My newest novel, THE SEVENTH WISH, is about a lot of things – Irish dancing, ice fishing, magic, entomophagy, flour babies, and friendship. It’s also about the effects of opioid addiction on families, especially younger siblings. On the day my book was released this week, I was disinvited from a school visit in Vermont on less than 24 hours notice. The librarian and principal told me they felt they hadn’t prepared their students well enough for that visit, despite the fact that it was scheduled in January and a copy of the book was provided to them at that time. They also returned all of the copies of the book they’d purchased for the school library. You can read more about that situation in this post, and this one, about the heroic effects of the town’s public library and an independent bookstore to get books into the kids’ hands anyway.
I’ve gotten lots of messages of support about this from people who agree that we need to share books like this with kids. But I also got an email this morning from a school librarian in another state, who said she wanted to offer me a different perspective on THE SEVENTH WISH. She wrote:
As a huge super fan of yours I did want to offer a new perspective of The Seventh Wish. It was on my book order list before I even read what it was about. However, after reading the description, I too sadly had to remove it.
She says I’m one of the favorite authors in her K-5 library. They have all of my other books, and they fly off the shelves. But this one won’t be added to the collection. She continued:
It’s not that I don’t think heroin addiction is extremely important. Our community has faced its share of heartbreaking stories in regards to drug abuse but fourth and fifth graders are still so innocent to the sad drug world. Even two years from now when they’re in sixth grade this book will be a wonderful and important read but as a mother of a fourth grader, I would never give him a book about heroin because he doesn’t even know what that is. I just don’t think that at 10 years old he needs to worry about that on top of all of the other things he already worries about… For now, I just need the 10 and 11-year-olds biggest worry to be about friendships, summer camps, and maybe their first pimple or two.
This breaks my heart. As a writer. As an educator. As a parent. As someone who loves kids. It breaks my heart because I know this feeling so well. Those are all the things I want 10 and 11 year olds to worry about, too. But I don’t get to choose what those kids’ lives are like. None of us do.
We don’t serve only our own children. We don’t serve the children of 1950. We don’t serve the children of some imaginary land where they are protected from the headlines. We serve real children in the real world. A world where nine-year-olds are learning how to administer Naloxone in the hopes that they’ll be able to save a family member from dying of an overdose. And whether you teach in a poor inner city school or a wealthy suburb, that world includes families that are shattered by opioid addiction right now. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. It just makes those kids feel more alone.
When we choose books for school and classroom libraries, we need to remember who we serve. We serve the kids. All of them. Even the kids whose lives are not what we might want childhood to look like. Especially those kids.
When we quietly censor books that deal with tough issues like heroin addiction or books like Alex Gino’s GEORGE, which is a wonderful story about a transgender fourth grader, we are hurting kids. Because no matter where we teach, we have students who are living these stories. When we say, “This book is inappropriate,” we’re telling those children, “Your situation…your family…your life is inappropriate.” This is harmful. It directly hurts children. And that’s not what we do.
As Pernille Ripp pointed out so beautifully in this blog post, it is not our job to censor. It is not our job to keep books away from kids. It’s our job to make books available for the families who need them, to respect the rights of families to choose or not choose whatever books they want and need. But not to make those decisions for them without ever giving them a chance.
Instead of carefully erasing books that might be controversial, what if we did a better job educating our school families about what we do? When I taught middle school, I used to talk with families about why my classroom library was so diverse. I explained up front that it included titles they might not find appropriate for every single reader because my students were all wonderfully unique, with different lives and different needs. We talked about what that diverse book selection meant for families.
Kids, in general, do a fantastic job self-selecting books, and when they find they’ve picked up something they’re not ready for, they’re usually quick to put it down and ask for help choosing something else. As teachers and librarians, we’ll offer recommendations and steer kids toward books that are age-appropriate, and we encourage you to talk about books with your kids. We have multiple copies of many titles in our library. Let us know if you’d like to check out two copies of a book so you can read together. And if you find that your student has chosen a book that you think might not be the right book for him or her right now, talk about that, too.
We respect your right to help your own child choose reading material, and we ask that you respect the rights of other parents to do the same. If you object to your child reading a particular book, send it back to the library, and we’ll help your student find another selection. We’ll put the first book back on the shelf because even though you don’t feel it’s the right book for your child right now, it may be the perfect book for someone else’s.
Teachers & librarians…please feel free to use any of this blog post about heading off book challenges if it’s helpful to you as you do your job.
And thank you so much for doing that job. So many of you are fighting every single day to make sure kids have access to the books they want to read and the books they need to survive. Thank you for serving the kids. All of them.