Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

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.

Labels in the library

– Robin

I would like to begin with a shout out to my fellow Middle School librarians. You may be the only people who really understand this post…

Middle School is a time of great change and growth for students – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It’s a roller coaster barreling full speed into a banked turn followed by multiple loops and a careening pass over a water fall. Basically, you hold on for dear life and pray that you make it out on the other side. Some of the students come into 6th grade having barely gotten their ticket for the ride, some come in on the gradual incline before all of the magic happens, and some come in already engaged in full loop madness. By the time they leave 8th grade most students have either gotten to the gradual deceleration lane or completely exited the roller coaster and are now on the hunt for their next thrill. This is just to say, there is no standard trajectory for the rate at which someone experiences the roller coaster of middle school, and trying to force someone into the wrong car is a losing proposition.

So what am I talking about? And what does this have to do with labels in the library? Please stop now and go check out this post from Mrs. ReaderPants. This post is a response to her question of whether or not Middle School libraries should put some sort of label on their YA fiction books to distinguish them from their middle grades titles. She states that she sees both sides of the argument, but doesn’t think it’s a good idea. My opinion tends to swing much farther into the territory of what can only be politely described as DANGER! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! I think it’s a horrible idea, for a number of reasons.

First, and probably foremost, I’m not a big labeler. I only put labels on books (other than the normal ones) if it is either an absolute necessity, or if it in some way promotes those books to ALL READERS.

An example of ‘absolute necessity’ would be the labels we place on books that are in Spanish. I have a small but significant number of recent immigrants who only speak and read in Spanish. Similarly, I have a small but important collection of materials written in Spanish. I don’t want to move these titles into their own location; I want these materials interfiled with their English counterparts. Additionally, having a bright yellow and red label on the spine helps keep my not so observant English readers from mistakenly checking out the Diario de Nikki instead of the Dork Diaries. Usually.

The other labels we use are ones that promote the book to all library users. We have some for Teen’s Top Ten that have helped significantly increase the circulation of those titles. I have, in the past, labeled books on the state’s Battle of the Books list to promote that program and make those titles easier to find. The book list is new every year, though, and I no longer have the staff necessary to make all of those changes. Both of these make no statement about the book other than ‘some people think this is a good book.’ I feel that is of the utmost importance.

And that is because of my second point – I am against any form of restriction or censorship in the library. Any label that seeks to pass judgement on the content or age appropriateness of the material within the book is tantamount to censorship. All of the materials purchased for our collection are appropriate for someone in our student population. I cannot judge, and neither should anyone but the student and their parents, whether any individual is ‘ready’ for any particular book. All analogies about roller coasters aside, some of my students enter the 6th grade already sexually active. Some of my 8th grade students end the year still completely absorbed with their Pokemon cards. Students can and will seek out and find materials that are engaging to them and meet them where they are now. I’m vehemently opposed to putting any obstacles in their way.

Karen’s Thoughts: I am not a school librarian, so I can not speak to the school experience.  For me the problem with labels is that I can’t read all the books, so I wouldn’t know what to label them.  So when I am talking to teens and their parents and they express a concern about content, there are several things I tell them to do before making their decisions.  My job is not to label, but to give my patrons the tools they need to make informed decisions for self.  Below is the actual conversation I have in the stacks.  Sometimes I even put it in a bookmark.

Karen’s Tips for helping teens and parents evaluate books before checkout:

1) Read the back jacket copy.  It often gives you an indication of what the book is about.

2) Read the inside jacket copy.  It, too, often gives you an indication of what the book is about.

3)  Turn to the title page.  On the back of the title page there towards the bottom there is a brief summary and subject headings.  This is called the CIP information should you be curious.  The subject headings can also give you a good indication of what you may find in the book.

4) Note the ages of the main characters.  If the main character is a middle school student, they are going to think and do and talk about middle school things for the most part.  If the characters are high school students, they are going to think and do and talk about high school things.

5) Still not sure? Read some reviews on Goodreads or other online resources.  Ask the children’s, teen or school librarian what the professional reviews say, we have access to some reviews that you may not be able to easily find on the Internet.

If all else fails, parents should read the book first and then decide if it is right for their child.  Better yet, read it together and talk about what you think about what happens in the story and how it fits in with your family’s personal values.

Censorship Discussions on TLT: 
A Banned Books Week Primer
Banned Books Week: Teen fiction is . . .
What if Amy wasn’t pretty: A tale of censorship
Let’s Talk Access! And why libraries are radically unsafe places and that is a good thing
The Sacred and the Profane: profanity, self expression and teen programs 

*Roller coaster photo by Mark Dalmulder (mdalmuld on Flickr.) Used with Creative Commons license. Available here.

Book Review: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

I’d thought he was angry, and he was, a bit, but when I looked into those eyes, I saw that what I had mistaken for anger was really terror.  He was even more scared that I was.  Scared that without the net, his job was gone.  Scared that without the net, Mum couldn’t sign on every week and get her benefits.  Without the net, my sister Cora wouldn’t be able to do her schoolwork.

“Trent,” he said, his chest heaving.  “Trent, what have you done?”  There were tears in his eyes.
I tried to find the words.  We all do it, I wanted to say.  You do it, I wanted to say.  I had to do it, I wanted to say.  But what came out, when I opened my mouth, was nothing.  Dad’s hands tightened on my arms and for a moment, I was sure he was going to beat the hell out of me, really beat me, like you saw some of the other dads do on the estate.  But then he let go of me and turned round and stormed out of the flat.  Mum stood in the door to my room, sagging hard against the door frame, eyes rimmed with red, mouth pulled down in sorrow and pain.  I opened my mouth again, but again, no words came out.
I was sixteen.  I didn’t have the words to explain why I’d downloaded and kept downloading.  Why making the film that was in my head was such an all-consuming obsession.  I’d read stories of the great directors — Hitchcock, Lucas, Smith — and how they worked their arses off, ruined their health, ruined their family lives, just to get that film out of their head and onto the screen.  In my mind, I was one of them, someone who had to get this bloody film out of my skull, like, I was filled with holy fire and would burn me up if I didn’t send it somewhere.
That had all seemed proper noble and exciting and heroic right up to the point that the fake copper turned up at the flat and took away my family’s Internet and ruined our lives.  After that, it seemed like a stupid, childish, selfish whim.  

