Pat Scales is the 2016 recipient of the ALSC Distinguished Service Award, and we’re thrilled to have her share some memories of her years of working with children, families, librarians, and educators across the country. ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee member Miriam Lang Budin chatted with Pat via email:
Miriam Lang Budin: First of all, congratulations on receiving the 2016 ALSC Distinguished Service Award! What a well-deserved recognition of your many years of dedicated school librarianship, professional leadership, and continuing guidance to those of us in the trenches.
Do you have any funny stories about your work as a champion of intellectual freedom?
Pat Scales: Yes. I helped an elementary school in the late 1980s deal with a parent who complained about William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble because “Sylvester has an out of body experience.” She was, of course, referring to Sylvester turning into a rock. I have used that book in teaching students about the freedom to read. I told them about the complaint about the “pig policemen” in the 1970s, and then I told them about the later complaint. They asked me to explain an out of body experience. I had to say I didn’t know because I had never had one.
One of my favorite stories is the time I was teaching the First Amendment to eighth graders. I told them that My Friend Flicka had been banned in Florida because of the word “bitch” in reference to a female dog. I asked them to name other words that society has turned into slang. A boy on the front row said, “pussy.” The students didn’t hear him and asked me what he said. I turned to the class and said, “John said pussy, and he’s absolutely right.” I then recited ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat.’ Not one student laughed. Later the teacher and I invited the principal to the class to hear the lecture. He was amazed by the students, and said it was one of the best lessons he had ever observed. I turned to him and told him that I was sorry he missed “pussy.” He collapsed on the floor laughing.
MLB: Have you ever been afraid for your safety when working in the field?
PS: No, not ever. There were two incidents that happened when I was at a residential high school for the arts, but they didn’t frighten me.
I served on a panel at ALA about privacy and the Patriot Act. What we didn’t know until later was that some very conservative organizations had planted people in the audience. When I returned home I received some very threatening telephone calls at work. Someone even wrote to our governor complaining about my views. I was called from the governor’s office just to inform me that the governor stood behind me. Security guards escorted me to my car for about a week. I never heard anything more after that week.
A woman appeared in the library one day around 5:00 and began pulling books, marking specific pages with strips of paper, and stacking them on tables. Most were art books that had nude paintings. There were a few graphic novels that she added to the stacks. She quickly fled when I asked her if I could help her. Then I spotted a magazine that had my name on the label. She had circled my name and written “the problem.” I never knew who she was.
MLB: Can you tell us about a satisfying victory?
PS: I worked with a group of citizens in Fayetteville, Arkansas who were fighting a woman who was leading a campaign to get any books that dealt with “sex” out of the school libraries. The group addressed the school board in a kind of town hall meeting, and won their battle. It was wonderful to see a community group rise in support of books, the right to read, and the right to seek information.
I was also an expert witness to the Annie on My Mind censorship trial in Olathe, Kansas. High school students sued the superintendent of schools after he pulled the book from the library shelves. Garden’s book had been in the library for ten years, and there had never been a question until a gay/lesbian group wanted to gift the book to the school library. That made the superintendent nervous, and he dismissed the selection policy and the materials review policy, and banned the book. The students were brilliant, and they won the case.
MLB: Have there been any crushing defeats?
PS: Yes. The Miami-Dade Public Schools removed Vamos a Cuba because they didn’t think it accurately represented life in the Communist country. They cited the cover of the book where a young boy is smiling. “No child would smile under the Castro regime.” There were other complaints: “Only the rich would wear the festival dress.” “The boy pulling the oxen was too clean and neat and didn’t represent hard work.” The Florida ACLU took the case to court, and they called me as an expert witness. We won the case in the federal district court, but the school district appealed. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is very conservative, and they ruled that the school board had not violated anyone’s First Amendment rights. The book was permanently removed.
MLB: Is there an ongoing battle that you feel is especially important?
PS: We still deal with issues related to “labeling” of content in books, and restricting students to books on their “reading level” in school and public libraries. This is extremely troubling, because this restricts young readers’ access to books they want, or information they need. There are documented cases where books have been removed from a library based solely on a Common Sense Media review. This site uses emoticons to label controversial issues in books and media. It’s all taken out of context, and the folks working for them aren’t professionals. There are other websites that label in much the same way.
There have been many censorship cases related to “reading levels.” Parents and teachers want their really “good” readers to read books that have “high reading levels.” Sometimes these books are too mature for the reader. For example, a newspaper in Arizona interviewed me when The Perks of Being a Wallflower was banned in an elementary school in Apache Junction. The school had purchased the book because Accelerated Reader put it on the fourth-grade reading level. This case prompted the State Superintendent to send a letter of “warning” to all school libraries in the state. The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn’t appropriate for fourth-grade, and shouldn’t have been purchased for the elementary school.
No librarian should ever allow any company to determine what they purchase for their library. We have a number of professional review journals to guide us.
MLB: What can we do to help?
PS: Talk the Talk. Walk the Walk. DO NOT succumb to pressure from organizations from the “right” or the “left.” Review your selection policies and make sure they include statements related to “controversial” materials and cultural and historical accuracy. Then stick to your policies.
Encourage state library associations to sponsor programs; enroll in webinars about the issues; write blogs and articles for journals and newsletters; and, sponsor Banned Books Week activities for kids and adults to make them aware of the issues.
Pat’s regular column in School Library Journal, Scales on Censorship, is a valuable resource for reasoned, practical responses to intellectual freedom concerns. Questions can be sent to email@example.com.
Thank you, Pat!