A few months ago, the Library History Buff Blog did a piece on early children’s rooms in public libraries. While the piece was short, I thought it was especially interesting to see the motivations behind offering library services and facilities for young people:
Although various libraries including the Boston Public Library lay claim to having the first public library children’s room, the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts seems to have the strongest claim. Their children’s room was established in June of 1890 primarily to get noisy children out of the adult reading room. It was initially supervised by the library’s janitor.
John Cotton Dana of the Denver Public Library–the first to offer dedicated children’s services in 1894–did say, “If public libraries are of value, this form of a children’s department must be, if not the ideal thing, certainly an ideal thing.” But in 1896, Mary Wright Plummer found only 15 public libraries nationwide that provided services from a children’s room.
We’ve certainly come a long way in providing library services to young people since then, but how many libraries don’t have a dedicated teen space or even a dedicated YA librarian? (This seems like a good point to plug YALSA’s Teen Services Evaluation Tool, a rubric based on YALSA’s Core Competencies that you can use to assess your library’s success in having the resources and desire to provide great service to teens.) There’s always progress to be made!
Sarah of Glass Cases recently wrote an essay called “YA: Then vs. Now” with an interesting mix of history of YA lit as well as personal reflections on growing up with the YA lit of the ’90s and musings on some historically significant titles. In the essay, she’s trying to pinpoint when YA lit turned the corner from “writing about teens” to “writing for teens.” Especially since I’m about the same age, it was a pretty interesting read.
And man, if you want some vintage YA lit, check out the Mod-Mod Read-In Paperback Book List featured on Sara Ryan’s blog. It’s pretty groovy (click through for more scans and some analysis of the chosen titles):
You know what we need? More recognition of awesome women who rock out in their fields. While librarianship has historically been a women’s profession, anything to do with computers or programming has generally been branded as being for men (although one of the first computer programmers was a women!). But what about the people who exist at the intersection of libraries and computers? The Geek Feminism Blog recently featured Henriette Avram, who was a programmer who worked for the Library of Congress and who is responsible for the creation of MARC in the 1960s. Awesome.
Women ruining everything (again)
Of course, not everyone wants to recognize women’s accomplishments. Some would rather distance themselves from women in the workplace because apparently women defile everything they touch and even just being associated with women or what they do will ruin you and your career. At least, that seems to be the gist of Penelope Trunk’s blog post “What To Get Ahead? Stay Away From Women.” (It is possible that she doesn’t mean what she says, that she is writing these things ironically or sarcastically or in some other way where I can believe she’s not for real, but I don’t think that’s the case.)
Trunk’s starts with the idea of a “competition gap” wherein women self-select themselves into lower-paying, less prestigious fields, and that even within their chosen field, they go for “support roles” rather than competitive management positions, or–in her case–even if they are in a “man’s field,” they choose to focus on womanly things, like writing about women and their lives. This is true! We do value competition and men over nurturing and women. (And I’ve written about this before in the context of libraries.)
But rather than having a problem with privileging things that are labeled male over things that are labeled female, rather than trying to elevate the prestige of “women’s work,” she wants women to just stop complaining about this gap:
The thing is that Kimberly concludes in her post that women are getting ripped off. It kills me. I don’t want to be writing next to women who believe that women are getting a raw deal and then complain about it. I don’t buy it.
Women are getting a raw deal if they’re constantly being told that choosing things that interest them and that they value, that being a woman are bad things and that if they were just more manly, they’d succeed. So what’s Trunk’s advice?
Women: It is very bad to write stuff about dinner with family if you are trying to get ahead. Do not do this. People assume that if you have kids you will do less work. This may or may not be true – I mean, doing less work. But what is true is that you should not talk about family at work if you want to be in the all-boys departments.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be in the all-boys departments. I want to do work that is meaningful to me, and I want society to value that work. Every day, I work in a public library with teens–I think the only way it could be more women’s work is if I were working with children–and that work has an impact on those teens and on my community. I am proud of what I do. I’d like for other people to value that as much as they value technology, competition, and dudeliness.
Some encouraging successes
Wow, after that downer, let’s talk about some good things that have happened recently!
Michelle Luhtala, the librarian at the high school in the town that my library serves, is hands-down totally awesome. She’s really plugged into technology and the importance of tech in libraries and schools, she’s a webinar facilitator for edWeb.net, she’s been named Librarian of the Year by CLA, she was recently elected Director of Region 1 of AASL, she churns out instructional tools like crazy, and she has a great relationship with her students. Last year her library was one of two to be named AASL’s National School Library Program of the Year, and earlier this month Nancy Everhart, the president of AASL, made New Canaan High School her Connecticut stop on her nationwide tour.
More good news: at the beginning of this year, a controversy erupted when the director of the Enfield (CT) Public Library was told the library couldn’t show Michael Moore’s “Sicko” as part of their ongoing film program. The library was eventually allowed to show the movie, which was a victory in itself, but the director was also recently recognized by the Connecticut Library Association with an Intellectual Freedom Award.
There are lots of successes we have each day that are never officially recognized with awards but are just as meaningful. David Lubar recently wrote a LiveJournal post about an email he received from a parent about how his books had so captured her son’s imagination that he had gone from below grade-level reading to above grade-level–and that he’d begun writing his own stories. That’s really powerful stuff.
I’ve recently had a couple of those moments–maybe smaller, but no less encouraging–myself. I’m organizing a Minecraft competition at my library (I’m planning to talk about it in detail once it’s happened) and one of my TAB kids is helping spread the word to her friends on Facebook. Her post was attracting a few comments, and then one of her non-library-going friends wrote, “That’s actually like way too cool for a library to be doing,” and seeing that totally made my day. I am changing non-library users’ perceptions of what a library is and does!
And then last week, a former borderline troublemaker came over to me and out of nowhere said that I was doing a good job of standing up for teens and that I was making the library a better place for teens. He couldn’t have made me happier if I’d been feeding him lines to parrot back at me! And then he asked if he could join our Teen Advisory Board!
So you know, haters gonna hate–but I’m doing my job and it’s having an impact on my community and I feel good about that. And you should feel good about your work, too! What encouragement have you received recently?
The library had previously shown “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” without any trouble; it was apparently because the House of Representatives had recently voted to repeal President Obama’s health care plan that “Sicko” was considered somehow inappropriate or unbalanced. But I think that while requiring balance sounds good on the surface, that can be hard at times:
Finding balance is not always easy, [Enfield Library Director Henry Dutcher] said. Sometimes, there are no obvious counterpoints to offer. For example, he said the library once hosted a presentation about deep-sea fishing, and he said he didn’t know what would constitute balance in that case.
He said he has considered several films to provide balance to “Sicko.” One of the titles is called “Sick and Sicker” and is a documentary critical of the health care reform law promoted last year by Obama. Although both films focus on health care, Dutcher said it isn’t clear whether they represent a balanced look at the same issue. (source)
I know that lots of libraries have collection development policies stating that the library seeks to collect materials representing all viewpoints, but with what might as well be an infinite number of issues, topics, viewpoints, and sides to a discussion and only a limited number of dollars to spend on materials, how close to that vision for a balanced collection can we really get? And how do you balance topics like deep-sea fishing?
While I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what happened in Enfield, I don’t think that actually wanting to see balance was at the heart of the original complaint. From the resident who originally objected to the screening of “Sicko”:
“If we do want to see differing points of view, I would suggest films like ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and other controversial movies would also be filmed or shown and advertised for viewing in a public venue like that on the tax dollar,” Fealy said.