Pirate Cinema is set in a futuristic science fiction dystopia that’s coming closer and closer to reality with each passing day, where pirating content off the Internet can get you in serious trouble.  The government is controlled by the large media corporations who keep pushing for tighter and tighter control of their “content” at the expense of creativity, art, and freedom.  Trent, a sixteen year old who HAS to get the movies out of his head, splices together pieces of films of his favorite actor to make mash-ups, and after two warnings gets his family’s Internet cut off for a year.  His dad loses his job, his mother with MS is in danger of losing her medications and benefits, and his brilliant sister will flunk school, because of him. Wracked with guilt, Trent takes off for London, and falls in with a band of his own kind:  artists and techno geeks who are determined to free the Internet for everyone’s use.

The language of the book can definitely take some readers a bit to get used to as it has English slang, but there is more than a passing nod to Oliver Twist in the characters Trent runs into during his first days in London, which is a blast.  There are a lot of current issues and discussion topics to be taken away from the book that would make it ideal for classroom and book club discussions.  I would definitely recommend it for higher level YA readers- I know that some teens would have problems with the language and technical aspects, while others would fall right in and be absorbed immediately.

SPOILERS BE HERE!  You have been warned 🙂

I really loved this book, and got into it completely.  It’s definitely a science fiction dystopia (heavy on the science, not the fantasy) but one that scarily you can see we’re on the road to; that is a hallmark of Doctorow’s books.  If you don’t believe me, check out Makers- 3D printers, anyone?  With the restrictions on library Internet filters, CIPA, the fallout from Napster, the current debates about whether you own ebooks you purchase, and other legislation that is constantly going through revisions and resurrections, I can certainly see a future like the one described in Pirate Cinema.  

Trent and his gang are gripping and realistic, fleshed out with quirks and personalities of their own that I personally want to know more about, and I love the throwbacks to Oliver Twist that are present.  There are twists and highs and lows with Jem and Aziz and the others that pull you from Trent’s story into theirs, but they complement and fill out Trent’s world so that you get a complete picture of what’s going on.  There’s a GLBT relationship (and talks about the abuse that happened to one of the lovers beforehand), the teens end up in jail at one point, and they are squatting and breaking rules and avoiding the law all over the place.

One thing that is of definite interest is that Trent is a little aimless until 26 comes along.  He’s content to float, and try and make more of his movies, but it’s not until 26 that he moves into the political arena.  The love interest between Trent and 26 (yes, her adopted name is 26) pulls Trent into politics and into a way to change things around, and the ending is realistic enough that you know that it’s not all peaches and roses. 
I can only hope that there is actually another book after Pirate Cinema, continuing Trent’s story, that the 1 on the spine is a hint of things to come.  Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part…or maybe not.

The Final Word:

Definitely good for your techie teens, and your higher reader teens- I have teens that I think would love it being that they are into the entire mash-up tech movement, but I don’t know that they would be able to read it for the level of language in it.  It’s definitely a higher Lexile level than some teens might be ready for, which is something to consider when recommending it, even if their interests run parallel with the book.

Karen’s Note: Pirate Cinema is nominated for a 2012 Cybils Award in the Teen Science Fiction/Fantasy category.  I read it this weekend and agree with Christie, it is a good book.  It feels so current day and relevant.  Recommended. 4 out of 5 stars.

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, published by Tor Teen.  ISBN: 978-0-7653-2908-0

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

Book banning doesn’t happen as often as you think it does.  Mostly what we face are book challenges.  This is the notion that someone challenges the acceptedness (acceptedability?) um, the appropriateness of a book.  It often happens by outside forces, like parents and concerned citizens, but, as we discussed yesterday, it can also happen from internal sources including your very co-workers.  Today, I am going to share with you my Censorship Confessions.  These confessions will be known as the “True Confessions of a Former Book Banner” from this day forward.  Please note, I am a reformed book banner and I wave my olive branch to librarians everywhere.

Censorship Confession #1: Doing It for the First Time

Once, in my very early days as a paraprofessional, I myself censored some books.  And yes, I hang my head in shame.  You see, I had ordered books 1 and 2 of a new seres called something like doing it for the first time or the first time.  Whatever the name of the series, it was very clearly about teenagers having their first sexual experience.  At that time I had to process all my own paperbacks, which these books were.  So they came in and I read them and my eyes popped out of my head with an “oooga” sound going of somewhere in the background.  I panicked.  I broke out into a cold sweat.  And then I put the books into a cupboard in my office with the promise that I would get to them “later”.  Later turned out to be a couple of years later when we were cleaning out the cupboards and by that time, they were old and irrelevant and put in the Friends booksale.  Look, I’m not proud of  that moment.  I wouldn’t do it now.  But I feel the need to make my conscience clean here during Banned Books Week.

Censorship Confession #2: How Many Legs Does a Spider Have?

A couple of times, I was that person doing the internal challenge to my co-workers in the children’s department.  You see there was this children’s book about a spider that I checked out and read to my daughter.  But people, on every single page THIS SPIDER HAD 7 LEGS.  It drove me insane.  What were we teaching the children?  I wanted it discarded for being an inaccurate representation, but the children’s department didn’t agree.  To this day, if I found a book like that in my collection I’m not gonna lie, I would totally discard it for being factually inaccurate and confusing.

Censorship Confession #3: How Many Monkeys Jumping on the Bed?

I also once challenged – challenged is such a strong word here – a version of 5 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed because the way it was illustrated as a one page spread instead of a two page spread meant that when viewing the pages in an open book you would count 9 monkeys total instead of the 4 that the verse was talking about.  Again, I thought this was confusing to kids learning how to read and count.  It was just a bad design and lay out.

Censorship Confession #4: How Often Should You Feed a Baby?

Okay, so there are these parenting books called Babywise which suggest that you shouldn’t feed a baby on demand, but get them on your schedule.  The thing is, a baby died from malnutrition and dehydration and there is a lot of controversy about these books (read a little about it here).  I honestly campaigned hard core to have these books removed from my library, and in this instance I don’t regret it honestly.  But here’s the deal, it’s not our place – it’s not mine – to tell a parent how to raise their child, no matter how much I may disagree with the choices they make.  And it’s a testament to my growth as a librarian that I didn’t just take the books off the shelf and burn them in the back alley.  For the record, these books totally offend my sensibilities.  But as Jo Goodwin says, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” – even the librarian!

The Rise of Super Librarian, Dedicated to the Fight Against Censorship

But my very favorite Banned Books Week story is about the time that someone tried to censor me.  That’s right people, I myself was almost a victim of censorship. I get to join the ranks of amazing people like Harper Lee, Chris Crutcher and Shel Silverstein.  Read on.

Each year for Banned Books Week I would put up a bold, eye-catching display.  We had a great (functional and large) slat wall display area right across from the Circulation Desk.  I did my research.  I pulled book after book off the shelf, wrapped them in brown paper bags and wrote the reasons they had been challenged or banned on them.  There was yellow caution tape and jail signs and . . . It truly was epic.  I would show you a picture but during that time our phones still plugged into the wall and they didn’t have cameras.

It was an eye-catching behemoth that I was fiercely proud of.  Unfortunately, one of our library patrons did not agree.  In fact, she found the fact that I was speaking out against censorship to be incredibly offensive and wanted it taken down.  That’s real irony right there, not Alanis Morrisette irony.

First she came and talked to me and I tried to explain to her the values of Intellectual Freedom and the reasons we should all stand against censorship.  Then she went to my boss.  Then she went to the library director.  And then she went to the board.  That’s right people, the very first time in my professional career that I had to talk to my library board involved me fighting for my job and the library’s right to stand against censorship.  I was young and naive, just naive enough to think that I was untouchable and that justice and common sense were the ways in which the world worked.  Obviously, and thankfully, this time that naivete paid off and everyone up the line supported Intellectual Freedom and stood up for the display, which remained until WE decided to take it down and put up a new one.

And that, my friends, is how I put on my Super Librarian cape and stood up for Truth, Justice and the American Way.  That is also the story of how I ended up in the end of the year report to the board.  That is also when I realized that there really were people who didn’t understand the need for Intellectual Freedom, which is why I still wear my cape.

Pop Quiz:

In Censorship Challenges #2 and #3, would those have been valid reasons to remove a book from the collection?

Have you ever had a book display or library publication challenged?

Does your library have a process in place for have unconventional challenges?  Most libraries have book collection challenge materials in place, but what happens when it is not a book being challenged?

And finally, you all forgive me for Censorship Confession #1, right?

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

I never liked it when Technical Services called down to my office because it usually meant I had done something wrong: ordered a duplicate, maybe ordered book 2 when we didn’t have book 1, or a book came in covered in green astro turf (that really happened once).  But no, this time it was a staff member calling to tell me that she refused to put a graphic novel I had ordered into the collection because she thought it was inappropriate.  My jaw fell to the floor because, well, that’s not really how we do things.  I order things all the time that I would never personally want to read, because my job is to serve EVERYONE regardless of my own personal beliefs.  So, after picking my jaw up off of the floor, I informed said staff member that she would have to add the book to the collection and go through the formal book challenge procedure as outlined in our policy book and I hoped that would be the end of that.  She did of course go directly to the director, but he backed me up.  As far as I know that book is still in the collection to this day; although since it’s a graphic novel, it has probably fallen apart.  Today, TLT blogger Heather Booth tells her about an internal book challenge that happened to her.  And yes, there really are internal book challenges.
Most of us leave library school all het up about Intellectual freedom and determined that our role in the community is, in part, to save the world by providing free and open access to books of all types.  We learned that we’re the champions of Democracy – free access to information is the cornerstone of our society right?  And that applies to everything and we all agree about it, right?

 Actually, no.  Well, not exactly.

The interplay of nuanced of community expectations, individual perspectives, and institutional culture became clear to me when I dealt with my first book challenge, fresh out of library school.  I thought I knew what to do: have a formal complaint process in place, listen to the complainant, and work with your administration to move through and resolve the process.

But my challenge came from a coworker, escalated to a supervisor, and was largely resolved levels above me, behind closed doors, without going through traditional channels.  It was an extremely difficult situation that left me shaken and questioning many of my assumptions about my role in the community, in the library, and about our profession’s dirty little secrets.

Having encountered an internal challenge exactly once, I’m no expert on the topic, but if you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some things to do:


Report it

Whether an official complaint is filed or not, report the incident to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.  The OIF keeps a database of challenged material, with entries collected from newspaper articles and from individual reports.  Since an internal challenge will likely not make it to the papers in the same way a challenge initiated by a community member would, it is up to you to report it.

