Heading off Book Challenges

There have been some excellent discussions online lately about student choice in school reading programs and how schools and parents should work together to provide those choices.  I keep a huge variety of books — both MG and YA titles — in my 7th grade classroom library.  I give book talks, and every day, I make the teachers’ version of hand sales to my student customers, recommending new titles based on the last thing a student read and loved.  Our school library, which has seen a huge increase in circulation in the past few years, operates on much the same philosophy.

Occasionally, the broad range of book choices leads a parent to question a particular title that’s in our school library or in my classroom library.  Last year, I decided I’d try to be more proactive about book challenges and choices, so at Open House, I spent some time talking with parents about how we can all work together to make sure the kids have great book choices that meet all of their needs.  I shared this talk on my blog during Banned Books Week, but with school starting again, I thought it might be worth an encore. Here’s the book-talk I’ll be giving on for parents on Back-to-School night:

Our school librarian does a phenomenal job making sure that there are books of interest to every student in our building.  That’s a lot of students.  A lot of different students.

This middle school serves sixth graders as young as ten years old and eighth graders as old as fifteen.  Five years is a big gap, and those are no ordinary five years.  The difference between ten and fifteen is the difference between Legos and iPods, the difference between trick-or-treating and Homecoming Dances. The difference between child and young adult.

Our kids are not only different ages; they arrive at school with different reading levels, different backgrounds, and different experiences that have shaped their lives in both positive and negative ways. They have different needs when it comes to reading.

The book that is perfect for your wide-eyed sixth grade girl isn’t likely to be a good fit for a fifteen-year-old boy repeating eighth grade.   The book that eighth grader will read and love is probably not one that would be right for your sixth grader right now.  But as teachers and librarians, we have a responsibility to serve all of the kids who come to us. We have a responsibility to offer literature choices that speak to all of them and meet all of their diverse needs.

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.

Our library will continue to have a wide range of choices for kids – to meet all of their varied needs and help them all develop a love of reading.  If we can ever be of help to you in recommending titles for your family, please don’t hesitate to ask.

42 Replies on “Heading off Book Challenges

  1. This is a timely subject for me. My daughter started middle school on Monday and on Wednesday she brought home a ya book with a 16year old main character who in the first chapter gets drunk on his dad’s vodka and proceeds to go for a drive. He destroys a garden gnome and I surmise that the rest of the book deals with his punishment/redemption.

    This was a real shock to me … I’m a ya and mg writer and would never dream of censoring books in any way (I’m sure this book will speak to some reader somewhere!) BUT, I don’t want it speaking to my 11 year old. She and I did have a long conversation about why I didn’t want her to read this book at this point. We talked about drinking and also drinking and driving, and about how, just because you are a teenager does not mean that you HAVE to experiment with drinking. It did open up a great conversation between us (although she was somewhat annoyed with my position at first). The next day she took the book back and checked out something more age-appropriate.

    My question is, what about the parents who don’t monitor what their kids are reading? I wonder if I have a responsibility to talk to the librarian about the content of this book. No librarian could be familiar with every book. Maybe she’s unaware? Or will she just look at me as a big pain and think I’m an overprotective parent? I would never suggest that she take it off the shelf, but it seems like it shouldn’t be going home with a 6th grader. I think my kid is lucky that I bothered to look, but I know many parents don’t think that they need to…

    I’d love to know your opinion on this …

    Thanks for the very thoughtful blog post!

  2. Re: Nicely put. May we adapt?

    Of course you may adapt whatever is useful to you for your school library. We’ve found that having this conversation with parents helps a lot.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and question. Personally, I think that if we had more conversations like the one we’re having right now (and the one you had with your daughter), I think we’d all do a better job connecting kids with the books that will speak to them and make them love reading.

    I’m familiar with the book you’re describing – it’s Jordan Sonnenblick’s NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER, and it’s outstanding. Would I say it’s appropriate for sixth graders? Yes…some of them. Because sixth graders are a wildly varied group. Does that mean it’s the perfect choice for your particular 11-year-old right now? Nope. (though the fact that she was interested in reading it might be a sign that she’s ready to have conversations with you about some of the issues and choices she’ll face when she’s older). I guess as a parent, my personal choice would have been to allow her to read the book and to check out a second copy that I could read along with her so we could talk about it. I think YA books are some of the most valuable conversation-starters around.

    But that’s only me – and I can only make those kinds of choices for my own kids, just as you can only make them for yours. You and your daughter know better than any teacher, author, blogger, or librarian what kind of books she might be ready for, so in my opinion, decisions about what she should read belong to the two of you – just as decisions about what your daughter’s classmates read belong to them and their parents. My guess is that her librarian is familiar with the book – it’s a well-known and popular title – and that she trusts kids to self select books that fit their needs. However, if you don’t want your daughter reading YA titles yet, I don’t think the librarian would think you are a pain at all, and I’m sure she’d be happy to steer your daughter to different kinds of titles that fit more into the middle grade category. Every librarian I’ve ever met is eager to work with kids and parents to help find them good books.

    And as for those other parents…the choice of how and whether or not to monitor what their kids read is just that – a choice – and I don’t feel like it’s one that anyone else can make for them. As a teacher, I can tell you that kids really do an amazing job self-selecting and are often quick to put back books that tackle issues they’re not ready to think about just yet.