It’s not that this resident has a problem with the library somehow trampling on his views on healthcare; he wants an ultraviolent Christian propaganda film to somehow “balance” a Michael Moore documentary on health care. Moore definitely has an agenda with his movies, but “balancing” it with “The Passion of the Christ” doesn’t seem like any kind of real balance to me.
No one ever sees these explosions of community discord and media coverage coming, and I wonder what the library administration and staff at Enfield will be doing differently from here on out to achieve “balance.” I’m just really glad that freedom of information and expression won out over censorship this time.
Tigard-Tualatin eliminated Pasteris’ position this year, along with the district’s nine other elementary media assistants. The move saved $420,000, but keeping the libraries functioning without assistants has been a challenge.
“The hard part is finding out what are some things we just really have to stop doing,” Byrom Elementary Principal Rick Fraisse said.
District officials say there was little choice in the matter. If not the library assistants, something else would have been cut to deal with the district’s budget woes.
There are now no elementary school media assistants in this school district. And the libraries are not managing to operate normally without them: there are things they’ve had to stop doing–and that means providing services or materials. One school didn’t have morning announcements for a month because it’d been part of what the library assistant did! District officials may say there was little choice, but is the library really the least important thing, the best choice when it comes to cuts? If a school intends to educate its students, the library should be at the very heart of that, not an extra to cut as soon as there’s a budget shortfall. And no, you can’t replace library staff with volunteers and expect things to carry on smoothly like before.
Recent trends in book challenges
In further ugh-inducing news, USA Today recently covered trends in book challenges and bans across the country. While the total number of challenges (or those reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, at least) has been steady at 400-500 challenges per year for the last thirty years, those challenges are more often coming from organized groups rather than one offended individual (and I’d guess that means that there are fewer people actually reading the books they’re challenging and more people just acting on what some organization has told them). And, insanely enough, “[T]he American Library Association and other groups say they have seen a noticeable rise in complaints about literature used in honors or college-level courses.” College-level courses. I assume that means college-level courses in high school and not actual college courses; if I’m wrong, please let me know so I can go weep for the youth of today. I know parents want to protect their children for as long as they can, but if those kids are taking classes that they can use for college credit, I don’t think you can expect the content of the literature to be squeaky clean. Yikes.
The New York Society Library has made public its first charging ledger, which records checkouts from 1789 to 1792 and includes records of what prominent New Yorkers, members of Congress, and even the Vice President and President were borrowing at the time. You can search the ledger, see at what individual people were borrowing, and even look at digital scans of actual pages from the ledger.
When we were working on our community repository project last spring, the head of the genealogy center at the Eckhart Public Library discussed his thoughts on balancing privacy and access: he wanted to make as many things as open as possible, but some records–like library card registrations from generations ago that gave people’s names and addresses–remained closed indefinitely for privacy reasons. So while it’s fun to see what George Washington was reading, and it gives us a more nuanced view of the man who was our first President, and he’s been gone long enough that he and his descendants probably won’t care, I wonder if there’s a statute of limitations on privacy. Do we violate our professional principles when we open these records, even if the particular people involved are long dead? I’d say probably not, but it’s something we need to consider every time we open what would normally be closed records, no matter how interesting the contents of those records.
The tree is constituted predominantly by copies of publications such as Congressional Quarterly Almanac and The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.
Those books were chosen for a reason.
“We went into the collection and took a few of the books that aren’t used quite as often as others,” Kabat said.
That hasn’t stopped some students from giving the library staff a little good-natured grief.
“We’ve had some people come by and ask, ‘What if I need to use that book in the middle there?’ and we’ve said, ‘Too bad, you’ll have to wait until January,'” Kabat said, adding that her project reminds her of the nerve-racking game Jenga.
And finally, did you hear? The previously-capped-at-eight-books Pretty Little Liars series will be expanded by another four titles starting with Twisted in July. I’ve heard from other librarians that the dangerous divas/rich bitches/backstabbing beauties books are falling off in popularity among their patrons, but the Pretty Little Liars series and others like it are still going strong at my library, so I’m sure my patrons will be thrilled to see new material.
Lauren Myracle and Ellen Hopkins spoke at the closing session about censorship. Lauren took a more humorous approach with touches of seriousness, reading letters from parents that included phrases like “peddle your trash to eleven-year-olds,” but also reminding us of the importance of the work librarians do to keep books on shelves (“fighting for books, even if they suck, is part of the librarian’s creed and soul”). She said that people who want to censor literature for young people have usually lost touch with how it really felt to be a teen, and that they’re operating from positions of fear. So when those angry would-be censors come to us wanting to challenge a book, we need to see them not as adversaries, but as people giving us the opportunity for dialogue. To drive this point home, she read us a series of emails she exchanged with a parent who started out angry, then confessed that her anger came from fear, and eventually found common ground with Lauren as a parent and a reader.
Oh, Lauren also mentioned that all of the girls from the Flower Power series (which starts with Luv Ya Bunches and continues with Violet in Bloom) have Facebook fan pages, and that if you were to rank them by number of fans, the white girl would come first, then the Asian girl, then the black girl, and then–after a huge drop-off–the Middle Eastern Muslim girl. So go, be friends with Yasaman.
Ellen Hopkins’s talk was more serious, in part because of the subject matter of her books. She reflected on how she was disinvited not only from the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas but three other times. She recognizes that her books take on really tough things, but reminded us that teens are absolutely dealing with exactly those things (bluntly saying, “Kids have been forced into prostitution at six years old, so my books are totally appropriate for thirteen-year-olds.”) and then read us letter after letter she’s received from readers telling her that her books saved them. These teens have gone through absolutely hellish experiences, but they found comfort in reading Ellen’s books, even if it just let them know that they weren’t alone (“I pick up one of your books and know I am OK,” wrote one reader), and it brought them back from destructive behaviors, from suicide, from despair. There were people in the audience who were moved to tears by these stories. And Ellen said that if any of us were ever fighting a challenge to her books, she’ll provide copies of these letters and emails–which she receives daily–to help us make our case for her books to stay on the shelves.
I was surprised while Ellen was speaking that when she mentioned her disinvitation from the Humble Teen Lit Fest and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speakbeing referred to as pornography that there were people in the crowd who gasped, having not heard about those incidents. While it may seem like “everyone” in the YA library world knew about these controversies, that’s clearly not true. We need to keep spreading the word about things like this–and finding new ways to get the news to people who don’t read or watch or listen to the channels for dissemination that we are using.
Lauren Myracle and Ellen Hopkins both did a great job of showing us the perils of censorship, the need for teens to have literature that reflects their worlds, and how we can fight to keep those books on our shelves and in teens’ hands. We can draw on resources like Ellen’s reader letters and the Office for Intellectual Freedom and we need to make sure to see challenges as chances for conversation and not as conflicts between adversaries. It’s encouraging to hear from the very authors who have been banned that librarians and libraries make a difference.
Jason started out with a discussion of why it’s appropriate to include sex in realistic YA novels. He provided quotations from authors, librarians, and educators that you may have seen on Twitter. The few that stood out for me and that I think capture the main arguments Jason made were:
Professors Katherine Butcher and Kaavonia Hinton, authors of Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation: “Well-written realistic fiction novels do not dictate specific moral and ethical beliefs. Rather, they challenge readers to learn the importance of moral and ethical behavior by drawing their own conclusions after they consider the events and facts from their own personal perspectives using their own moral and ethical judgments.”
Dr. Amy Pattee (“The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Informational Source.” Young Adult Library Services, 4(2), 30-38): “Because the sexual content of young adult literature can be explicit and detailed, and because these passages may even stir the senses and be considered erotic, I argue that these fictional texts should be considered as unique information sources that can offer young readers both realistic and needed information about sex and the sex act as well as a private, safe place to try on new feelings of sexual desire.”
YA lit reflects teens’ worlds, allows them to develop their own system of morals and ethics, gives them the opportunity to experiment sexually in a safe way, and provides information about sexual encounters (so long as authors write authentically).
Nicholle discussed the history of YA lit as instructional and didactic and used this to explain parents’ discomfort with sexual content in YA lit today. She argues that teens are becoming more behaviorally autonomous; are dealing with emerging sexuality; are developing their own moral, ethical, religious, and political principles; and are resolving issues of identity and values–and that all of these things prepare them to encounter sexuality in young adult literature. Adults are uncomfortable with teens being sexual beings because they want to protect teens, but understanding sex is part of developing into an adult, and teens’ perceptions of sex are more ambivalent, including both parents’ warnings about pregnancy, pain, disease, and powerlessness as well as more positive associations like passion, intimacy, and desire. She ended with the conclusion that to assume that teens lack the intellectual capacity to handle sex in books is to undermine their astuteness.
Finally, Jamie explored how YA lit has “grown up” and become more complex in the last few decades and an exploration of the motives of would-be censors. YA lit is no longer dominated by 200-page problem novels with a real coming-of-age structure, and teens and YA lit are more complex than they’re often given credit for. Censors assume that kids can’t handle sex in books, that particular content in a book predicts a particular response, and that all readers will respond the same way to the same material. But teens put down things they’re not ready for: our own lived experience is what informs our reading, and if teens don’t have a context into which they can put sexual material in books, it doesn’t really stick with them or interest them. In general, there’s a difference between the parent lens and the librarian or educator lens, and we need to keep that in mind when talking to upset adults.
There were no handouts, but there are links to the speakers’ PowerPoint presentations, the YALSA Blog liveblog of the session, and Jason’s blog on the Ning.
Banned Books Week begins today, and this year it comes at a particularly appropriate time: on Sunday Laurie Halse Anderson wrote on her blog that Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University, had decried Speak as pornographic. While the book contains sexual content, it’s in the form of a rape scene that the protagonist chooses to remain silent about. For once I’m actually angrier about the reason someone wants a book banned rather than the actual move to get a book removed from school. What kind of sicko thinks a rape scene is soft pornography? Scroggins’s original opinion piece is available via the Springfield News-Leader.
Maybe SPEAK isn’t Dr. Scroggins’ cup of tea. Maybe the idea of having his children read about a highly dysfunctional family is upsetting. Maybe the thought of having rape be a terrible reality in the life of the book’s main character offends him. That’s his right. But for every child who is blessed with a non-dysfunctional home and who hasn’t been broken by something as awful as rape, there’s another girl like me. A girl who can’t find the words to describe how shattered she feels. Who doesn’t even know if she has the right to feel shattered. Who’s learned that bringing her secrets to the light results in more pain. That girl needs books like SPEAK to be on the shelves. She needs to know there are others out there like her. She needs to see someone else’s path so she can have the language to start thinking about her own outcome.
As a Christian and a rape survivor, I want SPEAK to stay on the shelves. And I want others to write books about rape. Incest. Child abuse. Eating disorders. Multiple personality disorder. Post traumatic stress disorder. Because those are just as real, just as present, for some kids as worrying about grades and peer pressure are for others. Books can give children the language they need to be able to describe themselves and the things they’re facing. To silence the book could be to silence the child.
I'm not a huge fan of this year's BBW promotional materials, but I really liked last year's
In preparing for Banned Books Week, what struck me about the list of most-frequently challenged books was that most of them are titles for teens, and that most of the challenges are due to the sexual nature of the book, and that what is and isn’t on the list is sometimes surprising. Even this year, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye made the top ten. And while Lauren Myracle’s TTYL, TTFN, and L8R G8R have sexual content, it seems pretty tame and a lot of the conflict comes from the girls dealing with the consequences of making ill-advised decisions (like dancing topless at a party and then having cell phone pictures of her doing so circulated through the school). But is what happens in these books any worse than the sexual content in a John Green novel? In Jellicoe Road? Or even more intense books like Living Dead Girl? None of these titles have made it to the top ten list despite having equally “edgy” or even more disturbing content. I suspect this is because most would-be challengers don’t actually read the book to which they’re objecting, but rather rely on the opinion of friends or newspaper articles about challenges elsewhere to find books to challenge.