Ask for help

You can speak to the OIF for guidance, but aside from pointing out what I already knew to do and wishing me luck, which was helpful, doing this didn’t make me feel especially empowered.  What did was seeking out other libraries that have the material that is being challenged.  I had the immensely good fortune of finding a more experienced librarian who had the item in question and was able to talk to me about the book, the process, and helped me understand how different communities might meet needs in different ways.  She also helped me see that not all libraries respond in the same way to their librarians.  More on that later.

Collect your research

Just like you would for an external challenge, if you intend to defend your material, you need to collect every review, article, circulation statistic and testimonial that you can.  The difference is that you’ll likely be doing this on your own.

Make the big decision

In library school, I was taught, emphatically, that all challenges, all challenges, should go through formal channels: the request for reconsideration form, the meetings, the hearings, whatever path your institution has in place.  But as a new librarian just starting out, putting most of my paycheck into food, gas, and car repairs, I felt I had neither the institutional support nor the personal financial freedom to challenge my superiors in such a way.  When I brought up the issue of a formal complaint the first time, it was clear to me that it should probably also be the last time.  The stigma associated with going against the institutional flow is significant.  You’ll see I haven’t named the material or discussed the resolution here, many years later.  It’s not a very big profession, and we are loath to burn bridges.  I have much admiration for those librarians who do force the issue despite the perceived risks.

Take heart

No matter how the situation resolves, know that you are not alone.  In general, librarians like things to go smoothly.  We’d rather not deal with an awkward silence and simmering glares at staff luncheons.  So these things may not be issues that are shared between in-house mentors and up-and-coming librarians. 

But from my experience, I learned a lot, and I gained a lot.  I had my first communication directly with an author about her work, I got some lovely words of wisdom from a librarian across the country, whom I subsequently had the privilege of working with through my involvement with YALSA, and ultimately I made the decision that my interests and focus were better suited to a different organization, where I flourished and grew into my own as a librarian.

 The ideals we leave library school with are laudable.  But they are also ideals, not practicalities.  Sometimes, even when we do our best, things will go sideways.  Sometimes flexibility, diplomacy, and hard choices will need to carry you through. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s not the end of the world when you find material in your care challenged internally, and both your career and your material can survive.  Take solace in knowing that you’re fighting the good fight, and that your intention to serve your community can become even stronger after such an experience.
Train staff
It’s easy to think that everyone who works in a library clearly understands the role of the library, but that is clearly not the case.  Remember our circulation clerks, pages, etc. don’t go to the library schools that we go to and learn about the importance of – which is why staff training and communication are so very important.  We need to tell our co-workers, often, about the importance of libraries and intellectual freedom.  Don’t assume because you live and breath it that your co-workers do also; you do know what happens when you assume, right?  And this is a good time to remember how to make champions of co-workers and the “Be-Attitudes” of communicating with staff.
Have you ever had to deal with an internal challenge?  Tell us about it in the comments.

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

Once upon a time I read and reviewed a book called Pretty Amy.  I liked it and made it the TLT Rec of the Week.  I thought, you know, this really speaks to the heart of what teenage girls feel.  I also thought, I wish I had known to get a bird and teach it to say Pretty Karen.  Alas, I was not that smart of a teenager.  So I’m following Lisa Burstein on Twitter and she Tweets that a magazine decided not to review her book because of drug use.  There is some drug use in Pretty Amy, that part is true.  And I sputter here, because the fact that drug use is all they got of this book astounds me.  Also, you should know, some teens do drugs.  So I started writing this rant in my head and, as often is this case when this happens, I finally had to sit down and just post it because it wouldn’t leave me alone.  Then, someone challenged my rant, which prompted another rant about how really and truly, libraries are unsafe places and that is a good thing.  I already knew we were going to be doing a lot week of Banned Books Week posts so I said: Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, won’t you please type a post for my blog for me so I have less work to do?  I mean, I said: can you please share with us your experience of what it was like to experience a form of censorship.  Yes, THAT’s what I said.  And she said yes, and even better, she let AMY TELL US what it’s like to be censored.  As Libba Bray says, “teens, our audience, keep us honest.  Because they can smell bullshit a mile away, and they will call you on it.” (from an interview on The Oeditrix)

This story starts when a national teen magazine (the kind in grocery stores) that was supposed to write a review for my debut novel PRETTY AMY decided after reading three chapters to pass on their review because “the book contained drug use and they didn’t want to promote it to their readers.”


An official who examines material about to be released, such as books, movies, news, and art, and suppresses any parts considered…
Examine (a book, movie, etc.) officially and suppress unacceptable parts of it.
censorship (from Google.com)

I was shocked; “drug use” encompasses about two pages of the book. It does not glorify it, or promote it. PRETTY AMY is not about drug use, it is about a confused teenage girl who struggles to find herself after a prom night arrest. Attempts to fit in and be loved for who she really was, while navigating parents, friends, boys and the law.

Books are banned in all kinds of ways. Sometimes it is a school denying a book to their students. Sometimes it is a library refusing to shelve it. Sometimes it is a media outlet refusing to review a book because of content.

The latter is what happened to my book.

It’s one thing for me to tell the story; it’s another for the girl who fights to find her voice for the whole 304 pages of PRETTY AMY to tell it. Here exclusively for Teen Librarian Toolbox are Amy’s feelings on being censored.

After I got arrested all people (adults) kept telling me was to talk about my feelings and tell the truth. Not like I ever wanted to–especially when pushed, but now I am being punished for telling the truth. For my voice being too truthful.

Now, other girls like me are being punished because they won’t get to read the truth. At least not in that prissy magazine. Lisa Burstein might have written the book, but I’m as real a character as you’ve ever seen. As I say in the book, “I am one of the legions of middle-class white girls who search malls for jeans that make them look thinner, who search drugstores for makeup to wear as a second skin, who are as sexy and exotic as blueberry muffins.”

