What’s a librarian to do when a patron adores certain genres, but his or her parent wants to restrict the child from reading them? There have been several such families in our community—all zealous library users and participants in our book discussion groups. As we’ve worked with them over the years, we’ve tried to maintain the trust of the parents while respecting the rights of their children. It’s often a delicate balancing act!
When L. was younger, his mom could bend him to her will fairly easily, but by the time he was ten he was more resistant to her wishes and more adamant about what he chose to read for pleasure. This was certainly appropriate to his growing maturity, but since his mother asked us to guide his selections we struggled to keep L. engaged as we kept the peace between them. Their conflict hinged on his attraction to graphic novels. L.’s mom didn’t regard graphic novels as “real” or “challenging” reading and the two were at a stalemate. I was able to change her mind by showing her Don Brown’s THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL. “I learned so much from this book, myself!” I exclaimed, turning to pages illustrating the devastating extent of a dust storm in May of 1934. The high quality of Brown’s artwork and his source notes and bibliography convinced her that this was a serious work of nonfiction. Then I introduced them to Matt Phelan’s AROUND THE WORLD, a fascinating triple-biography about people who circumnavigated the globe. Though that was a bit more whimsical than Brown’s book, it still seemed worth reading to L.’s mother (and, more importantly, to L.) and after that, he encountered much less resistance when he selected other books from our graphic novel collection.
M. loves fantasies and action-filled novels. She’s a fan of Riordan, Rowling and Paolini. Her father prefers her to read “The Classics” and “educational books”. One of our librarians has pointed out that many of the ideals M.’s dad wants espoused in his daughter’s reading are also advocated in the very books she enjoys: courage and cooperation as well as self-knowledge and directedness. He was briefly mollified by such assurances, but then the conflicts reemerged. One happy afternoon I was able to find two works of non-fiction that satisfied them both (Deborah Kops’ THE GREAT MOLASSES FLOOD and Sally Walkers’ BLIZZARD OF GLASS) by showing M. the sensational photographs of the disasters while loudly extolling the primary source material the authors had consulted so that her father, who was lurking behind a pillar, could hear.
The differences between our philosophies of book selection were readily apparent when N. registered for our 4th-6th grade book discussions. Unlike two of our other book discussions, this group is for kids only. N.’s mother had to be dissuaded from forcing her way into the room to lecture the group about their reading choices! Though that tested our diplomacy skills, we were able to keep the peace by pointing out that the choices of books for that group’s discussion is at the discretion of the librarian. Though that resulted in several further discussions between N.’s mom and the librarian, at least the rest of the kids were spared the harangue.
It’s different for the group for 5th-7th graders and their parents, who vote on the next month’s book from three titles the librarian introduces. Even before the first meeting, O.’s mother was trying to influence the process. She wrote, “We hope this…discussion group will read from the finest authors and titles carefully chosen by ALA and other trusted organizations.” Later she suggested, “For next month’s select titles, realistic fiction or non-fiction that reinforces values, particularly respect for others and self-introspection (sic) would be ideal.” The librarian who leads this group has pointed out that the democratic process at work with this group is, in itself, a valuable learning experience. She stressed that each group member’s voice and vote was equally important.
Lately, P. has been able to negotiate a compromise with her parents without our intervention. Her mother once told us that P. had “exceeded her quota of fantasy fiction titles over the past three years.” (!) She’s now allowed to take one book she chooses if she also borrows the ones her parents approve. It’s been interesting to witness P.’s increasing skill at justifying her opinions and sticking to her guns. Maybe it’s reading about spunky kids that has given her courage…
We hope that, by encouraging their participation in our book discussions, we are helping children to be able to defend their own tastes in reading. We are pleased to see them gaining confidence in expression and developing effective bargaining skills. And the end is always in sight: in a few more years, they will be grown.
Miriam Lang Budin, ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee