Banned Books Week/Freedom to Read Week

It is Banned Books Week again (a.k.a. Freedom to Read Week). I’m going to quote from Rob’s BBW/FtRW post from the Robbins Library blog:

During Banned Books Week, we celebrate the freedom to read. As you can imagine, this is most librarians’ favorite theme week; after all, as our code of ethics states, “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” But you don’t have to be a librarian to enjoy Banned Books Week – all you have to do is read!

(The word “Banned” is in quotation marks in the title of this post because the name “Banned Books Week” is a bit of a misnomer.  First, we celebrate Banned Books Week not because we like or support books being banned – we celebrate to support intellectual freedom and the freedom to read whatever you want.  Second, it’s now much more common for books to be challenged than actually banned, thanks to the efforts of teachers, librarians, and other supporters of the freedom to read.  You can read a bit more about Banned Books Week here (or in our blog archives here) and check out a few lists of books that have been banned or challenged here & here.)

They link to a few of my Banned Books Week posts for the blog from past years, as well as the ALA site. Here are ALA’s infographics for this year:

ALA Censorship by the numbers infographic

2018-bbooks-graphic-2-rev_1-1

There is a difference between a challenge and a ban; there are many more challenges than bans. And just because a book is removed from one library, that doesn’t mean it’s removed from all of them, or unavailable at bookstores or online. But you’ll notice that almost all of these titles are children’s or teen books, and kids don’t always have options beyond their school library (if they’re lucky enough to have a school library and librarian) or their local public library. If a book is removed from those places, it’s effectively unavailable for that kid.

#4 Hate U Give_0

#7 This One Summer_0

It’s easy enough – for many of us pro-intellectual freedom types, at least – to see a story like the recent one from Nashville, Tennessee, where a Catholic school banned the Harry Potter series, and rail against it. Most librarians – and plenty of teachers and parents – believe that while parents do have the right to decide what their own children can and can’t read, they do NOT have the right to decide that a book should be unavailable for everyone.

However, there’s a subtler kind of censorship that I see a lot of, and I’m sure I’ll have moments where I wrestle with myself about this as well: the “is my kid ready for this yet?” question. Parents with eager, advanced readers, especially, see their kids racing through all the chapter books and middle grade novels and into the teen section. They’re concerned that their readers will encounter bad language, violence, sex, drugs (maybe even rock ‘n’ roll), etc.

So far, I’ve developed four responses to this: one, of course, is to talk with the parent (and the kid!) about the books they’ve liked, and suggest any others I can think of or find along those same lines, without going into more mature territory. Two is to suggest to the parent that they read the book too (either before the kid does, or at the same time, or after), so they’re prepared to talk about anything that concerns either of them. Three, if a kid is reading way above their age level (content-wise), they will likely either put the book down, or some things will just sail over their heads; they’ll take something away from the book, but they won’t understand it on every level, and that’s okay. Four, books are the safest places to encounter scary things. Plenty of fantasy and sci-fi scenarios won’t happen in real life (probably, hopefully), but realistic fiction that deals with death, divorce, poverty, bullying, mental health issues, violence, sexual assault, and any of the multitude of things that can and do go wrong in our world…those things happen. If they don’t happen to you, then knowing about them can build empathy for others; if they do happen to you, you know you’re not alone.

A final note: one other way that adults censor kids’ reading is by designating “girl books” and “boy books.” Here, I’m going to turn it over to author Shannon Hale:

Stories make us human. We form bonds by swapping personal stories with others, and reading fiction is a deeply immersive exercise in empathy.

So, what happens to a culture that encourages girls to read books about boys but shoos boys away from reading books about girls?

Read the rest of Hale’s article here: “What are we teaching boys when we discourage them from reading books about girls?” The Washington Post, October 10, 2018

Happy Freedom to Read Week, everyone!