Guess what? Girls like us sometimes try drugs. We sometimes see nothing good in our lives so we cling to our friends and do whatever they do. We fall as low as we can fall and it takes falling that low to come out victorious on the other side.

Girls like me exist. Not publishing a review isn’t going to change that. If anything it makes girls like me feel even more misunderstood.

Lisa Burstein was a girl like me in high school. She used drugs, she smoked, and she had psychological issues. She had no one who understood her. She felt alone. What if she would have come upon a review of PRETTY AMY back then in a magazine? Been able to read about the book and see that there was something out there that might help her understand the way she was feeling when her parents and therapists and psychotropic drugs were not. Might her life have been different? Might it have been better?

Would she possibly have avoided the four-years of hell that were high school for her?

I believe there is a chance.

When you censor what is real, you take away that chance. You take away the ability for readers to have an opinion, a voice. You control what they see. Even at seventeen I know that’s bullshit.

This magazine can say whatever it wants about what it thinks its readers can handle, but that doesn’t change what teenagers are “handling” every day. Drugs, worse than the pot I smoked. Boys, going after more than most girls know how to give. Identity and how it feels like it changes daily, but never into what you want it to be. And of course the doom that falls over you late at night when you are alone in your room and you wonder if life will ever get better.

By controlling what girls like me see you are not changing any of this. And, being a girl like me, I know change is the only the thing that can help.

To help get my book and other banned books into the hands of teens and well everyone, I am running a contest for $175 worth of book buying gift cards and Manuscript Critiques for participating in donation drive for High School and public libraries.

Participate in the Pretty Amy Banned Books Week Donation Drive

Add PRETTY AMY on Goodreads

BUY Barnes and Noble

BUY Amazon

Redifing the “3 Rs” for Banned Books Week

Karen Jensen, the teen librarian is:
A) A person of deep personal faith beliefs
B) A strong advocate for teens
C) A voracious reader
D) A defender of libraries
E) An outspoken defender of free speech and celebrant of Banned Books Week
F) All of the above

It was while majoring in Youth Ministry (Christian Education) at Mount Vernon Nazarene College (now Mount Vernon Nazarene University) that I became a loud mouth against censorship.  Yep, there I was at a conservative Christian college putting up an awesome display for Banned Books Week on the outside of my dorm room door (it truly was epic).  While I sat in chapel and learned how the Bible says we should be “in the world but not of it”, I also came to understand that in order for me – or anyone – to truly be a person of faith, we had to be able to have access to the information we needed to make that decision for ourselves.  Information (and the free access to it) is the cornerstone of personal, authentic decision making.

So I came up with a plan! Already working as a paraprofessional as a young adult services assistant (under the tutelage of my truly amazing mentor), I would become a teen services librarian because that WAS my ministry (radical thinking!).  And I developed a new model for the 3 Rs in the life of a teenager: Radical, Rebellious and Righteous.


(esp. of change or action) Relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.
A person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform.
adjective. fundamental – drastic (from Google.com)

I know many people are afraid of rebelliousness (especially in teenagers – gasp).  And we frown upon being radical (conformity is such a valued trait I can’t help but notice).  But when you stop for a moment and think about it, radical rebelliousness is the hallmark and backbone of America.  We exist because those English blokes (and whatever the female counterpart for blokes is) threw all the tea overboard and said No!  Then we grew a little bit more because an amazing woman sat, I imagine tired and with throbbing feet, and refused to give up her seat (you know I am speaking of Rosa Parks, right?).  Our history books and science journals are full of stories of radical people (and ideas) being rebellious.  And sometimes, there is a little rigtheousness thrown in, whether it be the righteousness of faith or the righteous indignation that causes people to stand up and fight for truth and justice (thank you Martin Luther King, Jr.)


  1. Showing a desire to resist authority, control, or convention.
  2. (of a person, city, or state) Engaged in opposition or armed resistance to an established government or ruler.
mutinous – insurgent – rebel – seditious (from Google.com)

That is what Banned Books Week is about, reminding people everywhere that it is okay for the words on the page to be shocking or questioning or – gasp – radical, rebellious born of a righteous indignation.  We don’t have to agree with them, we don’t have to like them, but it’s the basic hallmark of what we call “The American Way” that we don’t get to decide that for others.  Okay, technically parents get to decide it for their kids, but you don’t get to decide it for MY kids.  Or for me.

Banned Books Week is a reminder:  There are people out there who want to be the “thought police” (with deference to Mr. George Orwell).  And the truth is, those who control the information control the world.  Oddly enough, we need only to look at the history of faith to be reminded of this:  The church fought long and hard to keep the Bible in a language that only few could understand because that power to interpret and lord God’s wrath over the populace gave them tremendous power (and wealth).  When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door and the Bible was made available to us all, it shifted the power and gave us, each individual, the opportunity to interact with God on a more personal level and to decide what our faith means to us.  Or what faith we want to have, if any.


  1. (of a person or conduct) Morally right or justifiable; virtuous.
  2. Perfectly wonderful; fine and genuine.
just – right – upright – rightful – fair – honest (from Google.com)

We can try and control our teens and really monitor what they read.  Or . . . we can help them develop critical thinking skills, nurture a love of story, and let them be the next generation of radical thinkers who help us find a cure for cancer, write the next Harry Potter that inspires a generation, or stands on the footpath of history and challenges us to be a more humane people.  We don’t really fear the words on the page, we fear the fact that they challenge us to really examine what we think we know and feel and believe and that in the end, we may come out on the other side believing (or thinking or feeling) something different.  And yet, history has proven time and time again that is not always a bad thing (see all the examples listed above).  But think of how much stronger we are when we read those words on the page, turn the last page, and reaffirm who we are and where we stand in the world. 

