Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post called “Remember Who We Serve: Some Thoughts on Book Selection and Omission,” which you can read here. I explained that after I was disinvited from a school visit in Vermont last week, another librarian from a different state contacted me to let me know that she loved my books but had removed THE SEVENTH WISH from her library’s order list because of its content.
THE SEVENTH WISH earned a starred review from Kirkus, which called it “Hopeful, empathetic, and unusually enlightening.” The book is about lots of things – Irish dancing, ice fishing, magic, entomophagy, flour babies, and friendship. It’s also about the shattering effect our country’s opioid epidemic has on families.
That librarian who removed the book from her order list responded to my blog post with a comment that made it clear she was upset, so I emailed and asked if she’d be open to talking more about this issue. She said yes, and we had a great phone conversation this past Saturday. I learned that she does indeed see the other side of the argument as well, but she still thinks kids’ innocence should be preserved longer by limiting access to some topics. She’s also under pressure from parents in her community to limit the kinds of books in her library. The bottom line is, she feels like she can’t give elementary students access to a book like THE SEVENTH WISH without risking her job.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can all do a better job supporting librarians and teachers who want to provide kids more access to books but are worried about pushback, so I proposed that this librarian and I start a conversation and invite others to participate in that discussion, too. She and I have profound disagreements about what kinds of books belong in a K-5 library, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to disagree respectfully, listen to one another, and try to brainstorm solutions. We’ve been doing that for a few days now, writing back and forth via email, with the understanding that she remain anonymous. She’s worried about repercussions from her school for speaking out, and about personal attacks due to her views. I’m honoring that wish so that we’re able to share that conversation with you. So as you read the conversation, know that K is me, and L is the librarian with whom I’ve been sharing ideas this week. It’s a long conversation, but I wanted to share it all in a single blog post so that people who read it aren’t just getting bits and pieces. Here’s what we’ve been talking about…
K: First of all, thanks for agreeing to have this open conversation. I’m a little nervous but also excited to be talking openly about our disagreements about elementary libraries, book selection, and access for students. I know that many K-5 librarians carry a wide range of books that we might consider “older” titles, mostly appropriate for 4th and 5th graders, while others, like you, are a lot more cautious out of concern that a very young student might bring home a book that’s meant for the older elementary readers. I know that you haven’t read THE SEVENTH WISH just yet (and I’m still hoping that will make a difference) but I know from your earlier email that you removed it from your library’s book order list when you learned that one of its themes was the effect our country’s heroin epidemic has on families, especially younger siblings. Could you talk a little about your immediate reaction to learning that and why it made you re-think your book order, even though my other books are popular in your library?
L: Thank you Kate for starting this discussion. I think it’s important for people to read and respect both sides of the issue, and I am very open to hearing what other educators have to say. As a parent of young children, I admit I am having a lot of trouble separating my personal and professional opinion on this one.
As I was reading about The Seventh Wish I noticed that it is marketed as a middle grade book. Where I live, middle grade is 6th – 8th. I will be the first one to donate a copy to our middle school library, but where I keep getting stuck is pushing a middle grade book into an elementary school library. Ranger in Time was the best seller at our most recent book fair so that gives you an idea of where my students are as far as their reading level both academically and emotionally.
During our discussion, you mentioned one of her fears was that not having your new book on the shelf would be the same as saying that the life of a child with addiction in their family is inappropriate. I completely disagree. I don’t feel that way in the slightest. My heart breaks for children struggling with addiction in any way but my feelings are simply leaning in favor of keeping our youngest students (without this struggle) from growing up too quickly. How do I get the book to students who need it while protecting other kids who might suffer from reading it?