Data collection on banned and challenged books

You know when you are talking with someone and suddenly you wonder, “Wait, how did we get on this subject?” I like to be able to trace back to the original subject, as a kind of memory exercise. When the “conversation” isn’t with a person but is just you clicking from link to link on the Internet, the trail is a little easier to follow, thanks to tabs and the browser’s back button. Here was my path this morning:

All of the above links are worth reading, so I’ll only offer a very brief summary, and a few thoughts. The author of the 538 article, David Goldenberg, expressed frustration that (a) the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) would not hand over the raw data they collect on book challenges, and that (b) the quality of the data presented on the ALA’s site was not particularly granular or detailed and may not be statistically valid. For instance, a “challenge” might be a request to move a book from the children’s collection to the teen or adult collection, or it may be a demand that all copies of a book be removed from an entire library system. There’s a big difference between those two challenges.

In his reply to the 538 piece, Andy Woodworth delves into some of the issues behind challenge reporting and data collection. He writes that students in library school don’t learn they have an obligation to report challenges, that there may be external pressures not to report challenges, and that librarians simply may not know to report challenges. If they do report a challenge, though, there are more problems with the ALA-OIF itself: the amount of information required in the online challenge form is minimal, and the OIF does not have the budget or staff to chase down details or outcomes from the challenges that are reported. (The challenge form is also available as a PDF that can be printed, filled out, and faxed to the OIF. It’s certainly possible to find an e-mail address for someone at the OIF, but shouldn’t this be included as an option on the form?)

While I was in library school, I learned about the ALA’s Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources, a form that can be adapted by any library and kept on hand in case of challenges. At both of the public libraries where I’ve worked, we have had this form ready to hand (though in my experience, challenges are exceedingly rare, at least at the adult reference desk; this is borne out by the ALA data – and many media reports – that show more challenges happen in school libraries than in public ones).

Should someone come to the reference desk with a challenge, I would be prepared with the reconsideration form. But what the form lacks, I noticed after reading Andy’s piece, is anything about reporting the challenge to the OIF. (On Twitter, Andy said he wrote it into the reconsideration policy at his library that “we reserve discretion to report challenges to the OIF.”) I don’t think it would hurt for library patrons to be aware of that, and it would remind library staff to take the extra step to report challenges when they do occur.

The granularity of the reporting, as Andy, David, and Jessamyn all pointed out, still leaves something to be desired. Every September, I put together a Banned Books Week display in the library and write about banned/challenged books and the freedom to read on the library blog. Every year, I’m frustrated by the ALA website, which, despite a redesign within the past five years, does not adhere to many of the web conventions and usability guidelines outlined in Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (about which more soon). The information architecture is convoluted and fragmented – there’s information on the ALA main site and a separate Banned Books Week website – the presentation isn’t as clear and attractive as it could be, and despite the existence of both sites, neither usually has the quality of data I want to present to our library patrons.

Both of these problems – the information itself and the organization of information – are especially vexing because information and organization is what we do. Furthermore, intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession; Article II of the ALA Code of Ethics is “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” We need to do better, and it shouldn’t be that hard. We need to:

  • Raise awareness among library staff that reporting challenges is important and that there are ways to do it confidentially.
  • Collect more detailed data when possible and present it in as granular a fashion as possible, noting if necessary that not all reported challenges include the same level of detail.

It’s not rocket science. What are we waiting for?

Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?

The Pleasure of Picture Books (and Reading Magic by Mem Fox)

readingmagicI’ve been on a picture book kick recently, starting with the indescribably adorable Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid, which I read about in a review from Kirkus. The children’s librarians at my library were happy to provide me with more contemporary picture books, and then I started revisiting old favorites.

Along the way, I read Australian author Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. As a librarian, and as someone whose parents read her stories every night, I’m already sold on the reading-to-kids idea, but Fox emphasizes how important it truly is.

Among all the anecdotes and tips for reading aloud, I came across this quote on page 142, which struck me as perfect for Banned Books week. But Banned Books Week is in September, and I didn’t want to wait to share:

“The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”

Books are a safe place to encounter new ideas and situations, and think (or talk) through them. Experiencing something vicariously or hypothetically is often safer than having that experience oneself. Though “difficult topics” may be uncomfortable for some, books are an excellent “vehicle for true learning and understanding.” (For more on this topic, see “Censorship and Invisibility,” one of my Banned Book Week blog posts from last fall.)