And as interesting as the data collected by the Office of Intellectual Freedom is, they estimate that for every challenge that’s reported to them, four or five others aren’t. I saw first hand a book be challenged and silently removed from the library without any media attention or the OIF being notified. So in addition to speaking out against censorship and book banning, I want to speak up for reporting challenges to the OIF. It’s part of raising awareness and helping to fight the good fight.
This collection of links is going to be a real mix of things, but there’s so much interesting stuff I’ve seen lately!
YA lit and library news and trends
One of the things I’d like to see more of in librarianship in general and youth services especially is more rigor and research. YALSA is launching the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal, in November. They’ve put out a call for papers for the Winter 2011 and Spring 2011 issues.
Through 20 September you can also nominate librarians for the I Love My Librarian Award. The winners get a $5000 cash award, a plaque, and a $500 travel stipend to attend an awards reception in New York hosted by The New York Times, so this is a great opportunity for all of you library users to nominate a librarian who’s made a difference in your life or your community.
Alexie’s book has won a number of awards, but that did not sway the board.
“We can take the book and wrap it in those 20 awards everyone else said it won and it still is wrong,” said board member Ken Spurgeon.
Supporters of the book said it was chosen to get high school boys, particularly, interested in reading. Spurgeon said that was a mistake because the book’s reading level is low for high school readers.
Over at Closed Stacks, The Librarienne rails against the ALA for continuing to promote the idea that librarianship is a greying profession and that there will soon be a mass exodus of retirees leaving positions for new librarians to fill, citing the unemployment and underemployment she and her fellow graduates are suffering.
But in non-sucky news, Bitch Magazine recently interviewed Lia Friedman, he head of public services at the UCSD Arts Library, the staff librarian for make/shift magazine, and an active member of Radical Reference. Lia talks about the values of librarianship, stereotypes of librarians, and what Radical Reference does.
The team at Orbit had their summer intern do “a survey of cover art elements for the top fantasy novels published in the previous year,” and a few weeks ago they published their results. The summary in chart form:
“The Teen Lit Fest is for middle and high school, so kids as young as 11 would be attending,” [Karen] Collier [the district’s public information director] said. “We could have limited access to Hopkins, but that’s not how we want to set up our event. We want the students to have access to all the authors.”
But the district doesn’t regret the decision to exclude Hopkins.
“It’s a disappointment when something like this happens,” Collier said. “But if parents are concerned that we overreacted, I suggest that they read some of her work. It’s very graphic.”
But Hopkins, who writes all her novels in free verse, maintains that she’s writing about real issues that affect real kids.
“I don’t understand the district’s fear,” Hopkins said. “Do they think I’m going to stand up there and tell the kids how to do drugs?”
I’m so sad for the teens and librarians and teachers who are going to miss out on this event, but I’m also really disappointed that the school district still thinks it did the right thing in uninviting Hopkins.
Hopkins had done high school visits in the area before and they’d gone well, but when a middle school librarian saw Hopkins would be at Teen Lit Fest, she went to some parents and then all of them went to the superintendent to ask that Hopkins be uninvited. The superintendent, Guy Sconzo, hadn’t read any of her books but agreed to remove her from the program. When other area librarians wrote to him in protest, he responded that he’d relied on the librarian’s judgement and that there were plenty of other authors they could invite–too many to ever have them all! Hopkins responded to this on her blog:
I am not just another author. I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.