    And again…all that is just my opinion. I really do appreciate the conversation, so thanks for commenting!

  4. Parents

    I love how your talk is worded! It says what I usually tell parents with concerns, but so much more clearly. Do you mind if I borrow it?

    As a School Librarian, I generally don’t mind at all when a parent tells me they don’t want their child to read a particular kind of book. I feel like that’s part of good parenting, to be aware of what their kids are reading. However, I do add that while I’ll do my best, it’s hard for me to remember out of 500 kids that kid X’s not allowed to check out Harry Potter, so please be sure to discuss that rule with your child and monitor what they check out. I also wouldn’t be offended if you told me about the content- I certainly haven’t read every book on my shelves, and every once in awhile I find another one that should have went to the middle school when our k-8 split. Or something that’s fine for 4th & 5th, but that I should steer my 2nd graders away from.

  5. Wow, school is coming back fast, isn’t it? haha.
    This blog reminded me that I have to find an SSR book to read. Do you have a suggestion for me? haha.

  6. Excellent post.
    I don’t like it when librarians/teachers try limiting kids–the can’t check out this book if you aren’t the right grade. (Had that at one school.)
    The goal as you say is for kids to love reading.

  7. Re: Parents

    Of course – feel free to share any or all of this talk with your parents!

    And thanks for joining in the conversation with a librarian’s perspective!

  8. I always have suggestions – you know that! I have a bunch of books that are similar in some ways to Twilight that I think you’d like – I know the library has a ton of great new books, too – so stop by & see me or Mr. P. once school starts.

  9. Well, it’s sticky sometimes, but limiting by grade suggests that all kids are ready for the same books at the same time, which they’re not. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah!

  10. screening YA books

    Thank you for a great post! You sound like a wonderful teacher.

    From my experience, it’s rare for an educator to discuss book selections with parents (and even students), especially at the middle school level. I am very impressed, and wish more teachers would do the same.

    Many parents do not realize that not all YA books are appropriate for young teens. That’s why it’s important to keep track of book selections (from a “distance”), and to read some of the books our children are reading. Many YA books are extremely thought-provoking, and will help parents to open the lines of communication with their teenagers.

  11. Re: screening YA books

    Thank you for your comment! I agree that when parents actually read some of their kids’ books, some great conversations can follow. When a parent is questioning a student’s book choice, that’s usually my first response – offering up a second copy of the book for the parent to read so he or she can decide if it’s appropriate and so parent and student can talk about it together.

  12. Thanks Mrs. Messner. 🙂
    Do you know if they got WinterGirls in yet? I asked about it and they said it might take a few months.

  13. Oh yeah, I will defiantly stop by if they have it signed out.
    This year I want to check out Gianna Z too.
    Thank you! 🙂

  14. Great work!

    Wow, your posts says what I tell parents each year – only you are way more eloquent! I also enjoyed your response to Anonymous and am thrilled that you picked up on the exact book from the synopsis. Your reply was on the money! As a middle school librarian, I’m impressed with students who know what they can and “should” read.

    Thanks for a great post!

  15. Re: Great work!

    I’m always impressed with middle school librarians like you — and like the terrific one who works at my school — who lead kids to the right books at the right time every day.

  16. Kate, I’m sending this thoughtful post to my daughter who’s in a master’s program to teach Language Arts. She called today to thank me for the box of YA’s I sent her to start her classroom library – many of which have been challenged. I hope the parents of your students appreciate your wisdom!

  17. librarian

    Thank you so much for stating the issue with the midnight driver so well, I loved that book and it has such a positive message, and built such a relationship, she should have read the book. I too agree that parents make decisions for their child. I loved your banned book week speech, do you mind if I use and adapt it? As a middle school librarian I have had many parents question a title, but I give them the same speech, you can decide for your child. I read many, many books but it is impossible to read every book, so the parents need to read with their child if they are that concerned what their student is reading. thanks for your post.

  18. Re: librarian

    Please feel free to use whatever parts of my talk are helpful to you! I really think parent education goes a long way toward helping them understand kids, reading, libraries, and literacy overall. Thanks for your comment!

  19. book challenges

    I am beginning my second year as an elementary librarian and the subject of challenging or banning has come up several times already. I even have parents who attend my church talk to me about this subject when I find out that I am a librarian.

    Could I borrow your explanation for my library website, either in part or the whole explanation?

    Thank you,
    Sandee Hicks
    Library Media Specialist
    Otis Brown Elementary
    Irving, Texas

  20. Re: book challenges

    Hi, Sandee~ You may absolutely use whatever parts of my talk are useful to you, the whole thing if you like. That’s why I posted it, and if it’s helpful to another teacher/librarian, I’m thrilled. Thanks for stopping by!


  21. I teach sixth grade language arts. I have a huge (1000+) class library. I give a similar talk at the beginning of the year. I let parents know that if a child is requesting a book with topic or theme that may be a bit mature for them where they can find more information on those books. If they want to let their child read the book after finding more information on it then they may send me a note to that effect. I have students who are very mature readers. Usually their parents tell me that they started reading at an early age and often read what the parents are reading. I’ve had some students that can barely handle topics most middle graders handle and therefore they need books with younger content. I keep those as well. At no time should we try to fit all kids into the same notch. This will in effect turn them off to reading. And that is my opinion.