” new YA titles and, of course, Kendra (Coe Booth’s new book) was featured.

I thought about what I was going to say to Jay when I gave him the book.

I saw Jay a few days after I returned. I asked him to come into my office and I held up the Kendra galley. “I told Coe Booth about you. I told her how much you loved Tyrell and look what she wrote … ‘Jay, I hope you like Kendra as much as you liked Tyrell.’” His eyes were huge. “I want to talk to you about the book a little first though.” I explained. “You know how there’s a lot of profanity—swearing–in Tyrell?”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t bother me.”

“I figured. Well, you know how there’s also some sexual language, the way Tyrell talks about Novisha and Jasmine. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, the sexuality in Kendra is more graphic and explicit than in Tyrell. Kendra is pressured to have sex by her boyfriend and I want to make sure that you have an adult that you can talk to if you have questions or if something bothers you. You are always welcome to come in and talk to me; you can ask me anything. But, I’d like you to think of an adult, a relative or family friend, that you would feel comfortable talking to. Can you think of someone?”

Jay paused and considered, “My sister-in-law,” he announced, “I can talk to her about anything.”

“Great. Your sister-in-law can also help you understand the female point-of-view. Pressuring someone to do something that they don’t want to do is very serious. It’s an important thing to think and talk about. And remember that if you read something that doesn’t make sense to you or that bothers you or makes you uncomfortable, you can always put the book down, skip that part, or talk with your sister-in-law about it, okay?”

“Right.”

“When you’re done the book, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. Oh, and one more thing …”

“What?”

“Tyrell has a cameo in Kendra, but I’m not gonna tell you where.”

Jay read the book over the past month, and every few days, he came by and told me where he was in the story.

He finished the book this week and when I saw him this afternoon he said he liked that Kendra ended happier than Tyrell. I asked him if he thought that the happier ending was less realistic; he shook his head, “No, I like happy endings. Everyone deserves a happy ending, not sadness.  You know, I wanna be a DJ like Tyrell.”

“I’m sure you will. Hey, next week, come by and see me and we can write an e-mail to Coe Booth so you can tell her what you thought of Kendra.”

“Really? Do you think she’ll write back?”

“Maybe. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you, one of her hard core fans …”

Book Challenge: Deogratias

August 6, 2009

The following was originally posted on the MELIBS listserv by Kelley McDaniel <mcdank@portlandschools.org> on Mon, 28 Jan 2008 20:11:23  under the subject: Book Challenge.

Close to the time that I was wrapping up my fall at King Middle School, a student asked me to remove a graphic novel from the library.  After a long conversation, the student asked to make a formal complaint about the book and I supplied the appropriate forms. 

The student said, “I could name three or four other students in my house who would be offended by that book.” 

I replied, “None of those students that you name would be forced to read it.  If you don’t like the book, don’t read it.  I would only have to think of one current or future student who might benefit from access to the book, in order to justify its being here.”

The student’s complaint was racist language and violence, citing a specific illustration on one page.

I felt very badly about having to hand this intellectual freedom issue off to the librarian who came in to replace me while I was on sabbatical.

The issue is still in process and I have been thinking about it a lot lately.

I can only hope that the complainant in this case puts as much energy toward fighting racism and violence and ending genocide in real life, as s/he has put into trying to censor the depiction of racism, violence and genocide in this work of fiction.

I did collect book reviews and write up a Book Rationale, which I have included below.

——————————————————-

deogratiasABook Rationale for Deogratias by J.P. Stassen

prepared by Kelley McDaniel, Librarian, King Middle School

December 2007

Location: King Middle School Library

Use: free and open access; used in conjunction with studies of graphic novels, genocides, Africa, Rwanda and Paul Rusesabagina

Possible Complaints: profanity, violence (including sexual violence), racist language, genocide, inappropriate subject matter for young people

Description: This graphic novel originally published in French, in Belgium, paints an emotional picture of life in Rwanda leading up to, during, and immediately following the Rwandan genocide.  The story is told, through flashbacks, from the point-of-view of a Hutu young man, who struggles to retain his own humanity while witnessing and finally, participating in the atrocities.

This book was given to me by the publisher at an ALA Conference.  I read the book and thought that it had value in the KMS library for a number of reasons:

1)     we have students from Rwanda and we have the responsibility to represent them, their history, and their experiences in the literature that we provide;

2)     our Rwandan students’ classmates and peers who want to know about and understand the Rwandan genocide deserve access to such resources;

3)     the KMS library has books, including graphic novels and literature with graphic descriptions of horrific acts of violence, about other genocides, including Apartheid, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian genocide, Pol Pot’s regime, and the genocide in Sudan;

4)     this is one of few books about the Rwandan genocide I have found that is accessible to young people;

5)     although this book is about the Rwandan genocide, it explores issues related to genocide in general, which has been a topic of study here.

I did not put Deogratias immediately into the KMS library collection; I considered it for a year.  In the end, I decided to add it to our collection based on the reasons enumerated above.

Although the book has not circulated extensively, it has been used meaningfully by members of the King Middle School community:

o     Two years ago, Paul Rusesabagina (the hero memorialized in the movie Hotel Rwanda), spoke at USM and that year, as well as the following year, I had requests for books and stories about Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide. 

o     Last year an eighth grade student was doing a project on Paul Rusesabagina and the Rwandan genocide and asked me for anything else I had on the subject.  Among other things, I gave that student Deogratias.

o     This fall, a teacher was taking a course and doing a project on graphic novels. Deogratias was one of the graphic novels that I gave to that teacher to use for an in class presentation.

