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Criticism, Boycotts, Free Speech and Censorship – Oh My

What do Abrams Books, Carve the Mark, The Continent, When We Was Fierce and more have in common? This year they were all challenged for having offensive and harmful representation of marginalized people. Things exploded this weekend for Abrams Books. It’s being discussed all over Twitter and in the news, so I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details. What I want to do, however, is talk about the idea that any or all of these are acts of censorship.

thingsineverlearnedinlibraryschool

First, let me just recap it real quickly for you. Earlier this year, Abrams Books published a “satirical” piece of literature called Bad Little Children’s Books. Kelly Jensen pointed out over at Book Riot that this wasn’t just bad satire, it was flat out racist. Many people read the article and asked, “Holy Crud, how did this even get published?” In particular, marginalized voices stated that not only was this book offensive, but that it was actively harmful to their well being and safety, particularly in the year 2016. They criticized Abrams Books. They stated they were going to boycott the book and the publishing house.

So what did Abrams books do? Well, first they doubled down and said we stand by this book and against censorship. Debbie Reese has a running commentary on this all here, including links to articles and Abrams Books various statements. It’s important to point out, censorship is not actually a part of this story. Then a couple of days later they released a new statement saying man they really hated censorship but were going to be censored so they were pulling the book. (Edited: They are not pulling the book, they are just not doing a second publication run according to Publisher’s Weekly.)

So let’s break this down.

bannedbooks

First of all, citizens and consumers have a right to criticize any art, product, action, etc. This includes calling a book racist and asking the publisher to consider the harm done with the book and yes, asking them to reconsider publishing it. They have the right to call for a boycott. This is how both free speech and the free market economy work. Abrams didn’t have to pull the book, but in the end they VOLUNTARILY chose to respond to those expressing complaint by opting to pull the book. This is not censorship.

In fact, this is no different then the Target corporation releasing a statement saying they support the GLBTQA+ community and Christians calling for a boycott against Target. Or Kellogg’s announcing that they will no longer advertise with Breitbart and the conservative party calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s. They are the exact same principles at work. Neither one of these are censorship. The same principle is at work if someone decides to drive 30 miles to the next town over to buy 8 boxes of Kellogg’s cereal at Target. Not that I know anyone who did that.

Censorship is when the GOVERNMENT tells someone that they can’t speak or publish a book. Or when the GOVERNMENT pulls them out of circulation and burns them. Or when the GOVERNMENT issues fines or imprisonment for saying a thing. See the difference there. Censorship is a very real threat, however. Censorship is when President-Election Trump says we should shut down part of the Internet or more closely control the press or when he – now an elected official – blocks the citizens he is supposed to serve on Twitter because they don’t agree with him. Well, blocking people on Twitter is probably not censorship, but it’s not a good move on the part of an elected official. How can he serve the people if he isn’t even open to hearing from them? That is not what Democracy looks like.

There are exceptions to free speech. Hate speech (Edit: hate crimes) is not a guaranteed right because it puts people in jeopardy and infringes on THEIR human rights. Likewise, calling fire in a theater or bomb in an airport, not covered because they can incite panic and harm.

Some hateful speech is unprotected if it crosses over into conduct — such as the use of a racial slur to threaten or intimidate someone. And hateful speech in the workplace can create a “hostile environment” that the courts have treated as a form of discrimination.- LA Times Opinion Piece on Hate Speech

Sorting out what freedom of speech is, and isn’t | First Amendment

Limits on Free Speech: United States Courts

Schenck v. United States: Defining the limits of free speech

Image at xkcd comics

One is censorship, but what we have seen time and time again this year regarding offensive books is not. It is, I believe, free speech and consumer activism. I’m not entirely sure I didn’t just make up the term consumer activism, but if it’s not a real term I claim copyright. (Edit: Heather Booth assures me consumer activism is a real thing. Darn.)

“One answer is that the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate. Everyone can try to sell his or her ideas to the marketplace and the buyers in the marketplace eventually decide which ideas have value and which do not, which ideas are truthful and which are not. We are all sellers and buyers in this marketplace.” – Know Your Constitution 5: Free Speech and Hate Speech

So let’s add parental rights into the mix, shall we.

In Illinois, a parent is asking for removal of a book for all kids because she objects to its sexual content. This is different. One, she is not imploring the content creator – the author or the publisher – to reconsider their actions or their book. She is asking an already published book by a third party content creator to be removed from access for all people because she objects to it. The problem here is that she is involving an innocent group of people that she has no right to influence or control – in this case other minors that are not her children – in her personal protest. She should direct her issues and concerns with the content creators and ask them to respond, or not, to her concerns. What she doesn’t have the right to do is make those types of decisions about access to available material for children who are not her own. I get to decide for my children, she gets to decide for hers. Though to be honest in reporting, in this case her “child” appears to be 18-years-old, a legal adult who can go see rated R movies and buy porn online.

It seems like splitting hairs, but it’s not. They really and truly are two distinctly different situations.