Picture books naturally lend themselves to discussion. For those of us who tend to focus on the text, they are also a good reminder that reading an image requires another type of literacy. In a good picture book, the text and the image complement each other; the pictures aren’t just a representation of the text, they can contain more information – and often jokes. It’s worth taking a bit of extra time to look at the pictures on each page closely, not just because they are colorful or cute, but because there is more going on. (Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann is an excellent example of this.)

oliveralligatorcoverHere are a few of my favorite picture books, old and new. I keep a current list, tagged “children’s” in LibraryThing.

Sometimes I Forget You’re A Robot by Sam Brown, 2013

Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner, 2013

Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid (also, A Pet for Petunia), 2011, 2013

A Kiss Like This by Mary Murphy, 2012

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (also, This Is Not My Hat), 2011, 2012

13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman, 2010

Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett, 2007

Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh, 1992

Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes, 1990

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz, 1972

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham (also, Harry by the Sea and No Roses for Harry), 1956-1965

What are your favorite picture books from childhood? When was the last time you read a picture book, quietly to yourself or out loud?

Censorship and Invisibility

Barbara Jones, the president of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), has written an excellent piece over at the Huffington Post. Here’s a short excerpt, but I encourage you to read the whole article:

“I am deeply concerned about the current deluge of removals of classic books from the American literary canon. I thought that, as a society, we had reached a consensus that the literary canon should represent diverse segments of U.S. society. Multicultural literary works are not being included because of some need for “political correctness.” They are included because they are excellent and have been acknowledged as such by countless awards for literary merit. Though books that deal with controversial topics may make some readers uncomfortable, such literature offers a vehicle for true learning and understanding.”

(Emphasis added.)

readbannedbooks2013As Rebecca points out in another great article on the Robbins Library blog (“Freedom to Choose”), “There’s great value in discussion, and books are, by far, the safest route into many of these discussions.” With a few exceptions, the books that get people up in arms are novels, not nonfiction. This only proves that fiction is powerful; that it engages readers’ imagination and empathy, allowing them to experience a time, place, culture, or situation that they might not otherwise be exposed to – or, if they are exposed to it, they may be unprepared.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the power and importance of fiction (“The Gleam in the Dark”), citing “Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul from The New York Times and “Why Fiction is Good for You” by Jonathan Gottschall from the Boston Globe. Those pieces are worth a re-read now, during Banned Books Week, to remind us all about the value of stepping into someone else’s shoes, and the magical power fiction has to let us do that.

booksthisishowtheywork

 

“Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes ‘appropriate content’”

There is lots of great Banned Books Week-related stuff on Twitter this week (#BannedBooksWeek), and today’s Library Link of the Day was an NPR segment from Tell Me More called “Could banning books actually encourage more readers?” (Answer: we hope so!) My favorite find via Twitter (so far, at least) is this post from Shoshana at the Brookline Booksmith. It was a good reminder that librarians aren’t the only ones fighting for intellectual freedom and defending everyone’s right to read; publishers and booksellers are in it with us. 

Shoshana wrote, “Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes ‘appropriate content.’ I’ve talked with a lot of parents about what’s right and what’s not right for their kids to read. Some parents want to avoid anything “scary.” Others ask about the The Hunger Games and relax as soon as they learn that although it’s about teenagers being forced to fight to the death, it doesn’t have any sexual content….What I love about the customers in our kids’ section, though, is that the question is pretty much always what’s appropriate for the particular kid in question, not what should be published or be on our shelves….People around here seem to get that what’s all wrong for one reader might be just right for another; even siblings have different levels of scariness tolerance or ability to understand difficult topics.”

She makes a great point: what is “appropriate” for one reader may not be appropriate for another (this is one of the reasons that putting ratings on books is a terrible idea). This is part of readers’ advisory, and it’s a great skill – as a bookseller or a librarian – to be able to talk with parents about what their kids are ready to read (or to talk directly with kids; I know an eight-year-old who didn’t feel ready to read Harry Potter when he was seven, but feels like he might be ready now).

Remember: Every reader his/her book, and every book its reader.