I have been teaching for almost 20 years, and I have had the privilege of teaching different levels. This has been wonderful for me as an educator as I’ve been able to see all ages and levels and get a fairly decent idea of how children at all age ranges react to and handle a variety of topics. Something that has always amazed me is the huge difference between fourth grade and sixth grade. The changes within those two years are incredible. The growth and maturity that take place really turns them into totally different students. As their bodies change, so do their minds about the opposite sex. Girls are no longer icky and most of the boys grow taller than me! It’s really fun to watch them change and mature. It’s also much easier to have well thought out conversations about really important topics. I find that in fourth grade conversations about tough topics need to begin, but I personally feel like there needs to be a line. I can control my ten-year-old and I can control what happens in my house, but I can’t speak for every parent out there.
Let me start by describing that usually happens in the school library vs. the public library. When I take my son to the public library, I’ll bring him there to look around and when we go to check out, I look and see what books he’s bringing home before he starts to read them. When he gets a book from the school library, he usually starts reading it before I even see it. The same goes for where I work. Students get their books and most start reading it right way before class is even over. Most often, a book with mature content doesn’t even make it past the eyes of their parents first, if at all. Years ago I let an older student check out Twilight and I had a parent incredibly angry at me because she had told her daughter she didn’t want her to read it. How was I supposed to know? That was between her and her daughter but of course that led to a bigger discussion about having something like that on the shelf.
Also, let’s not forget that all it takes is one parent to get angry enough to get my job taken away. I don’t know that any book takes precedence over a career I love and a job I need. So that is one part of my fear here. Students are checking out books with mine being the only supervision, and I can’t possibly know every parents wishes and concerns. That’s why I try to have something that just about any child could pick up off the shelf and the content would be O.K. Every once in a while a second-grader will sneak by me with a book where I think the reading level is too difficult but luckily the content is still benign. It is my ultimate responsibility to balance student wishes and parent concerns.
One of the biggest concerns throughout our fourth and fifth grade population is extreme anxiety. Disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety and even depression are on the rise for our youngest students, and I feel like it’s only gotten worse as the years go on. These students represent a much greater population in my area than those affected by drug abuse. I don’t know if it’s more technology or more television or what, but so many of our students’ greatest problems revolve around constant worries. Having a fourth-grade child puts me in direct contact with many other fourth-grade moms and we have the same discussions over and over. Why are our children up at night crying and worrying about things matter how safe we try to keep them? They worry about getting in trouble, things on the news, something happening to their loved ones, not making the team, or someone being mean to them. My own son’s list of fears always amazes me. He was reading Stuart Gibbs’ Spaced Out the other day and had to stop because he got scared of a giant robot arm on the moon. I have friends whose kids can’t watch the Avengers because it’s too scary, and I also know several children who read The Hunger Games without their parents’ knowledge and cried with nightmares for several days. My closest friend had to stop buying I Survived books for her son because he became terrified that a natural disaster was going to hit at any minute. Who am I to say what will or won’t upset someone’s child? It’s a huge burden that I take very seriously. A fourth grader is very fragile and their minds are just starting to open to the scary things in the world. They don’t quite have the maturity to know how to process it and deal with it. Thankfully I don’t live in a community where young kids are put in dangerous situations on a daily basis.
I know there are many places where this is different and perhaps that would change my thoughts dramatically. Drugs are a very scary thing and 4th and 5th grade is the point they should absolutely start to learn the dangers and saying no, but this is where the conversation should just begin to start. Our D.A.R.E. program starts in 5th grade led by a team of educated officers armed with the training and resources to thoughtfully present material and answer questions. Parents should continue the conversation if they feel it is right for their child. I don’t think that most fourth-graders, at least in my community, are ready to hear about heroin addiction and overdose on their own through a fiction book without parent guidance.
Why add one more fear to his or her brain that isn’t there? For what purpose? Yesterday you spoke about a student learning empathy for a child who is going through drug addiction and their family. Of course that would be extremely important, but what if it’s not something that is happening in their life right now? If there was an overdose death in the community that affected our children then I think The Seventh Wish should be pulled out immediately, and I’m thankful it’s there. I guess I keep getting stuck on the idea of putting a new fear in an already fear-filled brain. What age is O.K? 10, 9, 8 years old?
Yesterday, after my discussion with you, I carefully opened this topic with my son. We’ve talked about drugs before and peer pressure and the dangers, but we haven’t delved into heavy specifics. We were driving to the store and he asked me why I have been on my computer so much. I told him about what was going on with your book, and we started to have a little bit of a conversation about the dangers of drugs. He said, “I know drugs are bad. I would never do that. I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to get home so I can play in the sprinkler with Max” (his brother). I wondered if maybe I should have him read this book but then I have to ask, why? He just wants to play in the sprinkler with his brother. He doesn’t know anyone addicted to drugs and that’s luckily not part of his life for now. Why do I want to give him something to fear? I know the types is questions I will get- Why are people doing drugs? What is heroin? Where do you get it? What does it look like? How does somebody die? What happens to their bodies? Could I take drugs by accident? What if someone makes me do it? I’d be fueling anxiety for weeks. One thing we have certainly learned about a 10-year-old is that when you tell them something and you think they’re fine, the minute they are alone their brains work it out over and over again and they think about it, they analyze it, and they pick it apart trying to understand it.
I also shared your blog with several of my friends, some elementary school teachers, and parents on the baseball field yesterday. They all vehemently agreed with me that while a book like that would be important, they would not want it in the elementary school library. Parents want to feel like they can send their child to school and they will come home with something safe. Again this is the predominant thought in my community, and I am well aware it would be different for other towns. I’m not a book burner, I’m not an extreme conservative and I don’t support banning books at appropriate age levels. If a child wants to read about heroin with their parent’s permission then that’s completely fine with me. If that’s what their family wants to discuss then they should buy all means do it, but when it is my responsibility to assure parents that what I have on my shelves will keep their 10-year-old as anxiety free as I can, then these are the kinds of decisions I need to make.
I’ve read some of the comments on the blog where people are crying censorship and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe there are some liberal communities out there that totally embrace telling their children every possible bad thing that could happen to them in their life, but once that innocence bubble is popped they can never unlearn those things or remove those images. I want some more hours of sprinklers, mud pies, and running around with light sabers. I know that it is a privilege that my son can have that kind of life, and I am well aware that there are communities where children are desperate for a book about finding their way through family addiction. This book would be a tremendous comfort for them and their friends. Ultimately I think it’s each librarian’s prerogative to look at the demographic and what their greatest community need might be. I just don’t see it here. While I’m certain there are families dealing with drugs, I believe that to be a very small minority in my particular town compared to the children suffering from anxiety. The students of my district and my own kids will have access to this book for sure in sixth grade. Can’t we let the fourth and fifth graders be free just a little longer?
K: I appreciate your willingness to engage in this conversation so thoughtfully. I feel like I addressed my thoughts on a lot of this in my earlier blog post that prompted this conversation, “Remember Who We Serve: Thoughts on book selection and omission,” so I’ll link to that for anyone who hasn’t seen it and just add a few more thoughts and questions to our conversation here.
I think there’s a vast difference between a middle grade novel like THE SEVENTH WISH, which industry reviews like Kirkus and SLJ recommend for grades four and up and a book intended for teens, like THE HUNGER GAMES. But the books we’re talking about are intended for upper elementary readers. Even though they tackle tough subject matter, they do it in an age appropriate way.
I understand your concerns about kids and anxiety but wonder how you handle other scary topics in your school library.
Do you carry the I Survived books, for example, since they are intended for your age group but can be scary for kids who worry about natural disasters?
Do you have any sad novels that deal with the death of a parent or other loved one? What about books where a family member has heart disease or cancer?
I’m also curious how your library deals with books on other topics that can be controversial in some communities. Alex Gino’s award winning middle grade novel GEORGE, for example, is left out of some school libraries because it’s about a transgender fourth grader. What did you decide about that title in your school?
Mostly, I’m wondering where you think we should draw that line. Is it our job as librarians and educators to protect kids from any books and ideas that might upset them? It seems to me that if we removed every potentially anxiety provoking book from the library, we’d be left with a mighty small collection that neglected the needs of many readers.
I found your reflection on the privilege of having a protected community to be a thoughtful one. “I know that it is a privilege that my son can have that kind of life, and I am well aware that there are communities where children are desperate for a book about finding their way through family addiction.” I agree with you on this, but I’d bet that even in your safe-feeling community, there are kids struggling and wondering and looking for a sign that they’re not alone. Those may very well not be the kids whose parents you were able to talk with on the baseball field or in the faculty room. They’re also kids who can’t always get to a public library with a family member. When I taught middle school, I know that for most of my students – more than half – the only books they encountered were the books our school librarian and I put in their hands and recommended.
And this question… “Can’t we let the fourth and fifth graders be free just a little longer?” For me…as a parent, the answer to this question is absolutely yes. But as librarians, as teachers, as educators charged with providing access to books for all the kids – not just our own – I feel like our responsibilities are different. How can we better balance those two concerns – respecting parents’ rights to choose books for their own kids and making sure all our students have access to the books they want to read and the books they need?
L: The funny thing about this debate is that I agree with so many of your points. How do we responsibly choose books that will educate our students and add to the quality of their lives? I wish I had a perfect answer. This is something I struggle with every year. I think when I was younger, before I had my own kids and when I was willing to take on the world, I would have allowed almost anything of value into my classroom. Now, after years of teaching experience, multiple parent conversations, and becoming a mom myself, I’m just more cautious. These days I think about the parents and kids I serve, follow my instincts (right or wrong), and try to choose books that will help more than harm. I weigh the potential backlash of each book and when a book’s topic is something that I am struggling with putting out there, then I know it’s not right for my library.
I wish I had a more formulaic approach that it being simply a feeling that I have. But you are right- who assigned me judge and jury? Why is my opinion right or wrong? You write about it being our responsibility as educators to expose them to a broad range of topics. I disagree. On my first day of my first education class, the professor had written “In Loco Parentis” on the board. It was the first thing he taught us wide-eyed newbies. This Latin term means “in place of the parents” and in my classroom I try my best to take on the responsibility of parents in their absence. Do I often take the “better safe than sorry” approach? You betcha- just like I hope my kids’ teachers do. Also when I taught middle school these decisions didn’t weigh on me as heavily as they do with the younger grades.
You are spot on that we can’t possible remove every book with anxiety inducing topics. Death, cancer, autism, and divorce are all issues in books I have on my shelves. My star reader actually came to me one day a few weeks ago and asked if I had anything that “wasn’t so sad.” Since she was an advanced student, I realized I had been recommending many challenging (and sad) books. I felt terrible and directed her to DORK DIARIES. This poor child hadn’t laughed at a book in weeks and it was bothering her. So where do I draw the line? I suppose I try to determine if the material goes further than the MAJORITY might be emotionally ready for. Does that exclude some children who could really use the book? Probably, but to help a few do I sacrifice many? I SURVIVED is a high interest series that boys, especially my reluctant readers, flock to. I know there are some students who find these books scary, but I think a discussion about something that happened in history might be more easily handled than heroin addiction. I just hope that a child who might be scared by the first one they read won’t keep coming back for more in the series. I also know that more students are O.K. with these books than not O.K.
I had a feeling you would ask me about GEORGE. When my son asked me last year what it meant to be gay I told him all about people having the right to love whomever they want. I even told him about the Supreme Court’s decision and reiterated that our family loves everyone no matter what their sexual orientation might be. He was fine with it and ran off to jump on the trampoline. Should I have called him back and said, “Now I would love for you to read GEORGE.”? He was great with the baby steps into the conversation of homosexuality and I didn’t feel a need to expand or confuse him. As he gets older and has more questions, I’ll put that book in his hands, but not now. I also know that if that book was displayed in his library he would have picked it up solely because the cover is appealing and he thinks George is a funny name. I’m glad they don’t have it there. I’m not ready for him to know more and if I’m not ready, the parents I work for certainly aren’t ready. Last year when DRAMA by Raina Telgemeir was all the rage, I caught students huddling in the corner and snickering at the part in the book where the boys reveals he likes other boys. It was very innocent and not mean spirited, but it was also a clear indicator that they are not emotionally ready for something delving deeper into the topic.