Book Censorship Toolkit – National Coalition Against Censorship

Abrams could have said nope, we’re going to publish the book any way. And then consumers would decide on an individual basis if they would support it by reading/purchasing it on their own. They, as the content creators, have the right to decide or not whether to respond to direct criticism of their work.

Criticism is not censorship. Boycotts are not censorship. Both are protected free speech. If you as a content creator or publisher voluntarily decide to pull a book because you are receiving intense criticism, that is not censorship, though it is commonly considered a good business practice.

The flip side to all of this is that of course words have meaning. If you are in the writing, publishing, teaching or librarian profession and you don’t believe this, then you are probably in the wrong business. We know from study after study after study that reading can increase intelligence, compassion and stronger world views. So of course representation matters. It matters if we continue to portray people of color as savages in tale after tale; of course that feeds into the cultural narrative that has people chanting build that wall and Muslims are terrorists (For more context, Justina Ireland discusses The Continent, Carve the Mark and the dark skinned savage trope here). We keep telling them this with our art. And that’s why marginalized groups keep speaking out and challenging the tropes and asking us to do better. Words matter.

I will fight with all that I have to stand up against censorship, especially when it comes to having books pulled out of libraries. I feel like that is a professional responsibility. But I also support the rights of individuals to criticize and boycott and call on content creators to write better books. I’m complex that way.

Finally, and perhaps most important, think about how the marketplace of ideas functions: even if hateful ideas are communicated, the theory (hope?) is that counter-speech will emerge to rebut it and to fight it. In other words, more speech rather than less is the remedy. – Know Your Constitution 5: Free Speech and Hate Speech

When readers speak out against what is published and challenge the publishers/creators to cease publication, that’s what they are doing – being the counter-speech trying to fight the hate speech.

Note: This post was edited to fix a couple of typos and to add a couple of clarifying points on 12/07/16, including the two quotes from Know Your Constitituion.

When the censorship comes from within: Reflections on Kate Messner being dis-invited to a school

You may or may not have heard of the controversy surrounding Kate Messner’s book The Seventh Wish. If you haven’t, you can catch up with it on Kate’s blog. You should probably start with this post and work your way back. For those of you on a schedule, however, essentially Kate was uninvited (with less than 24 hours notice) from a long scheduled school visit due to the administration and librarian’s concerns over some of the content of the novel. They felt that the students weren’t adequately prepared to deal with the topic of the effects of drug abuse in a family. Even though the visit had been scheduled since January. And they’d had a copy of the book. And the students had ordered books to be signed and begun reading the book in their classrooms. Maybe you can sense my incredulousness.

Kate, however, has dealt with the situation with grace and understanding. Her response is a textbook example of how to deal with this kind of situation. She’s sought to open a dialog with the school about the situation. She’s posted on her blog about the situation, signal boosting on Twitter. She’s scheduled a visit for the community with the public library and solicited donations to provide free books for those students who are able to attend. And she’s started a conversation in the library community that will hopefully have far reaching effects. In short, she’s done much more than the situation deserved and has given all of us a gift – the gift of awareness and action. And that’s how I want to address the situation with you, fellow librarians and library activists. Because Kate was under no obligation to do any of these things, and she has risked a lot in pursuing them.

I was fortunate enough in my time as a school librarian never to have to deal with an outright material challenge. And in fact, even my least effective administrators always had my back on thbannedbookse subject of censorship. Whether they had been properly educated about the purpose of the school library, or a realistic idea of the interests, needs, and abilities of our students, or simply knew that our school system’s policies were written in such a way as to reinforce students’ rights to access information, I am not sure. They did, I know, simply trust me to purchase the items our students needed to have in the library collection to meet both their leisure reading and informational needs. I know that in that I was fortunate.

I know because a good number of my school library colleagues considered our collection and my collection development style to be ‘edgy.’ I didn’t. I selected materials to meet my students’ needs through appropriate channels, reading reviews, searching for recommended title lists, and personally reviewing items. But I also didn’t shrink from selecting items that were only recommended for 8th grade and up, even though I served 6th through 8th graders. But I know some of my colleagues didn’t have this freedom. Either they had faced difficult material challenges in the past or had been censured by their administration for some items in the school’s collection and they were hesitant to put themselves at risk of this in the future. But in these cases, it is the students who lose out.

It is our responsibility, as librarians, to educate and inform our communities and our administrations about issues surrounding censorship, not to begin to censor our collections from within. If you are looking for a place to start, you needn’t go further than the Library Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, examine your selection procedures and be on the alert for ways in which you are committing ‘soft censorship’ by not selecting needed items in the first place. Decide whether your fear of conflict is more important than meeting your students’ needs. To be honest, librarianship is not a place for the faint of heart.

If you’d like to help the students who are missing out on hearing from Kate by purchasing a copy of The Seventh Wish to be distributed at her public library event, you can do so here.