I celebrate Banned Books Week and stand against censorship because I believe that being radical, rebellious and righteous is sometimes exactly what we need and is the heart of one’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

P.S., in case you haven’t figured it out.  Karen Jensen is F – all of the above!!!  Leave a comment letting me know which of the above you are and why.

Join us all week for Banned Books Week posts, including one from the author of Pretty Amy, Lisa Burstein.

What if Amy wasn’t Pretty?

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

You may have noticed, but it’s election season.  And back to school time. Which means it is also time to start thinking about Banned Books Week.

Banned Books Week at ALA
You can get information and graphics for Banned Books Week at ALA

Banned Books Week is a reminder to us all to celebrate our freedom to read.  Access to information – to new thoughts and ideas, no matter how radical they may be – is the cornerstone of democracy.  And yet every year, we hear case after case of someome attempting to (and sometimes succeeding) remove that access by having materials removed from school and public libraries across the nation.  Without the materials in libraries, that means our patrons have to find ways to access the information themselves, often costing money they don’t have, especially in these hard economic times.

I took a moment to look at what it would cost our teens to buy the books they want and need for both pleasure reading and school, and this is what I came up with as a modest estimate.

So if our teens didn’t have access to books at their school and public libraries, they would have to come up with an average of $1,218.63 to buy 4 of the most popular book series (Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Twilight and The Mortal Instruments) and an average of 4 books a month for school.  Keep in mind, this figure would be significantly higher if any of those 4 books a month for school are non-fiction because non-fiction titles have a higher price point.
This is why libraries are so important – they support the educational goals, both academic and personal, of all the members of our communities, including our teens.  But removing books from the library compromises that access.
Banned Books Week is an excellent time to remind teens – and your communities – about the importance of reading and libraries.  Remind your communities to vote for libraries! And the best way to cast your vote is by being a library user and supporter.
Looking for some ways to promote Banned Books Week this year? Check out these previous articles:

Banned Books Week: Teen fiction is . . .
Redefining the “3 Rs” for Banned Books Week (Radical, Rebellious, Righteous)

Also, here’s a look at a recent incident involving the book Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein and another way in which teens are denied access to information.  Recently, a major teen magazine decided to pull its review of Pretty Amy because they felt it was inappropriate for their audience.  They didn’t let teens decide for themselves by presenting an honest review, they simply refused to review it.

What if Amy wasn’t pretty: A tale of censorship
Let’s Talk Access! And why libraries are radically unsafe places and that is a good thing
Amy speaks: Pretty Amy’s censorship uncensored (a guest post by Lisa Burstein)

Banned Books Week is an excellent time to brush up on your advocacy and marketing efforts, so stop by our section on Advocacy and Marketing and read all about it.
How about some posters and bookmarks?  Yeah, we’ve got those to.  You can find some at the TLT Graphics section of our FB page or find some that I designed for frequently challenged author Chris Crutcher last year.
Want one final – and exciting – way to speak out about Banned Books Week?  Join our BBW “Read In” and share a guest blog post about a book from the BBW list that you love.  Simply send me your review, or story, at kjensenmls@yahoo.com by Friday, September 28th.  Join us during Banned Books Week for a guest post by Lisa Burstein, author of Pretty Amy, books reviews and more.
You can get official information for Banned Books Week at BannedBooksWeek.org

Let’s talk Access! And why libraries are radically unsafe places, and that’s a good thing!

Access: Noun
1. the ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use; admittance: They have access to the files.

2. the state or quality of being approachable: The house was difficult of access.
3. a way or means of approach: The only access to the house was a rough dirt road. (from dictionary.com)

So you may have noticed the other day I got all ranty about a magazine’s decision to pull a review for the book Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein.  On the one hand, I concede that they have the right to publish whatever they wish in their magazine, I really and truly do.  On the other hand, I object on the grounds that what they are in fact doing is limiting their readers access to information and the ability to make decisions for themselves.  I’m all about access to information.

Let me tell you a story. At the age of 20 I was majoring in Youth Ministry at Mount Vernon Nazarene College in Ohio.  My life goal was to be a youth pastor.  College, as you may have heard, is expensive and I needed a job.  So I went to the job placement center on campus and they said the local public library was wanting to hire someone to work with teens and since my major was working with teens they thought I would be a good candidate.  I didn’t get the job at first (shame on them!), but a few weeks later they called and said they liked me so much that they decided to hire a second part time person to work with teens.  The rest, as they say, is history.

At this same time I was taking my religion classes and my bible classes and my adolescent development classes and my psychology classes.  One day a professor made a point that would stick with me forever: 80% of all decisions for Christ are made in the teenage years.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  Adolescence, as we know, is when most teens go through the process of trying to figure out what they think, feel, believe and want to be.  It is during the teenage years, primarily, that teens decide to go from being someone who is forced to go to church with their parents to someone who has decided of their own free will to actively embrace and engage in their life of faith.  As in most areas of development, adolescence is a crucial stage.

But what makes someone go from being the person dragged to church to the person who desires to go to church?  I believe that part of our answer is ACCESS.

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”
– Jo Godwin
You see, we can’t make decisions without having things to decide from.  You can’t decide you are going to be a Christian (or a Muslim or an Atheist or whatever) without having enough information on all sides of the equation to make an informed personal decision.  I can’t say that I hate the color blue if I have never seen anything that is the color blue.  I don’t have enough information to make a qualified decision.  In the same way, I can’t decide I am going to be a Christian unless I understand what it means to be one.  This is why access to information is so very important.