So again it comes down to what I can do to get these books into the hands of the right students and not the wrong ones. You are correct when you say that children in need of these books might not have access to the public library or parents willing to have thoughtful discussions. Maybe I get the books and send out a notice to parents letting them know they are here if they need them. Perhaps I give a set to the guidance counselor who knows more than me who could be helped and leave it to her to decide who reads them. Maybe I invite the author to talk to the parents about the book and let the parents decide. Am I taking away a teachable movement for other kids? Yes I am, but under the umbrella of “In Loco Parentis” is where I feel comfortable.
K: I understand your desire to parcel out information to your questioning son. We did that with both our kids when we started talking with them about things like sex – we’d answer the questions and offer more information as long as they seemed interested. When they left to play Legos or jump on the trampoline, we’d let it go and pick up the conversation another day. But I still feel like that’s a parenting issue rather than a school library one. You know your son. You don’t know every challenge or concern or question your students might be dealing with on any given day, even when you talk with a selection of their parents at your son’s baseball game. Not all the families are represented there. But I believe all of those kids should have the opportunity to see themselves in books in a school library – maybe especially kids whose lives are different from your son’s.
The suicide rate for transgender youth is heartbreaking. 41% of transgender people will attempt suicide in their lives, compared to 4.6 per cent of the general population, according to this study from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute. Kids struggling with this need to feel less alone, and their classmates need to have empathy. Books are such a valuable way to do that. Instead of thinking, “Oh, that transgender kid is so WEIRD!” when a classmate is struggling, a reader might think, “Oh! I know somebody like that, because I met Melissa, the main character from GEORGE.” While I can’t back this up with a research study, I’d be willing to bet that children who have access to more diverse books are kinder and less likely to engage in bullying.
Might this book be challenged or questioned by a parent? Maybe, depending on where you live. But sometimes, I think our fears over this are bigger than the reality. The Maine teachers who just read THE SEVENTH WISH aloud with all of their school’s 5th and 6th graders sent home a letter beforehand, explaining that the book was about a family affected by heroin addiction. Do you know how many concerned parents wrote back to complain about the topic? Not a single one. But even when those phone calls do come – and I know how difficult they can be – I’d argue that kids’ lives and kinder communities are worth the fight.
After I read your latest email this morning, I revisited the American Library Association Code of Ethics. Here’s what your professional organization has to say:
Since 1939, ALA has recognized the importance of codifying and making known to the public and the profession the ethical principles that guide librarians. The Code of Ethics will be seventy years old in 2009 and has evolved into a statement of eight principles that embody the ethical responsibilities of the profession. The Code was last revised in January 2008.
The ALA Code of Ethics guides school librarians to:
- Provide the highest level of service • Resist all efforts to censor library resources
- Respect intellectual property rights
- Treat coworkers with respect, fairness, and good faith
- Distinguish between personal conviction and professional duties
- Not allow personal beliefs to interfere with provision of access to information
I understand that this is all easier said than done when one lives in a more conservative community. But I do strongly believe there are kids at your school who would benefit from a wider selection of books, even as the parents of other kids would like to keep those books unavailable to their own readers. Where does that leave a librarian, given the responsibilities ALA outlines above?
Do you know if your school district has an official selection policy for school libraries? Most do, and I know that many librarians use that as backup when they’re working to ensure kids have access to books. It can help a lot when one is facing challenges from parents or administrators.
L: I will certainly look more thoroughly into official policies about book selection. You are correct though – I suppose my biggest struggle is separating myself and my son from the parents and children where I work. Every night I look at him and imagine my students because my home looks similar to others here in our suburban town. That being said, there are books I put out that I know he would find worrisome but I do it any way because I can’t and don’t always go by him. Maybe I’m too close to this age group. Perhaps the 30+ people I asked this weekend are too close to this age group and community, but I this is where I work and live. This is the demographic I serve. I am sure there are communities where your book isn’t being marketed because the need might not be as great.
