By Alena Rivers and Hal Patnott
As graduate assistants in the Butler Children’s Literature Center and current students of the Master of Library and Information Science program at Dominican University, we are continuously exposed to new and classic children’s and young adult literature. We are challenged to read with our eyes wide open to the impact that a story can have on its young readers who, intuitively, look for books that relate to their own interests and experiences and shed light on their developing personalities. As librarians-in-training, we are learning how important it is to share books that encourage our readers to think beyond their experiences in order to build a bigger picture of the world around them. Books with diverse characters benefit more than the populations they represent.
This week, we will be participating in a Mock Book Challenge as part of our LIS 777 : Issues of Access, Advocacy, and Policy course. The subject of our book challenge is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This exercise is serving as excellent preparation for what may be an inevitable experience for us during our library careers. Within this course and others, we have discussed intellectual freedom, the ALA’s position on censorship, and how censorship differs from selection. We have discussed how librarians can use their library’s collection development policy to support their stand on book challenges, and how crucial it is to have a clear and comprehensive policy to follow. Our discussions have been insightful but they have also generated questions that go beyond what happens when a book is challenged or banned.
Over the course of our first year in the GSLIS program, we have witnessed the critical reviews of several children’s and young adult books including A Birthday Cake for George Washington, A Fine Dessert, and more recently When We Was Fierce, There Is a Tribe of Kids and Ghost. In these cases, books have been pulled before publication, published but not recommended by reviewers, or recommended by mainstream review sources but not by others in the children’s/young adult literature community. How does censorship play a role in these early stages of a book’s introduction to its readers? How is communication about a book’s content impacted by censorship, which, in effect, tries to silence communication?
Nearly every one of these books has arrived in the Butler Center and their presence has generated discussion about the process that comes well before a book is challenged or banned in our school and public libraries. We see books before they are published and there is a whole conversation that happens before the books end up in, or get weeded from, a library based on outdated content. We wonder about the occasions, though, when a contemporary book, as opposed to one published in a long-ago, less-enlightened era, misrepresents an oppressed group of people. Books like those mentioned above are new and coming under fire, rightfully so, because of misrepresentations of characters and their experiences.
In our quest to delve deeper into these topics and to write our own reviews with a critical and informed eye on the content of the books we have found that more and more, what others in children’s and young adult literature already know; there is a great absence in the number of authors/illustrators, publishers and reviewers from diverse backgrounds who can create and evaluate stories dominated by diverse characters. The incident at VOYA this last week is a prime example of the thoughtless and hurtful errors that can occur because of a lack of diversity and understanding.
Another issue arises when we put authors on a pedestal because of their previous acclaim. Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier received starred reviews in Booklist, SLJ, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Her work was praised in these reviews for its diversity, but as Debbie Reese pointed out in her review, the diversity was superficial. We expect better of authors like Telgemeier, but ultimately they aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. As Diane Foote commented last year on the Coretta Scott King Book Award electronic discussion list, “We expect a crappy book to be, well, crappy, and if its crappiness is also evident in poor cultural competency, well, that’s just to be expected, and we dismiss such a book. But in an otherwise high-quality production, the failure of even the most basic historical accuracy or cultural competency insults all of our high expectations, and insults young readers most of all.” If we stop reading with a critical eye because the author is someone whose past work we love, then we will miss opportunities for much needed conversations. Those conversations are an important part of intellectual freedom.
What conversations are you having this Banned Books Week?
Alena and Hal, thank you so much for this thoughtful post. Conversations about access, advocacy, and policy must begin with MLIS programs and extend throughout the careers of professional librarians serving youth and families. Our place is here, and the time is now. The time is always now.
At the beginning of every semester, I’m fond of telling my LIS 777 students how I expect we’ll raise lots of questions about intellectual freedom in our 16 weeks together but I won’t be surprised if we don’t actually answer them definitively. The discourse we start at Dominican will necessarily evolve and continue as we learn to tolerate ambiguity and feel uncomfortable. We should worry when we stop talking, when we stop asking questions, and when we feel at ease.
In celebrating Banned Books Week, we claim our roles as access mavens and champions of intellectual freedom. Be proud, but be humble, too. Ours is a mantle of honor, and we must wear it well.