“Mrs. Leu, there are bad words in this book.”
“Mrs. Leu, this book is inappropriate.”
“Mrs. Leu, this book has naughty pictures in it.”
When I began working as a K-6 elementary librarian fifteen years ago, not a week passed without my students bringing me concerns such as these. I work in a part of the country which is universally acknowledged as conservative with a capital “C”. As a new librarian I did not always feel equal to the task of defending our collection without undermining the values my students were taught at home.
After becoming embroiled in a book challenge in our district. I finally took the proactive step of sharing the values of intellectual freedom with my students.
Every September for Banned Books Week I put up a display – always very simple. If you are looking to impress there are no shortage of inspiring ideas. Each year I check our collection against the ALA OIF site for frequently challenged books and be sure to have our copies of challenged titles front and center.
The following are a collection of questions I use to direct the discussion:
First, lay the groundwork:
- Does anyone know what these books have in common?
- What is a banned book?
- I briefly explain that at some point and in some place, someone had a problem with each of these books and felt like they should not be in a classroom or in a public or school library. Sometimes it was removed; most often it was not.
- Have you read any of these books?
- Any guesses as to why you think someone might have wanted them removed from a library or school?
- I acknowledge that many of the books might not be right for some of the children in our school. I may admit that I am not crazy about a few of them. I let them tell me which of books they love and allow them to express their outrage at the thought of not having access to them.
Next, a little logic:
- Do you have someone in your life that helps you make decisions about what books you read? (“Yes Steve, PARENTS is the #1 answer.”)
- Is it okay if Jaden’s mom helps him choose the books he reads? Is it proper for her to tell him he should not read a book?
- Is it then okay for Jaden’s mom to call up Karlie (I indicate a different student in the class) and tell her she should not read the same book?
Then, the practicality of it all:
- Anyone know how many students we have in our school?
- What ages are they?
- Should we have books in the library for all of them?
- Is every one of our 700 students going to want or be able to read or be comfortable with every book in our library?
- Would it make sense for us to only have books that all 700 students were ready for at the same moment?
Finally, put them in control:
- Have you ever read a book you did not like or that made you uncomfortable?
- What can you do if this happens?
- What are some reasons you might stop reading a book?
- Inappropriate, language, scary, boring: I acknowledge that those are all good reasons to stop reading a book.
- Do you think everyone in your class would find the same book scary? Do you think everyone in your class would find the same words or situations “inappropriate”? Do you think authors sometimes put uncomfortable things in their books to tell the story they need to tell?
- What can you do if you find something that makes you uncomfortable, bored, or angry?
- What strategies do you use to find the books you want to read?
If time allows, I encourage them to share favorite titles with the class. I close by reaffirming that no one should be forced to read any book to which they object. And reinforce that a library needs to have books for all types of readers.
Since including this discussion at the beginning of each year, students rarely, if ever, “police” our collection. In the end it is all about fairness, and kids get that – they really do.
Our guest blogger is DaNae Leu, the school librarian at Snow Horse Elementary School in the Davis School District in Kaysville, Utah. Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC