NonFiction Monday: Banned Books, One School Librarian’s Experience

This week is Banned Book Week. It’s this time each year that fifth graders learn about the First Amendment.  The lesson I teach annually, comes from my first few years as the library media center.  I had three books challenges; one picture book (The Stupids Step Out by Harry Allard) and two nonfiction books, Where Do Babies Come From by Margaret Sheffield and Inside Mom by Sylvia Caveney).  Both nonfiction books are out of print, although Amazon does have uses copies for sale.

For Nonfiction Monday, I’ll focus on my experience with the nonfiction books. In the mid- 1980’s our district was a hot bed for book challenges. The challenges to these two books marked the sixth and seventh formal complaints in the district. 

New to the library, I analyzed the collection for its strengths and weaknesses.  One area, the human growth and development section, was lacking.  So I purchased the the Sheffield and Caveney book.

Perhaps if I had not spoken out by promoting the purchases in the Silver Star newsletter, the challenge may or may not have taken place.  I did wrestle with the promotion, the calling to attention to the books.  I felt, however, that based on the research of reviews and other selection tools, there was no need to hide the books within the stacks.

One parent felt differently.  He was “very offended” and wanted Where do Babies Come From completely removed as it lacked “any literary quality, showed a naked couple embracing and he knew what fourth, fifith and sixth grade boys would do with picture books like these.”  For Inside Mom, the parent wanted parental permission required to check it out.

When a parent or parents come to me with concerns about books, I listen.  I suggest that I can assist it monitoring their child’s choices as that’s their parental right (And certainly easier now with computers than in the mid-80’s.)  But some parents want to protect all  children.  After listening to this parent with the principal, the first step of the process, we handed the “Request for Reconsideration of Materials.” 

You hope that the parent will leave and think it through.  A lot of times they do and you don’t see them again. But with this parent, he returned the form. The next step was the hearing with the Instructional Materials Committee.

It was time to gather the forces and contact my library colleagues and the community (which due to the large amounts of books challenges there was a supportive community.) It meant reaching out to people with phone calls and notes as it was the pre-email, pre-twitter era.

So in May 1986, I went before the committee to advocate for these books.  I outlined the purpose of the library and my criteria for selection: accuracy, currency, author’s responsibility and competency, and the organization and scope of the book.  I ended the testimony reminding the committee that  “the library media center is a storehouse of information, books from the library are not required reading, and it’s a place where students gather to seek  knowledge in oder to cope with the complexity of daily life and have unanswered questions answered,”

In the  end, a restricted shelf for the human growth and development books was created in all elementary libraries. It was overturned the following year when another parent challenged it’s creation.

This experience, early in my career, created a deep appreciation for the First Amendment.  I am fortunate that my district has a strong selection and reconsideration policy in place.  I didn’t like the original outcome of the challenged nonfiction books, but the procedures worked and with a change in school board members, the restricted shelf  fell away.  Recently, I worked with the district to update the reconsideration policy and procedure.

I get riled up when I hear of good books being challenged as in the most recent case of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.  I have to speak out. I want fifth graders to know how important their right to read is. They are always stunned at the idea of challenging books.  I continue to create that storehouse of books and materials where students are able to wrestle with the complications of everyday life. 

This weekend I thought about the fourth grade student who said “I became a woman on Monday.”  What if she’d asked for a book on the topic and I had to say I have a book but you have to get permission to read it.  Thankfully, today, I can show her the section of the library w/ information.

I celebrate Banned Book Week this week and through out the year.  Having information for students is what the library media center is about. 

Wendie’s Wanderings is hosting Nonfiction Monday.

Happy Reading. Read a banned book today.