Free Speech, Free Access

So theoretically, our nation is founded on the principle that all people deserve the right to pursue Life, Liberty and Happiness.  That we have certain fundamental rights, such as free speech and the right to practice our faith of choice.  Again, these rights demand that we also have the right to ACCESS.

That is where your local public library comes in.  We are all about ACCESS.  Our goal is to have a wide variety of materials on our shelves to represent a wide variety of thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. so that you can make informed personal decisions.  I guarantee you, there is something in every library that will offend you.  But there is also going to be stuff that meets your personal needs.

I mention this because just yesterday someone posted a comment on my Pretty Amy post and they used the words “Free Speech” in quotes.  As if there was something somehow fishy about this concept of free speech. (Please go read our comment exchange here, it is totally and completely a good look at honest civil discourse, which is also important).  This person represents an organization known as Safe Libraries. 

Intellectual freedom is the right to freedom of thought and of expression of thought. As defined by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a human right. Article 19 states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.[1]
The modern concept of intellectual freedom developed out of an opposition to book censorship.[2] It is promoted by several professions and movements. These entities include, among others, librarianship, education, and the Free Software Movement.
(from Wikipedia, I know – for shame.)

So let’s take a moment to talk about “safe libraries”.  Of course we want libraries to be safe places in so far as when you walk into my building, I want you to leave it unharmed in any way.  BUT, I propose that intellectually, libraries are in fact unsafe places and that is a good thing!  You see, I want you to be challenged and grow and be a radical thinker.  Why is this important?  Let’s remember that before we understood that the Sun was the center of the universe we believed that the Earth was.  A radical notion indeed, so radical that Galileo was charged with being a heretic.  Sometimes, radical thoughts are required to help us move forward in our understanding of self and the world we live in.  Without radical thoughts, unsafe thinking, we would not have scientific progress, personal growth, and those “a-ha” moments that change the course of human history.  We would still be reading off our stone etched tablets by candle light while we rode camels to the marketplace and did our personal business in a hole in the ground.  See, radical thinking is good!

So How do You Make the Library a Safe Place?

So yes, libraries are in fact intellectually unsafe places – as well they should be.  BUT, every library everywhere believes that parents have the right to help guide their children in using the library.  In fact, we highly encourage you to do so.  Whether it be buying products, consuming media, or navigating the stacks in the library – it is the parents role to help make sure that their children are engaging in the things you want them to.  Look, you really don’t want me parenting your child, I promise you.  I woke up this morning and watched the “alien dinosaur from space” movie (Godzilla) with my 3-year-old.  If it has sharks or dinosaurs in it, we’re in.  Some people would object to that.  See, you don’t want me parenting your child.

So here is how I discuss materials selection with parents so that you can make the library a safe place for your family according to your personal standards, which are probably not my own (remember, dinosaurs and sharks!) . . .

1.  Actively use the library with your child/teenager.

2.  Discuss your families personal boundaries so your child/teenager clearly understands your household rules.

3.  When selecting materials, look at the age of the characters in the book.  This will give you some indication as to the type of situations that will be covered, the language used, etc.

4.  Read the back cover and inside jacket information for more clues.  On the title page there is often CIP information that will tell you major subject headings.  This is often found in the catalog as well.

CIP information for I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
See the subject heading serial murderers? That’s a clue.
5.  Still not sure?  Read reviews from multiple sources.  I recommend more than one source because sex or language may not phase one reviewer so they won’t mention it but another reviewer may.  Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads all post multiple reviews of titles.

6.  Talk to your librarian.  This one is tricky because the truth is, I don’t read every book that gets placed on my shelves.  It is physically impossible for me to do so.  I do read reviews, but again, different reviewers focus on different elements.  And even if I have read the book, you and I may have personal differences about what is acceptable.  If I know a book has sex in it and I’m talking to the parent of a teen, I will mention it because some parents have strong feelings about that.  If I am talking to an obviously younger teen and doing some one-on-one RA (reader’s advisory) I go to the younger end of my YA collection.  I tend to think 1) age of characters and 2) if I know it, content.  It is important to remember: we don’t always know the specific content and we don’t always agree on what is acceptable.

Here’s my real, true life story example:  A patron once came in and complained to me about Harry Potter.  This patron was a teacher and was reading the book out loud to her class and she said it had a cuss word in it.  It was probably the second or third book.  I personally had read – and loved – the HP books and had no idea what she was talking about.  I didn’t remember there being any bad words in it.  It just didn’t stand out to me in the same way that it stood out to her.  Because people are different.

7.  Read the book first and decide for yourself if you want your child reading it.

8.  Better yet, read the book with your child/teen and discuss it along the way.  Discuss what parts of the stories you like and those that you don’t, how it fits in with your family’s value system, etc.  I think this last part is really important because the truth is, your teenager is going to school with kids/teens completely different than yours (unless you home school) and they are hearing and seeing things every day that they may need help processing.  This is also important because, theoretically, they will one day enter the larger world, get a job, etc. and they will spend a lot of time with people who are radically different than them.  Reading has the power to help build empathy, to create dialogue, etc.  We can shelter our children to the point that they shatter when they enter the “real world”, or we can give them strong foundations and critical thinking skills to help them live quality adult lives so they can interact with the world in positive, meaningful ways.  That is what ACCESS does.

So here’ my real life parenting example.  You see, I am a parent.  I have 2 little girls.  They are awesome (you’ll have to take my word for it.)  My tween likes to watch iCarly, but I have banned it in my house. Why?  Because it is not okay with me that Sam hits Freddie.  I think physical abuse is physical abuse no matter who is doing it to whom or why.  We don’t get to hit people.  It’s not funny.  It’s not acceptable.  I draw that line in my home.  If Freddie were hitting Sam we all know that women everywhere would be screaming about the violence against women.  Violence is not funny, it is not okay.  So we don’t watch iCarly.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t watch iCarly.  It just means that my kids can’t.  I deny them access because that is my parental right, but you don’t get to deny my children access.