Karen Storified her thoughts here and here

A blog post I never thought I’d be writing on book … – Kate Messner

Facing the Truth | Kirkus Reviews

When School Administrators Think They Know Best | literacious

An Important Conversation about Elementary Library … – Kate Messner

The Seventh Wish Update: Some good news and a … – Kate Messner

“Stories Will Help You Understand Yourself”: An Interview About Censorship with Kate Messner


About THE SEVENTH WISH

Charlie feels like she’s always coming in last. From her Mom’s new job to her sister’s life at college, everything seems more important than Charlie. Then one day while ice fishing, Charlie makes a discovery that will change everything . . . in the form of a floppy fish offering to grant a wish in exchange for freedom. Charlie can’t believe her luck but soon realizes that this fish has a very odd way of granting wishes as even her best intentions go awry. But when her family faces a challenge bigger than any they’ve ever experienced, Charlie wonders if some things might be too important to risk on a wish fish. (Bloomsbury, June 7th, 2016)

Banned Books Week 2014

If you were to visit the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County (in Ohio) and ask to read their board minutes, you would find my name in there twice. The second time is when I left for a new job and they passed a proclamation in my honor regarding how I had helped to start their YA services program. But the first time . . . well, that was when a patron went all the way to the board to complain about my Banned Books Week display. It was offensive she said because of course we should be censoring books – that’s how we protect our children.

The thing is, I don’t necessarily agree that our children need protecting. I think that they need empowering and equipping. I think that they need the tools to live in this world full of people who are different then them, who think differently then them. That is one of the hallmarks of freedom, intellectual freedom. I think that they need the tools to help them develop empathy and compassion, which is something that story can help us do. Recent research has indicated that reading Harry Potter, for example, makes for very compassionate kids. That’s a good goal.

But more importantly, those very people who want to censor books because they say it is protecting kids, they need to realize that many of our kids are actually living those stories. Those books help give those kids a voice. If we censor their stories, we are sending messages that shame them and keep them silent. But if we read stories of lives that seem almost exactly like theirs – what an empowering moment that can be for them. Story can take that which hides in the dark and shine a light on it.

So when my name appeared in the board minutes at the PLMVKC, you should know that the board made the right call and the Banned Books Week display remained. Because while every librarian supports your right to raise your children as you want, what we don’t support is the right for you to put your personal views and opinions on children that are not your own. One day this summer The Tween came home crying from a friend’s house. You see, she had called and asked if she could watch a movie – a horror movie – and I said no. So instead of choosing another movie, her friends asked her to go sit in the bathroom for an hour or so while they watched it. Instead, she just came home. That’s how this works, I decide for my children and you decide for yours. And that’s why Banned Books Week exists, to remind us all that there are those who would still want to censor books, which is a very bad thing. Because those who control the flow of information can control the world, which is why I – and librarians like me – support intellectual freedom. And intellectual freedom demands that we be willing to allow those books that we might personally find offensive to co-exist with those books that we readily embrace.  Because when we talk about censorship our first question should always be: who gets to be the censor? Chances are it’s not going to be you.

So in honor of our freedom to read, here are some previous Banned Books Week posts at TLT:

A Banned Books Week Primer  

Teen Fiction Is . . . too dark?

Annie On My Mind and On My Banned Books Week Calendar 

The Giver by Lois Lowry – a guest post by Elsa Ouvrard-Prettol  
 

The Harry Potter Series – a guest post by Geri Diorio   

An important Banned Books Week read – The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa 

Considering throwing our your materials challenge form?
 

When the censorship comes from inside the building 
 

An anonymous letter to those who would ban Eleanor and Park

Redefining the 3 R’s for Banned Books Week

This one time, at Banned camp . . . (An adventure of Super Librarian for Banned Books Week)

Dirty Little Library Secrets: We forgot to tell the staff not to ban the books

Amy speaks: Pretty Amy’s censorship uncensored (a guest post by Lisa Burstein)

Banned Books Week Roundup: Read In, Speak Out for Libraries!

“The Gay Characters”

Almost a year ago (February 21, 2012, actually) I reviewed Drama for Teen Librarian Toolbox.  Drama has been named a Stonewall 2013 Honor Book, a 2013 Rainbow Project Top Ten title, and a Great Graphic Novel Top Teen for Teens.

A few days ago, we (Teen Librarian Toolbox) got this comment in response to my review:

I felt this book was inappropriate for my 10 year old who was interested in it until reading about the gay characters. There should have been an indication in the opening or book synopsis that explains what “Drama” the story will be about.-Anonymous

Before we go any further, I would like to point out that the back cover has a very nice explanation of what the “drama” of the story is about without spoiling the entire book: 


Now, if you are concerned about what your 10 year old is reading or your 10 year old is concerned about what they are reading, there are many ways to go about finding out what books are about. Check out websites, review sites (*cough*) like this one, the subject headings in library catalogs, or even flip through the book or read it before your 10 year old does. That way you know if there is something “objectionable” in the reading material.

