I recently gave a presentation on trends in multicultural children’s literature to a local university class. Afterward, an attendee approached me with a story she wanted to share. She was in the university’s library the previous year and came across a Banned Books Week display, which proudly showcased challenged books and the allegedly insidious qualities they contained. Being a parent of a school-aged child, she was mortified to discover a book from her child’s homework in the display. Assuming that the library’s warning was genuine, she made a series of frantic calls trying to get the book out of her child’s hands, before eventually realizing what the display was actually communicating. She laughed as she related this story, using it as an entryway into talking about representation and access.
There is, however, an element to that story that shouldn’t be overlooked. She shared it with me because she remembers being ready to “ban” a book due to real concern for her child. This experience informed how she has looked at issues of intellectual freedom since. Librarians generally have an instinctual aversion to “materials challenges,” which can lead us down the dangerous road of not taking genuine concerns seriously.
This year’s challenge to Gayle E. Pitman’s This Day in June in a West Chicago library follows a remarkably similar template to other challenges in school and public libraries around the country: a young child happens upon a book with content they have questions about, which is brought to a parent who may have community or political connections, who then rallies parents with similar concerns and initiates a focused effort to have the book moved or taken off the shelf. Regardless of the veracity of a challenge’s details, there is a reason that each seems to start the same way. Genuine challenges begin and end with a parent’s instinct to protect their child, while politically motivated challenges bank on that concern (especially if the challenge can be framed as insensitivity to it).
Either way, each potential book challenge is another opportunity to envision and practice a consistent, fair-minded response, which serves to both assuage the concerns of families in the library’s community and to protect the integrity of the library’s collection. Every library’s collection development policy should list how challenges to materials are handled, and each should be taken seriously and treated with the same care. For help with responding in the moment, be sure to check out ALA’s toolkit for material challenge support.
For an additional perspective, read the account of a community member involved in the West Chicago challenge, who protested in favor of the book but reflected on her own challenge of a book in her daughter’s classroom. These situations are always fraught, and the more we understand how complex the motivations of a book challenge can be, the better we can respond to them in a constructive way.
Justin Azevedo is the Youth Materials Selector for Sacramento Public Library in California, and a member of the ALSC Information Freedom Committee.