Wait, Let’s Get Back to Access

So let’s go back to Pretty Amy for a moment, shall we?  You see, when that magazine decided not to run a review of Pretty Amy, they were withholding access to information and not allowing their readers to make that decision for themselves.  They deemed the book inappropriate instead of allowing teenage girls and their families everywhere to make that decision for themselves.  Was it within their rights?  Definitely.  It’s just not my favorite decision.

What are your thoughts on access?  And what tools do you suggest to parents/teens to help them navigate the library?

What if Amy wasn’t Pretty: a tale of censorship

As a reader, I know that story has the power to change lives.  From the moment I read It by Stephen King in the 6th grade, I knew that I wanted to be THAT type of friend.  When I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee I knew I wanted to be THAT type of a person.  You can, in fact, read about a couple of my life changing experiences as a reader here and here.

As a librarian, as someone who cares about teens, who cares about the future of the world, I count on the fact that story has the power to change lives.  I put books in the hands of teens every day and hope that they will have their Pandemonium or Ask the Passengers moment.

As a girl, I understand that story has the power to help us understand who we are, how we think, and how we can be so much more than the world sometimes seems destined to let us be.  I imagine that is also the case for boys, but have less personal insight into it.  But that is why there is such tremendous value in authors like Judy Blume and Sarah Dessen and Sara Zarr and yes, in the book Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein.

You see for me, the heart of Pretty Amy is the story that most girls have within them: we are struggling to be at peace in our own skin, we are struggling to find a group of people that we can be It level friends with.  We want to find a way to hold our head up high and feel pretty – not on the outside pretty, but inside valuable to the world no matter what pretty.  And this is the heart that beats in the core of Pretty Amy.

However, before Amy can get to the climb towards self acceptance, she must – like so many of us must – realizes that she needs to take that journey of self discovery.  In Pretty Amy, that moment comes when she is arrested on prom night for drug possession (marijuana) and intent to sell.  Yesterday, author Lisa Burstein tweeted that a magazine had decided not to publish a review of her book Pretty Amy because it had teens using drugs in it.

Let’s take a side step for a moment, shall we?  You may have heard that there is a mega hot selling book out right now called 50 Shades of Grey.  I have not read this book, but it is my understanding that many people consider it to be a model of unhealthy relationships.  There are articles about this book on every major news outlet and you can see commercials for it on TV.  You can not escape the phenom that is 50 Shades.  So, while we are busy being told time and time again that these types of relationships – and trust me, 50 Shades is not the only example out there, I have even discussed before my concerns about the way unhealthy relationships are portrayed in teen fiction and, in this case, adult fiction (trust me, teens are reading it too) – are okay, we are going to sweep Pretty Amy under the rug because a teen does drugs.  Please note: drug use is in no way glorified or condoned in this book, in fact, it is the impetus for Amy’s journey to a healthy sense of self which means she must move away from these activities.  What’s the take away teen readers get here? Reading about unhealthy romantic relationships good and titillating, reading about non glorified drug use is bad.  Let’s unpack that a little further shall we: it is your role to subjugate yourself in unhealthy ways to a man to find fulfillment as a woman, but we can’t let you read about a teenage girl smoking pot, being punished for it and finding ACTUAL healthy self-fulfillment.

So while Bella must surrender her soul and become a member of the immortal undead to find her true love and we accept that, we can’t let teens grapple with a very real life scenario and come to a sense of understanding that some of the choices that we make are unhealthy and unwise but we can fix them.  They don’t have to define us as we can move forward and make different choices.  Please note Bella can never make a different choice – she has surrendered her soul – but Amy most definitely can.

That is part of the value of realistic fiction.  It allows us as readers to step into someone else’s shoes, to live another person’s life, and learn from it.  We may learn compassion for others.  We may learn to make different choices.  We may learn to act, think or feel differently – but we learn.  The question we must ask ourselves is this: how do we want our teens to learn?  Do we want them to learn in the safety of their rooms in the pages of a book?  Or do we want to shelter them to such an extreme that they don’t understand the dangers of the world they live in and are forced to learn in very real ways?  I personally vote safety of a book, but that’s just crazy talk.

I have known teens and have watched them disintegrate before my eyes because they have fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs.  It is such a horrible sight to witness, drugs are a powerful force.  Abuse, drugs, crime – literature, the power of story, can help teen readers figure out how to live in the world without making very painful and sometimes irreversible mistakes.  If we want our teens to be critical thinkers who can make good decisions for self and future, then we must be willing to let them enter into the pages of a book and examine the story critically.

Amy becomes pretty, pretty on the inside pretty, because she learns to love herself.  Her story can teach teen girls everywhere to do the same.  I wish that we would understand that our teens are on those crucial steps toward adulthood and we need to allow them to make safe steps on that journey by allowing them the opportunity to think and feel and interact with the real world.  And let’s not forget, some of our teens are already living those lives that we are trying to protect other teens from, we devalue them and their story when we censor their truth.  Just because you want to pretend something isn’t there doesn’t really make it go away.  I think the question we have to ask ourselves is how to we learn about the lives of our teens, give them voice, and have meaningful conversations with teens and each other about the lives of teens.  And the answer is found in the pages of books like Pretty Amy.

Read my previous thoughts on censorship:
A Banned Books Week Primer
Banned Books Week: Teen fiction is . . .

Here is my review of Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein
And read more about the power of YA literature by clicking on the Why YA? link