That is what censors fear. The truth. Mr. Sconzo doesn’t “want to jeopardize any possible negative reaction [sic] with what has been to date completely positive for literally all concerned.” (I always wonder about school administrators who can’t write a sentence correctly.) The truth may not always be pretty, but it is positive. What’s negative is hiding truth in a dark closet, pretending it doesn’t exist. And worse, manipulating people with lies.
She then asks that people in the Houston area not attend the festival and that people everywhere who oppose this censorship email the superintendent.
But the other authors involved with Teen Lit Fest are going a step further. Melissa de la Cruz wrote a blog post yesterday about growing up in a dictator-controlled country that banned, among other media, Japanese anime. She writes that “[w]hen I moved to America, I was happy to discover that you could watch ANYTHING here. Censorship was NOT a way of life. The freedom was dizzying.” And then she gets to the heart of censorship of material for young people:
But I want every kid to be able to decide whether they want to read Ellen’s books or my books, or anyone’s books. Kids should be able to choose. (Parents can choose not to let their kids read something, and that’s fine. They can also choose not to let their kids go hear someone speak, but you can’t ruin it for other people’s kids whose parents decided THEY can hear a speaker or read a book.)
I didn’t get to choose when I was nine years old, and I remember being INCREDIBLY UPSET. In fact, the absence of those Japanese cartoons is something I have been MOURNING for twenty-years now. I really missed it when they took it away, and I was HORRIFIED to find out that SOMEONE ELSE decided WHAT I could watch. (Someone who was not my parents.) It really disturbed me. It CONTINUES to disturb me.
So de la Cruz has withdrawn from Teen Lit Fest, and Pete Hautman has, too. In his blog post, he recounts how he’s twice been asked to speak at a library and then had that invitation rescinded after his writing was deemed “inappropriate.” At the time he didn’t make a big deal about it, but now he sees that as a mistake, so he’s withdrawing from Teen Lit Fest to stand against censorship. He also says that Tara Lynn Childs and Matt de la Peña have withdrawn as well.
I think what makes me angriest about this whole situation is that this censorship was begun by a librarian. I know that school librarians walk a narrower line, but all librarians everywhere are supposed to be the defenders of intellectual freedom and the champions of a young person’s right to read. Parents may decide what their own children read, but they shouldn’t be able to decide what everyone’s children read–and libraries should be providing more opportunities, not fewer.
I’m glad that other authors involved in this event are standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins and taking a stand against censorship. Even if one librarian in Texas is determined to “protect” teens from “inappropriate” material (material that’s won awards and propelled Hopkins’s books to the New York Times Bestseller list!), there are plenty of other people in Texas and online who value choice and–as Julie Halpern wrote when one of her books was challenged–respect young readers.
Update: I should be clear that while I’m thrilled to see other authors standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins, I’m also sad that if the superintendent doesn’t change his mind, Houston-area teens are going to be denied a chance to meet the creators of the books they love. It bites that they’re the ones who are caught in the middle.
Update 2: Ellen Hopkins has written a follow-up blog post in which she acknowledges that authors withdrawing from the Teen Lit Fest is unfair to teens and librarians in Humble, but emphasizes that this is about censorship and the freedom of ideas.
I really feel bad for the students in this situation. All they wanted was the chance to meet some great writers (trust me, Ellen Hopkins, Melissa de la Cruz, Pete Hautman, and Matt de la Pena are great writers) and maybe get some signed books. Instead, they’re missing out because a few adults think they know better.
That’s the problem with censorship, especially the kind that goes along with books. It’s usually couched in a fog of protection. As if keeping you from certain content is for your own good, and it’s really better this way. I’m especially appalled when this is applied to teen readers. Not only are teens generally way smarter and more mature and more experienced than we think, teen readers in particular are among the smartest people I know. It’s just insulting for adults in power (or those seeking power) to try to carry out their agenda waving the Because-They’re-Children and Because-We-Know-Better banners.