Deogratias is for mature and sophisticated readers, but we do have students who can understand its content and appreciate its artistic and literary merits.

I do not question or argue with the fact that a student complained, or that the student was upset and offended by the book; as a matter of fact, I apologized for the offense that was experienced. 

I take issue with the student’s request that since that student was offended by the book, no current or future King Middle School student should be allowed access to it. 

No KMS student is forced to read a particular library book.  The KMS library advocates choice when it comes to student reading. 

Each year, in preparation for Summer Reading, I explain that there is no book in our library or on the reading list that is appropriate for everyone, but, “every book is appropriate for someone.” As a way of explaining intellectual freedom to students, I frequently use the example that I do not like hate language and am offended by it. 

“What if I borrow a book from the library and I find that it contains racist language?  What can I do?” I ask.

One student always replies, “Stop reading it and return it to the library.”

I also explain, “I like to know what you don’t like (and why), as it helps me help you find books you will like. But,” I say, “No one person has the right to say, ‘Because I don’t like it, YOU can’t read it.’   That right – the freedom to read – is up to each individual reader.  And I’m here to defend that right for you.”

Diffusing an Angry Parent

August 6, 2009

The following was originally posted by Kelley McDaniel <mcdank@portlandschools.org> on the MELIBS listserv, Fri, 12 Nov 2004 20:00:28 under the subject: Dealing with a Challenge (long) 

ringing_telephone-404

This afternoon, we were showing a movie in the library after school, and I received a strange phone call from the Maine State Library saying that they had received a call from a parent earlier today asking if there was a list of books that are appropriate for schools to have. 

The parent’s child had borrowed a book from school that the parent did not approve of.  The call had been referred to a couple of different people, and it was suggested that the call be referred to me, as the Intellectual Freedom Chair of the Maine Association of School Libraries (MASL).  I was given the parent’s name (Let’s call her Sara.) and her phone number.

I immediately called Sara. She came to the phone and I introduced myself as a librarian and said that I had been called by the State Library because she had called there looking for a list of books that are appropriate for schools.  She told me the story of the book that her daughter had taken out of a classroom library, found very graphic and shared the graphic passages with her mother.  Sara had called the school and left a message for the teacher, saying that she thought the book was inappropriate for middle school; the teacher returned her call the following day and left a message for her, saying that the book was award-winning and perfectly appropriate for middle school.

I thanked Sara for her interest and concern. 

“You’d be surprised how few parents really take such interest in what their children read and take the time to talk with their children about what they read.”

I said, “You are to be commended on the relationship that you have with your daughter, such that when she read something that made her uncomfortable, she immediately told you about it, ‘This made me really uncomfortable.’”

Sara thanked me.

I told her that I had a suggestion.  “Does your daughter’s school have a library?

“Yes,” she replied.

“I was going to suggest that you contact the school librarian and share this story with her and ask her if she’d meet with you and your daughter.  Find out what your daughter’s interests are, what she likes to read.  Learn more about your family and the values that you have. Then the librarian could recommend some books for you and your daughter that your daughter would enjoy and that would support your values as a family.” 

I said, “I LOVE when people come to me with requests like that.  Those are my favorite moments as a librarian.  They give me the chance to get to know the students and their families, and the better I know them, the better able I am to serve them.  I love when I get requests like that.”

Sara said, “That’s a good idea.  I can do that Monday.  I did call the principal after the teacher left the message and the principal said to have my daughter return the book.”  Pause. “What do you think of the book?”

“I’ve read it.  And it’s a book that I have in our middle school library.  One of the things that makes libraries so important in our communities is that we offer a wide range of books.  No book is perfect for everyone and every book is perfect for someone.  That’s why it’s important for librarians to know their communities and the people they serve.  As educators, it’s our job to help connect young people with the right book at the right time.  I’m sure your daughter’s school library has many such books.  Ask the librarian to help connect your daughter with them.”

Sara said, “I don’t want the book to be removed so no one can read it.  I just don’t think it’s appropriate for my daughter.”

I assured her, “That’s called good parenting – knowing your daughter, having the relationship with her that you have, being involved in her growing up and learning.”

I left Sara with my name and phone number and invited her to call me if she had any other concerns, or if I could help her in any way.  She thanked me and I thanked her and we hung up.

I wanted to share this story for a couple of reasons:

1) In my capacity as Intellectual Freedom Chair of MASL, I wanted to model one way of dealing with a challenge.  This method comes directly from the School Library Journal article “How the Mind of a Censor Works” by Dr. Sara Fine from  School Library Journal, January 1996, pp.23-27.

2) When I spoke with Sara, what I heard her saying was NOT, “Why is my daughter being given bad books?” but “I’m scared. My daughter was exposed to something that scared her and scared me.  Is my daughter safe at school?”  The reason I heard this was because I recently had an experience that left me feeling the exact same way.  A security guard in my building told me, “Get your homosexual a** upstairs!  You’re not welcome here!”  Ever since that experience I have felt unsafe in my building and I have been scared for the safety of my own children, especially after my five-year-old daughter asked me, “Is he just mad at you or does he hate us too?”  I wanted – needed – to know that I and my family were safe.  The greatest thing done for me right after that happened was when my colleagues listened to me, heard my fear and comforted me, BEFORE they told me what to go and do about it.  So that’s what I did for Sara.

3) I learned something very important from my conversation with Sara. I listened to her. And she knew that she was being heard.  I didn’t throw in my opinions.  I kept my opinions to myself.  I just listened. What I heard was that Sara and I are more alike than different.  

 

P.S. The book in question was What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones (Simon & Schuster, 2001)