What you feel is appropriate for your 10 year old is up to you. I am not the parent of your child. You, however, do no get to put indications more than what the publisher chooses to put on the book in order to indicate content. You also do not get to choose what’s “objectionable” for someone else’s 10 year old. I have a number of 10 year olds that I work with that love the book, and those that toss it aside. I have others that are desperately waiting for the next issue of Wandering Son, which details two cross-gender children growing up in Japan and dealing with all that entails. It’s beautiful, poignant, and really reaches kids- because they identify with the feelings of not fitting in, whether it’s gender related or not. Just like readers identify with Cassie and the rest of the cast of Drama, and everything that goes on within a middle school.

If you do not want them to read about “the” GLBTQI characters, then do not have them read this book. Or A Girl Named Dan. Or Yuck, That’s Not a Monster. Or See You At Harry’s. Or Lola and the Boy Next Door. Or Better Nate Than Never. 

Definitely don’t have them watch cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants. Or Sesame Street. Or Teen Titans. X-Men: Evolution. Superman: The Animated Series. Sailor Moon. DragonBall Z. X-Men.

Oh, and don’t watch TV shows that my nieces adore, like Project Runway and Project Runway: All Stars. Or shows like Top Chef or Chopped. Or Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. Definitely stay away from anything science fiction (Doctor Who and Torchwood, Firefly or Star Trek). Don’t watch Glee, Gilmore Girls, Degrassi (original or next generation), or Modern Family. 

According to Gallup, 3.8% of the population admit to being LGBT (same as GLBT). That’s those who admit to it: those who are hiding their sexuality, or who think it’s really none of anyone’s business. That’s 4 out of 100 people. 1 out of 30 that admit it. 30 is the typical United States public classroom size. Statistically, there is at least one GLBTI person in each classroom. In each grade. In each school. Statistically, there will be at least 2 more (in each classroom in each grade in each school) that are questioning before they leave high school. 

For my local grade school, that’s 26 classrooms- so 26 kids that will by the time they are adults come out statistically, plus 52 more that will either hide what they are, or question.

More stats: 

  • Attendance for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in 2013: 71,024. Statistically out GLBT fans: 2,804. Not counting the gay athletes.
  • Six Flags Corporation (all of the Six Flags parks combined) third quarter 2013 attendance: 11.8 million guests. Statistically out GLBT coaster riders: 472,000. Not counting the workers.
  • Magic Kingdom (Florida) annual attendance (one park): 17.5 million people. Statistically out people visiting the most Magical place on Earth: 700,000. Again, not counting the workers.


So, if you’re not going to have your 10 year old read about “the gay characters,” when will you “let” your tween? Because “the gay characters” are all around- just like everyone else…..

Karen’s Note: My tween has read both Smile and Drama by Telgemeier, and she loves them both.  We’ve watched episodes of Glee and many other shows now where she has seen a boy kiss a boy or a girl kiss a girl.  I come from a conservative Christian background, so I get where some of the issues are coming from for parents.  But here’s the deal, last year one of my favorite family members entered into a same sex relationship.  It didn’t change her worth as a person.  It didn’t change our history together.  It didn’t negate all of our memories.  She fell in love with another woman and I can’t hide that from my tween.  People are in same sex relationships all over the globe and no amount of putting our head in the sand is going to negate that.  Our children know, they see it.  It is our job to teach them about the dignity of all people – even people we may not agree with for personal or religious reasons – because all people have basic, fundamental rights and value.  Coming out as GLBT is one of the leading causes of bullying, suicide and homelessness among our today’s youth.  I happen to think that is a problem.  One of the ways that we can help address this alarming stat is by promoting love and kindness.  

Why The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa is an Important Banned Books Week Read

1984. Fahrenheit 451. Brave New World.  These are all great, classic reads that highlight the dangers of censorship.  Two of them happen to be among my favorite books of all time.  Brave New World is not.  But sometimes, authors can slip in powerful statements against censorship in the most surprising of places.  Exhibit A: The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa.

The Immortal Rules is the first book in The Blood of Eden series by Kagawa.  It is set in a world where vampires rule.  Not sparkly vampires, but tyrannical vampires who will, in fact, suck you dry if you do not comply.  All humans are forced to register with the new vampire government and are forced to basically pay a blood tax.  Those humans that don’t register remain outside the city limits on the fringe where they barely survive, scrounging for food and praying for safety.  One wrong step and you may suddenly find yourself being used as an example.  Not a good example, but a food example.

This is where we meet Allie.  Allie refuses to register and is hanging with a rag-tag gang who despise the vampire monsters.  And Allie likes to read, which has basically been outlawed.  Understanding the danger of knowledge, the vampires have burned the libraries and tried to destroy all the books.  Allie remembers her mother reading to her as a little girl, and she knows how.  Occasionally she stumbles upon a book and she takes them to her “home”, trying to keep her stash secret.  It is in this world that we find a great defense against censorship:

“Words define us,’ Mom continued, as I struggled to make my clumsy marks look like her elegant script. ‘We must protect our knowledge and pass it on whenever we can. If we are ever to become a society again, we must teach others how to remain human.”

“There will come a time when man is no longer concerned only with survival, when he will once more be curious as to who came before him, what life was like a thousand years ago, and he will seek out answers for a hundred years or so, but humans’ curiosity has always driven them to find answers.” 

