Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Special Message From the Librarian

Can someone hand me that soap box? Thanks!

Ahem. (You all ready for this?)

A staff member at my school, the school where I have worked as a librarian for seven years now, which had almost no young adult fiction and very low circulation statistics when I first started but now provides a large collection of age-appropriate books for its students, who have posted significantly higher reading scores on state tests, is presenting me with my first book challenge.

For those of you who don't work in library-land or who haven't ever had any reason to honor Banned Books Week, a book challenge is when someone has asked that a title be removed from a library's shelves. This person not only wishes to stop his/her child from reading a book, but wants to remove it from the collection so that no other student or parent can make a choice as to whether or not to read the book. In essence, a challenge is an attempt to censor a book from a school or library.

In a way, I feel special. Book challenges are rare in my school district. We have a policy in place that doesn't make it easy to get a book removed from a collection, and most parents have backed off after talking to the principal and librarian and learned that they actually have to read the entire book, fill out a form, and convince a committee that said book is harmful to the student community as a whole. For most people who have an issue with a book, it's not worth the time, and all they really want is to be heard. So for me to be "chosen" for this rarity...wow. I am really good at hitting the jackpots nobody wants to win.

I am not going to violate anyone's privacy by giving names, or even the name of the book in question. All you need to know about the book is that it's a standard issue young adult novel, just one in a sea of novels written about and for teenagers. It received some honors the year it was published, and was very well-reviewed, and is well-worn from the high number of circulations it has gotten in the 4 years it has been in the library. It's not a book that you will have ever heard of, and not one that has made any list of most-challenged books that I've seen. Harry Potter or Catcher in the Rye it ain't.

Its status as an "ordinary" YA novel is what has me so baffled and blind-sighted. It also has me worried, and quite frankly, angry. Thus the soap box.

The complainant has issues with the book based on one out-of-context and subtly-written oral sex scene she saw when her 9th-grade daughter had the book checked out. When she first emailed me about the scene, I was expecting to read an explicit handling (har) akin to an airport-bookstore Harlequin romance novel. In truth, the scene was tamer than a similar scene in an episode of Desperate Housewives.

As we continued to communicate about the book I held out hope that I could diffuse the situation. I pulled reviews of the book, which were favorable and from YA literature stand-bys like School Library Journal. The reviews gave the recommended grade level for the book as 9--12. I talked to other school librarians about what they see as the value of the book in their collections, and I searched online for mentions of the book as a part of recommended reading lists to find that it is a pretty popular summer-before-9th-grade recommended-reading-list choice.

None of this matters to the staff member. She does not simply want to stop her daugher from reading the book; she wants to prevent other students at my high school from being "harmed" by the book.

Her main argument is that the sex scene introduces oral sex to our students. As a high school, my collection serves students aged 14 through 19 (since we have some seniors who have been held back or who started kindergarten late.) While I might be convinced that the scene might be too much for a naive 14-year-old (might), I think it's extremely tame for our mature students.

She has told me that she wants to shelter her daughter from these issues and that there are things she doesn't want the girl to know about until she's older, and she didn't appreciate a book taking her into that unexplained territory. She thinks other parents, even the parents of some of our 18-year-old seniors (!) would not want this either. I really don't know how to tactfully respond to this. So I won't even try to restain myself in this forum.

First of all, I'm going to go out on a limb and say the vast majority of 14-year-olds are already familiar with the concept of oral sex. Not saying they've done it, but they know. If they've been inside a locker room, or overheard conversations in bathroom stalls, or watched any television show on a basic cable channel, or paid attention during the sex ed unit in their freshman health class, they have caught wind of the fact that something like that goes down (pun intended.) If you think your little darling doesn't know about oral sex at age 14 in the year of our Lord 2007, I have to question a little bit whether or not you know your kid as well as you think you do.

Second of all, even if they honestly don't know, they probably should. Let's face it: sex is everywhere when you're a teenager. You're getting pressure to talk about it, think about, and do it every day of your high-school career. Eventually, these 14-year-old girls this parent wants to protect are going to find themselves alone in a bedroom with a boy before his parents get home from work, or find themselves in his car at a remote overlook, and they will be faced with some decisions. It's hard to say "no" when you don't know what you're saying "no" to. I don't know in this case if ignorance is bliss.

Maybe I think this way because I was brought up liberally by two trusting parents. They gave me a good set of directions and a well-calibrated moral compass at a young age and then set me on my own path, trusting that I would make good decisions. And I did. Even though at my own daughter's age I was just as likely to be watching MASH or All In The Family reruns as I was to be watching Sesame Street, and even though I started reading V.C. Andrews potboilers when I was in 4th grade and Stephen King books in 7th. I was exposed to an awful lot of sex, violence, and mature situations in the books I was allowed to read and the shows I was allowed to watch, but it didn't make me want to jump the gun and imitate those behaviors. If anything, it made me take these things more seriously. I saw that there were bad consequences for rushing into adult behaviors. I knew what was out there in the big bad world, and it made me prepared for how I would handle those situations.

Not everyone was raised this way, and that's fine. I am not saying what my parents did was right for everyone; it was just right for me. To each his own. But I get fired up when someone tries to impose their parenting rules and their narrow set of values on an entire community. By challenging this book, this parent is saying that no other parent or student gets to make a decision about this book. A student like I was in high school, who is already reading "adult" books and dealing with mature content in a well-informed, healthy way, would be denied access to the book. That's not fair. That's not right. That's not freedom.

I work really hard to buy age-appropriate books for our library. I do order some Stephen King, because there are some high-school boys who will only read a book that features monsters and bloodshed, but I don't order all of his. I used to love Anne Rice, but no way in heck would I order Interview With a Vampire for my high-school library (even though that's the kind of book I would have walked to the public library through the snow for as a teen.) I do order some Jodi Picoult since she has a huge fanbase in young women, and a few other "adult" authors find their way in the mix when students or teachers recommend them to me. But mostly I stick to things in that big YA category. I try to buy books in a broad range of tastes for the broad audience of teenagers I serve. I trust that parents of our younger students will help make some of these decisions about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for their children. I do not think it's okay for said parents to deny these books to everyone, especially when the book in question was written by a YA author for a YA audience.

There are all kinds of censorship quotes and slogans I could throw at you right now to conclude this rant, slogans I've picked up after years of doing Banned Books Week Promotions. "Free People Read Freely." "Who's Reading Over Your Shoulder?" "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture...just get people to stop reading them." (Wait, I guess I just did throw them at you.) But I've gone on long enough. And I am all about people deciding for themselves when it comes to books. So if you're interested, you can contact me privately and I can tell you the title of book. Decide for yourself whether the book is worthy of being banned, and holler back.


Robert said...

You should ask her if she also wants you to ban the Bible for explicit descriptions of incest, rape, torture, and murder.

wanda y said...

You go robert! And yes, I will be contacting you because I HAVE to know what the title of this most horrible book is you are harboring in the library because guess what....now I want to read it!!

Shan said...

If you need help with this, you know I've got your back. She is just trying to cover up a mistake she made...

joanna said...

Sorry I am late to the party on this one. Do not, under any circumstances, let that child (or her mother) take any history courses when she gets to college. Especially not from me. I have sex, drugs, and violence stories about real people that will make her little protected head spin. Or, in the best case scenario, make her think.

The older I get, the crustier and more anti-censorship I get.