I couldn’t just sit by and be a part of this, and neither should you.
Last week children’s book author KP Bath was sentenced to six years in jail for possessing child pornography. This brings up questions of what librarians should do with his books if they’re held by the library. Should they be removed from the collection? Should they be booktalked and suggested? Should they be featured in displays? In South Carolina where the book won the 2007-2008 Junior Book Award, should the book be stricken from the award list?
Bath was originally arrested in April 2009. At the time I was taking both a seminar on intellectual freedom and Materials for Youth, and I brought up his arrest in both classes to gauge my fellow students’ reactions. While my seminar classmates were all vociferous in their defense of the book (but not the author), I was surprised by how many of my classmates in Materials for Youth would have removed the book from their libraries’ collections, even if they hadn’t read the books themselves. I think that were KP Bath an author for adults, even more cautious librarians would be less likely to pull his works; it’s providing his books to children, the very group he was exploiting, that concerns us.
At the time I hadn’t read any of KP Bath’s books, but by the end of the semester had read both THE SECRET OF CASTLE CANT and ESCAPE FROM CASTLE CANT, the first two books in a trilogy that will now probably never see completion. I thought they were mediocre fantasy novels that started with an interesting world but fell short in their narration style and details. But aside from a few notes about how insufferable adults are (which you’ll find in many books for older children and young adults), there was nothing in the books that seemed unusual or uncomfortable, much less exploitative. So, wearing my librarian hat and separating the author from his work, I concluded that it would violate the Freedom to Read Statement were we to remove the book from our library shelves.
But this also illustrated to me the occasional separation that occurs between my professional ethics and my personal ethics. While I’m not always great at it, it’s important to me to spend my consumer dollars wisely since it’s the only vote I get in the behavior of corporations and the business world in general. And I definitely don’t want to financially support someone who exploits children–especially someone so downright skeezy as Bath. He wrote in one of his chats, “I’m glad there are molesters out there,” and “I wish a 9 yr old was doing that to me. This from a man who’s writing books for 9-year-olds.” While he was enjoying (and trading) videos and images “depicting sadistic conduct, rape, sodomy and bestiality,” he was also volunteering at the Beverly Cleary Children’s Library in Portland. He was volunteering at the local children’s library. It chills my blood to read that sentence. Knowing what I know about Bath, there’s no way I could spend my money on his books, recommend (rather than suggest) his books to any children I know, or in any way not oppose him.
But those are my personal values. My professional values demand that I treat his books as I would have before his arrest and conviction. Normally I feel like my own values and my profession’s values are a good match, but I really struggle with this case. I know that as much as we want it to be or might claim it is, our collection development isn’t objective. I want social justice to be a part of librarianship. But intellectual freedom is at the core of librarianship and is the defense for some controversial things that happen in youth librarianship. If we start making compromises, how can we continue to defend controversial books being on our shelves? If we make exceptions and remove KP Bath’s books from our collections, then how do we retain the works of other felons or of anyone–atheists, gay people–whom someone in our library’s community might think immoral?
But can I really set aside my personal values in favor of my professional ones and be okay with myself? I certainly expect it of any librarians who personally think that (for example) people in the queer community are on the path to hell–I’d still expect them to collect books by LGBTQIA authors. Is the reason I think this is different because the law and a majority of people in our society agree that pedophilia is wrong whereas (in most states at least) homosexuality isn’t a crime?
I struggled with this conflict of values last spring and now that Bath has been sentenced, I’m thinking about it again. Professionally the right thing to do is to treat his books no differently, but personally, I’m torn. Intellectual freedom is important to me, but so is supporting good in the world and opposing evil. I feel okay keeping Bath’s books in a collection and with giving them to patrons who ask for them directly. But can I, with a clean conscience, add Bath’s books to a booklist? Can I booktalk them? I think I’ll probably do so–and feel good about it at work but feel guilty about it at home.