“I recognized it instantly. It was a made-up story, a fantasy, the tale of four kids who went through a magic wardrobe and found themselves in a strange new world. I’d read it more times than I could remember, and although I sneered at the thought of a magical land with friendly, talking animals, there were times when I wished, in my most secret moments, that I could find a hidden door that would take us all out of this place.” 

Allie despises the fact that those around her choose to cower in fear and ignorance.  She speaks often of the fact that if they understood what they were capable of, what the world could be like, they would choose to rise up and fight against the vampires.  Which is the very reason that the vampires have burned the books.  They understand that knowledge and story are powerful things.  That they can inspire.  That they can ignite. That they can lead those they wish to rule to challenge that rule.  And in this world we see a subtle, powerful and glaring reminder of just why we must fight for the freedom to read.  The knowledge found in the pages of books can empower us all, and those who wish to rule us would love to take that power away.  The best way to do that is to ban the books.  The Immortal Rules takes us on an exciting journey in this vampire filled world and uses this journey to remind us all, we must fight against censorship because we must fight for our right to rule ourselves.  Also, this is just a really good series.  And there are some really interesting twists.  Read it for Banned Books Week.

Banned Books Week: When the censorship comes from inside the building

When our fearless leader Karen asked me to write a post on the experiences I’ve had as a school
librarian with book challenges, I was flummoxed. I’ve never had an item challenged. It’s not that I’ve never had a parent concerned about a title in the collection – I’ve had several that I can remember. It’s just that these concerned parents merely wanted to be heard, to have their concerns acknowledged. Honestly, most of my parents are either so hands-off that they aren’t concerned with what their child is reading, or they are so hands-on that their children are well aware of what they are and aren’t allowed to read. I have been very fortunate.

What I have had to deal with, though, was even more insidious. It became apparent several years ago that certain titles from the library’s collection were disappearing. I figured this out mostly because students wanted the titles and while the catalog claimed they were in, they were never on the shelf. This was at a time in the past when I had a full time assistant who ran the circulation desk and supervised shelving, so items seldom went missing. Right now I run the library on my own and the students check in and out their own materials – things go missing constantly – but that’s a story for another day.


A sampling of the titles that were going missing included Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Meg Cabot’s Ready or Not, and 101 Questions About Sex and Sexuality. I was understandably frustrated by this situation, as were the students. We combed the shelves for these titles, but they were nowhere to be found.

At this point I was torn. It was equally conceivable that we had a self-appointed censor or that we had students who were just too embarrassed to check out these titles. I decided that the best remedy for this situation would be to purchase 2 replacements for each item that had gone missing from the collection. Then, if any of these items went missing, I would purchase 2 replacements for them. So each time a book went missing, two would pop up in it’s place. My thought was that if students were too embarrassed to check these items out and were smuggling them out of the library, they must be important, somehow, and we needed more. And, if we happened to have a self-appointed censor, they would quickly see that they were fighting a losing battle.


I’m happy to say that this strategy was entirely successful, even if it did have some unintended consequences. About a year later, while shifting the reference collection, I found the missing books. Each one had been carefully hidden on the shelf behind the least used reference books. So now we have 4 copies of  101 Questions About Sex and Sexuality, 5 copies of Ready or Not, but only 2 copies of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (it circulates enough that we’ve had several fall apart.) And now each year I have to have a special talk with each of the 6th grade classes when they find 101 Questions About Sex and Sexuality. This talk generally explores the topics of:

  • who chooses the items that are purchased for the library?
  • how are the items selected?
  • which books are for sharing and which are just for you?
  • and the differences between 8th graders and 6th graders interests.

One genuinely surprising outcome of all of this is that students feel comfortable coming to the library for information on ‘sensitive’ topics. While I’m sure some of the students are still reluctant to approach me, I frequently get requests for information about human growth and development topics, including my favorite question ever, “How does the baby fit inside?”

I did eventually find out which one of my staff members had appointed herself as school library censor. She retired and someone finally told on her. I’m still not sure what she was trying to accomplish.

Banned Books Week 2013: Defending Harry Potter by Geri Diorio

It’s Banned Books Week! The most magical week in a librarian’s year! Every day, librarians celebrate the free and open access to information, but during this week, we really flaunt it. “Free and open access” includes being able to read whatever you wish, and that might mean the best-selling book series in history, a series that has been translated into more than sixty languages, a series that has a theme park, and whose author announcing that she’ll pen a movie based in the same universe as her book causes headlines worldwide. Yes, I am talking about the universally know Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. But being universally known doesn’t translate to being universally loved. The Harry Potter series is ranked number one for the most frequently challenged books of the last decade. 

Why was it challenged so often? What reasons did people give when attempting to have these books banned? Three reason were given most frequently: it promotes the occult, it has anti-family themes, and it has violence.

