In 2017, a young mother named Michaela Jaros was in the West Chicago (Illinois) Public Library when her three-year-old daughter pulled a picture book from the shelves. The book was This Day in June, by Gayle E. Pitman, a colorfully illustrated poem depicting a Gay Pride parade. SLJ called This Day in June “a great addition to a school or personal library to add diversity in a responsible manner without contributing to stereotypes about LGBT people.” Ms. Jaros did not share SLJ’s opinion, and immediately brought a challenge to the library. What followed was a heated, standing-room-only board meeting at which community members voiced their feelings about whether the book should be removed from the collection. Over 150 people signed up to speak, and the vast majority supported retaining the book. Ultimately, the board voted to retain it. But those who spoke against it had strong feelings.
Michaela felt that the book was neither “family friendly” nor “age-appropriate,” and that in retaining it on the picture-book shelves, the library was interfering with her right to exercise her own discretion in presenting difficult topics to her children. “My trust is lost in the West Chicago Public Library,” she said. Opinions shared by other community members in support of her request to remove the book are summarized here:
• The book is sexual in nature and therefore not appropriate for children.
• By depicting leather jackets, the book promotes sado-masochism.
• The book promotes a “gay agenda.”
• The book’s topic should be presented to children by parents, not by the library.
• The library should be a “safe space” in which children can find books by browsing, without coming across controversial topics.
This Day in June has provoked strong feelings since its publication in 2014. In 2015, the Hood County (Texas) Public Library director, Courtney Kincaid, made the decision to move the book to the adult nonfiction section after a contentious three-hour public hearing. The book has been the subject of various challenges, the most disturbing of which was a video posted on social media in which a resident of Orange City, Iowa, burned the book, which he had checked out from the public library. (Des Moines register archives – video)
I wanted to hear more about how we as children’s librarians might view and respond to these challenges, so I called Kristin Pekoll, Assistant Director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Kristin is on the front lines when challenges occur and she gave me some fascinating insights into this topic. Here are some excerpts from our interview:
Q. How common are book challenges?
A. We get 2-3 challenges a week. Most are for children’s books, and most of the challenges to children’s books are for LGBTQI themes. We are seeing an increase in non-book challenges, things like booklists and programs.
Q. Were you aware of the book before the West Chicago challenge?
A. Oh yes, the book had been challenged before, and I was involved with the Hood County, Texas case. That board is still trying to rewrite collection development policy so that books like This Day in June would not be purchased in the first place. This seems to be a growing trend – attempts to rewrite policy, or take collection development decisions away from librarians, or develop some kind of veto power.
Q. Were you contacted by the library in the West Chicago case?
A. No, I was never contacted by the library. I was contacted by Gayle Pitman, the author, who is a friend. She was made aware of the challenge by a West Chicago resident. It is very common for concerned patrons to contact authors of challenged books directly.
Q. If you had been contacted when this challenge was first brought, might you have been able to intercede before it got to the heated board meeting?
A. I don’t know. Challenges usually start with librarians, then go to the director, then to the board. If libraries follow their policies, books are rarely removed, and stating that fact to Ms. Jaros might have helped.
Q. In the Hood County case, the book was retained, but moved. How do you feel about a book being moved to a new area, as opposed to being removed from circulation?
A. This is a complicated question. It’s easy to say moving a book is limiting access, but collection development is not a black and white issue, nor is censorship. Libraries and communities are living, breathing organisms. When And Tango Makes Three first came out, a lot of libraries put it in their parenting sections. That has changed now, as society has changed. Sometimes the best thing you can do for everyone concerned is to compromise.
Q. In the West Chicago case, the board voted 6-1 to retain the book. If the outcome had been different, and the board had voted to remove the book, would your role in the challenge have changed?
A. There is very little we can do when a community decides to remove a book. We can try to express our opinion, write letters to the editor, for example, but ultimately what has to happen is a lawsuit. Someone from the community has to sue the library board for violation of First Amendment rights. But it’s very hard to find someone who is willing to do that.
Q. After watching the video of the West Chicago hearing, it occurred to me that a book challenge can be quite divisive for a community. Do you ever feel that there should be continuing community conversations even after the fate of the book has been decided?
A. It’s hard. Book challenges are very emotionally heated experiences. They take a toll on everyone involved. Whether further conversation might help is an interesting question.
Thinking about this particular challenge after our conversation, I was struck by the deep concerns on both sides. As a children’s librarian, I want to listen to and respect the feelings of all my patrons. But for me, representing all of the children and families in my community must be of paramount importance. One of the most powerful testimonies in the West Chicago hearing came from a young man named Daniel Lopez, who identified himself as transgender, and a suicide survivor. “Maybe, “ said Daniel, “if I had had this book when I was younger, I wouldn’t have felt like such a freak.” No maybe about it, Daniel. And that’s a powerful argument for fighting to keep reflections of all the diversity in the community – and in the world – on our library shelves.
Mary Michell is a Youth Services Librarian at Skokie Public Library and a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee.
Core competencies addressed:
Advocacy, Knowledge of Client Group, Communication Skills, Knowledge of Materials
Thanks for sharing this informative interview! One small correction–my understanding is that the perpetrator of the Orange City, IA, incident was not actually an Orange City resident.
Thank you, Katelyn. Looking through the Des Moines Register articles again, I do see that it does not identify Mr. Dorr as an Orange City resident. It does, though, identify him as an Iowan. It would be interesting to know more about what led him to this act, and why he chose Orange City. Thanks for clarifying.
Thanks for sharing this encouraging and supportive piece. Challenges are such fraught situations, and as you say emotions run high on both sides. While public discussions are uncomfortable, and may not turn out the way we librarians would like, it is important that our patrons feel heard and that some kind of compromise can be reached until local understanding catches up*. As a school librarian who is intentionally building an inclusive collection, I am especially aware that we must have a clear challenge policy in place, and that we must be proactive in talking to our administrators and board (we are an independent school) about how inclusivity and family decisions about content can coexist–if not peacefully, at least with greater mutual understanding.