You ask me “What about the one student whose life will change because of these books?” I cannot risk the emotional well begin of K-3rd graders and take the privilege of those discussions away from their parents. I am very open to finding ways to getting your book and its message to my students and families that want to start the discussion, but I don’t feel comfortable deciding it for them. The library is open to all students ages 5-11 and our books need to reflect and respect those ages. Perhaps I can suggest your book for our 5th grade classroom library where I know no other younger student will have open access to it. Maybe I need to take some formal surveys and speak to administration to clarify their position and I am totally willing to do that. I also want to be clear that no parent or administrator has ever asked me to remove or limit a book in my current school (I’ve had different experiences in the past). Everything I write in this discussion is my opinion and does not reflect any one else in my district.
I am getting nervous to publish this conversation because what I am reading in the comments makes me sound like I am some unreasonable book banning conservative and I’m not. People are pulling out tiny excerpts from what I have written and painting me in a light I am not at all comfortable with. I am simply a teacher that looks at her entire population and makes the best decision I can in everyone’s best interest. Everything I put into this library could possibly be read by any K-5 student and I take that responsibility very seriously. When I read the comments on your blog today from the two moms who are grateful for my decisions then I feel validated. Your blog is going to contain your fans that most certainly agree with you. The majority of teachers and parents might agree with me but they aren’t going to be out there writing about it.
Again, I really want to clarify that your book should be out there for students to read. 100% it should be on the shelf in upper grades, but when my littlest ones who tear through RANGER IN TIME automatically go to the stacks for the new Messner, what do I do? Do I let them take it without saying a word that it’s not going to be what they think? They will want it simply because you are the author without even bothering to read the back. Do I ask for a note from home to read the book with the cute goldfish on the cover?
One of the comments on your blog (it was pretty mean) asked who do I think I am to decide what kids should be exposed to. I agree- who am I to decide what kids should be exposed to? Who am I to tell a parent that I don’t care what they want their child to know? Should I say that I’m going to put out everything and if they don’t like it too bad? There MUST be room for taking into account what a parent wants for their child’s school library where they aren’t there to help make the decisions. They count on me to make good choices. That’s why I try to rely on my parental instincts, but I’m open to delving deeper into trying to find out exactly what my parents expect and want.
Good luck on your book tour. I look forward to new ideas you gather about this conversation.
That’s where we left our conversation, and we’d love it if you’d join us at this point. I suspect this librarian was correct in assuming that many of my blog readers agree with my passionate views on providing kids access to books. So for her, agreeing to a conversation here is a little like a Yankees fan agreeing to stand up and share ideas about their baseball team’s merit in the middle of a crowded Fenway Park. I’d love it if we could all keep that in mind. I would love for this conversation to continue in the spirited and passionate but also respectful tone that we’ve managed so far.
Most of all, I’d love to hear from other K-5 and K-6 librarians who might be able to help this librarian with her concerns. How do you manage these issues in your own library? How can she feel safer about putting books like THE SEVENTH WISH on library shelves so that readers who need them have access?
Please know that comments from first-time commenters have to be moderated before they appear. This feature is turned on because as a woman who shares opinions, I sometimes get random, hateful, misogynistic comments left on my educational blog posts, and I do not allow those comments to appear. I’m on book tour right now, so it may take a little while for your comment to be approved so that it appears, so please be patient with me. I promise I’ll check in whenever I can.
Finally, I’d appreciate it if comments left on this post are both respectful and productive. Feel free to disagree with both of us, but please do that without engaging in personal attacks. I’d love for this conversation to be one where both sides feel heard. More than anything else, I’d like to come up with some creative solutions that increase kids’ access to the books they need. I will be using some of the comments in a future blog post to continue this conversation. Thanks in advance for joining the conversation in that spirit.