If your belief system tells you to avoid witchcraft and supernatural, mystical, or magical things, the Potter series certainly does seem to give you a conflict. But would it help to know that J. K. Rowling does not believe in magic? She has stated this, outright. For Rowling, magic is simply a plot device; it moves things forward in an interesting manner. And since she is very clear about good and evil in these books (good people do good with the plot device of magic and bad people do bad things with it, just as in real life, good people do good with tools and bad people do bad things them) she even has her child characters learn Defense Against the Dark Arts as part of their schooling.  But perhaps simply stating that the magic in these books is a fiction won’t help people who are concerned about this. Perhaps we can show that the spells in Harry Potter’s world don’t work in ours. Bill Peel did a elegant proof of this years ago.

The charge that the Potter series contains anti-family themes is confounding. The friendships in the book are so strong as to practically constitute familial love. The main trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione love, respect, and watch out for each other from the moment they meet on the train. The Order of the Phoenix bond together to fight for their cause, even though individuals may differ widely in their viewpoints. Even the organization of Hogwarts, with students sorted into different houses, makes students bond into familial-like units. Perhaps it is the close bonds of these friendships that upset the people who challenged the books. Let us consider the actual families in the books. Certainly the Dursleys are mean to Harry, but real families are not always loving and supportive. The Weasleys are among the most loving families ever portrayed in fiction. Molly and Arthur have created a warm and open household for their children and their friends and spouses. The Weasleys even showed the great patience that comes from strong love while waiting for Percy to return to his senses after he went to work for the corrupt Ministry of Magic. Neville’s devotion to his family is enormous and heartbreaking. Luna Lovegood and her father Xenophilius share a lovely relationship. Xenophilius raised his daughter on his own after his wife died. He showed great strength and love for his little family of two.  And James and Lily Potter look out for their boy even after their deaths; you just can’t get more loving and family friendly than that.

As for violence in Harry Potter, well, yes, in these books people are hurt and killed out of jealousy and hunger for power, but sad to say that is no different than what happens in reality. (The United States’ war with Afghanistan is currently in its twelfth year; violence is a constant in the news.) The books do get darker as they go on and as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort draws closer, but not every book is intended for every reader, and good parenting means being involved in what books your children read. There are ages for which Harry Potter is appropriate and only you as a parent can determine what those ages are for your family. Only you have the right to determine what books your children read. Conversely, that also means that you do not have the right to determine what books other people’s children read.

Overall, the Harry Potter series actually offers a rather traditional Judeo-Christian take on morality.  Good and evil are very clear cut, even as Rowling shows how hard is can be to do the right thing. (Think of Dumbledore’s oft quoted choice between doing what is right and doing what is easy.)  Characters in Potter do not seem to be affected by traditional racism, and those who are prejudiced against non-magical people are clearly the bad guys. The heroes of the story are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and rise to the challenge. Those same heroes are often prepared to make enormous sacrifices for the greater good. Sure, Ms. Rowling’s story is fantastical and strange at times, but at its core, it is about love, family, and doing the right thing.

~ Geri Diorio

Geri Diorio is the Teen Services Librarian and the Head of Children’s Services at the Ridgefield Library in Connecticut. She reviews books and audio and movies and apps for School Library Journal, VOYA, and Audiofile magazines and she blogs for YALSA’s The Hub. The Ninth Doctor is her Doctor, vanilla is better than chocolate, and stand-alone novels are preferable to trilogies. If you’d like to debate any of those things, you can reach her at @geridiorio.

Banned Books Week 2013: Defending The Giver by Lois Lowry (guest post by Elsa Ouvrard-Prettol)

September 22 – 28 is Banned Books Week, a week which serves to remind us that there are those who would like to ban books.  The books vary, as do the reasons.  But the bottom line should always be this: each person gets to decide for themselves what to read.  Information is power.  Story is power.  Tyrants and dictators burn books, those who believe in Democracy do not.  So this week we thought we would find some people to discuss the power and importance of some of those books that have been challenged and pulled out of schools.  Today, Elsa Ouvrar-Prettol is discussing The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

 

First confession: I did not read The Giveruntil June 2010, at the end of my first year as a librarian. While I graduated high school in 1997 and technically could have read it in H.S. since it was first published in 1993, I went to school in France, where we studied French literature. I did study English and American literatures in college, but we focused on the ‘classic’ authors. And so I came to Natomas Charter School to be the librarian, not having read one of the most well-known and studied novels of the past twenty years.

Second confession: I have always loved dystopias. And I do mean ‘always’, as in since the early 90’s when I was in middle school and discovered the genre, and not ‘always’ as in “I had never heard the word ‘dystopias’ until The Hunger Games came out, but now I love them”. So of course, I loved The Giver and Gathering Blue when I read them in 2010, and I loved Messenger and Son, when I got them later on for our collection.
I can see why some people would be troubled by the first opus of the quartet. Euthanasia, murder, suicide. Drugs. Infanticide. Violence. Sexual arousing. Life-endangering situations. The novel even starts with Jonas describing his feeling; more accurately, he is trying to find the word that pinpoints the degree of fear that he is feeling. At the same time, in just the first few pages, Lois Lowry describes Jonas’ community as a quiet, orderly place where everyone has its own role, and knows and abides by the rules. This dichotomy of Jonas being fearful in a place which makes things as comfortable as possible sets the tone for the rest of the novel, for of course, Jonas is right to be fearful. The discoveries that he makes throughout the novel (see the list at the beginning of this paragraph) transforms his view of the community to the point that he decides to leave it – a choice so radical that he will have to be presented as dead instead of runaway.
So, yes, The Giver is controversial. Of course, I would not put the book in anyone’s hands before they are ready to read it – this is the golden rule for any book, really. Give a book at someone before they are mature enough to understand it, and it will, at best, be lost on them, and at worst, turn them off from reading the book (and possibly others!) later on. But I do believe that The Giveris one of those books that middle schoolers (in that wide range of grades 6-9 that “middle school” covers throughout the country) should read at one point.
One of the lessons The Giver teaches us is about making one’s own choices, and not letting others (even well-meaning, knowledgeable ‘Elders’) make all the decisions for you. Jonas’ community might look ideal at first, and blind faith in a group of decision-makers does allow the removal of many issues: having to distinguish right from wrong, taking the risks, dealing with the possible consequences of being wrong, etc… Daily life is much easier without these burdens.
But to me, the people in Jonas’ community are more like sheep than humans. They follow blindly and willingly their leaders, trusting in their good judgment, only thinking of the bad things they are not experiencing, and having forgotten the good things they have given up. This is the lesson that I want my stepdaughter, and, in time, my daughter, to learn: knowledge is power (can you see why I became a librarian? 😉 ). I do believe in the power of knowing as much as possible about one’s situation, so as to make the best decision possible. Of course, it means that one does bear the burden of Responsibility, Consequences (good or bad), and everything that comes with them. But being one’s master is the key to one’s freedom.
These two extracts from a conversation between Jonas and the Giver seem to apply to those concerned parents who tried to ban the book:
“Why do you and I have to hold these memories?”
“It gives us wisdom,” The Giver replied.
[…]
“But why can’t everyone have the memories? I think it would seem a little easier if the memories were shared. You and I wouldn’t have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part.”
The Giver sighed. “You’re right,” he said. But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that.”
(The Giver, Lois Lowry, p111 and 112-113, Dell Laurel-Leaf, 2002)
Note that this passage mentions two points: memories give us wisdom, and people do not want to be hurt. Let’s talk about pain first.
Parents worry about all the different ways their children can be hurt in this world, and for good reason, because there are a thousand ways to get hurt, and of course parents, out of love, want their children to be safe. But this is not just utopian (for pain is inevitable), but also deeply ironic, as the novel describes a process that every family goes through. We all ask questions to our parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc… and discover incidents, however big or small, that influenced their lives and that might shock us. Our family members’ memories are usually how we start learning about how scary the world can be.
For example: I heard World War II stories shared again and again during family meals at my grandparents’ when I was a child. That’s when I learned about my grandfather’s stepfather, who was given to the Germans by his own sons for owning a WWI German rifle. That’s also when I learned about sorrow and despair (my great-grandmother never received any news from or about her husband once he was put on a train to whichever camp whence he never returned), but also about love, for she would not have hurt as badly as she did if she had not loved him as much as she did. That is another important lesson from The Giver: there is no high without low. You do not know the true extent of love if you do not experience absence or loss. You cannot truly enjoy down time if you never work.
The other bit that we learned from the quote above is about wisdom. This is mostly why I do not understand people who want to ban The Giver, and why I will always proudly recommend it to my patrons: I want to encourage students’ critical thinking skills, I want them to read what happens to a society which gives up its powers to a small group of individuals without any system of checks and balances, I want them to become responsible citizens of a healthy society, participating in their democracy so that it remains one and not turn into a dystopian one. 
Encouraging children and teens to think for themselves can be worrisome – what if they do not learn what we deem to be the ‘correct’ lesson?! – but that is exactly what’s necessary for them to become mature and sensible adults. Literature is the safest way, as well as the most important way, to allow kids to think things through for themselves. It is the safest because these are works of fiction; if one gets too scared or overwhelmed, it is easy to close the book until one is ready to pick it up again. Parents can also read the book with their children, explaining things when the child has questions. Reading about controversial topics allows the readers to see things from another perspective without putting themselves in danger. Literature is also the most important way to help kids grow up because reading engages one’s mental capacities (understanding, deciphering, critical thinking, etc…), which are extremely valuable in the real world, especially now that information is everywhere.  The end goal of childrearing is to have an adult who is the masteroftheirfate – how will kids become that if they are never allowed to stretch out their wings or their imagination?
About Me:
I am the Library and Media Instructor at NatomasCharterSchool, working mostly with grades 6-12. 
I am always looking into how better serve my patrons, so I love to try new things! I love my OPAC (Yay, FollettDestiny!), Twitter (@NCSLibrarian), YouTube (ElsaPrettol), and I am so thankful that our school has iPads, Chromebooks, Kindles, Nooks and the whole Gmail suite for students and teachers. If you have questions about  any of those technologies, do not hesitate to email me at eouvrardprettol@natomascharter.org 

Sunday Reflections: A Radical Banned Books Week Thought – Throw Out Your Materials Challenge Form and Truly Embrace the Freedom to Read

A funny thing happened on Twitter a couple of weeks ago.

In preparation for Banned Books Week I came up with what I thought was a great idea: We would put challenged books on trial and I tweeted out asking everyone if there were certain books they wanted to write a defense for as guest posts.  You will see those posts during this next week.

But one person replied and said: What if I said we shouldn’t even be arguing the merits of books? What if that’s not the point at all?

And then we talked about it and he was right.

Why do we have material challenge forms and give people the option of trying to say, I don’t like this book or it offended me or whatever so I think you should remove it from the library – all because of me.  Maybe this whole time we have been doing Banned Books Week and Intellectual Freedom wrong.  Throw out your forms!

Read the Freedom to Read Statement from ALA 

Here’s a snippet of the conversation:

If we truly believe that people have the Freedom to Read what they want to read, then the answer isn’t to hand out forms saying well, maybe we’ll remove this book if you can make a good case.  The correct answer when someone complains about a book is simple: I’m sorry that this book offended you, let’s do some awesome reader’s advisory to see if we can help you find some other materials that are right for you.

It’s a radical notion, I know.  I have written the collection development policy at two libraries now and made the actual materials challenge form at one.  It was a masterpiece.  And now I think it was wrong.  Our whole approach is wrong.

I get there are things that offend people, but those things are different for each person.  And when I read the comments, most people say the same things for other types of media: If you don’t like a show, turn the channel.  If you don’t like a song, turn the radio dial.  If you don’t like a movie, don’t go see it.  And the answer for books should be the same: If you don’t like the book, read a different book. 

Banned Books Week is September 22nd through the 28th

There are shows I don’t let my children watch (a lot of them actually.)  Just the other day I told my YouTube cruising Tween that she had to add her former favorite Miley Cyrus onto the list of music videos she wasn’t allowed to watch.  I have a list of actors whose movies I won’t go see.  I have banned Spongebob Squarepants because I don’t like the way they treat one another.  But here’s the thing: those are all personal parenting decisions.  I know that other parents would make different ones.  I don’t get to make those decisions for your kids and you don’t get to make them for mine.  Which is why we shouldn’t even have material challenge forms.  Because it gives the impression that sometimes, maybe, we would in fact let someone make those decisions for an entire community; that if they could make a strong enough case that we might, in fact, decide to remove a book from the library allowing one person (or a group of people) to make personal decisions for an entire community of people, people for whom they don’t actually have the right to make that decision.

There is no “unless you can prove it doesn’t have literary merit” – who gets to decide that? There is no “unless you can prove it is dangerous to society” – we once thought the belief that the sun was the center of the universe was a dangerous idea, people died for that belief.  Oops, turns out we were wrong.  The only exceptions would be if a book had questionable authority (which you should be catching in your collection development process so it shouldn’t be an issue on the reader’s end) or books that do or advocate breaking the law (like books from NAMBLA, they apparently exist).  Tyrants and dictators ban books, those who believe in democracy do not.

So instead, when a patron comes to a staff member complaining about a book and asking that it be removed, we use this moment to remind patrons about the goals of a library.  Instead of handing them a book challenge form, we could hand them a bookmark or pamphlet that states the Library Bill of Rights and affirms their rights to self-selection and parental guidance.  And then we ask them if we can help them find a new book to read and start the reader’s advisory process.  This moment becomes a teachable moment where we reinforce the library’s mission to the entire (and very diverse) community.  Instead of discussing individual titles, the conversation becomes one about Intellectual Freedom.

I believe that people have the right to read what they want to read.  I believe that you and I don’t get to make those decisions for other people.  Full stop.  That’s actually the end of the argument.  Throw out your forms.

More Banned Books Week on TLT:
Banned Books Week 2012
Teen Fiction is . . . 
A Banned Books Week Primer
Redefining the 3 Rs for Banned Books Week
Libraries are radically unsafe places . . . and that’s a good thing
My Banned Books Week Posters

Edited 9/24/2013 to add a clarifying paragraph.

Teens NEED Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Today, Christie Tweeted me this:

In a nutshell: Two authors – Meg Medina and Rainbow Rowell – had separate school visits scheduled at different schools.  Both of the schools got squeamish about the content of the books and quietly uninvited the authors.  This is not the first time this has happened.  For example, Ellen Hopkins was famously uninvited to a festival in Humble, Texas.  So I went on a Tweet Out against censorship.  It went something like this.

Here’s the deal, we can say what we want about what children (teens actually) should be exposed to, but then there is real life.  There are teens in EVERY SINGLE TOWN AND CITY living the life of Eleanor.  Who is protecting them?  We’re not by keeping their story silent.  Books give them voices, and when we say their stories aren’t something we should be reading we silence those hurting teens, sweeping their pain and abuse under the carpet and allowing it to continue in our silence. 

 Here’s Rainbow Rowell discussing the situation.