“Controversial” Books and Parents: A Dear Colleague Letter

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Dear Colleague,

I’ve been where you are.

These days when I talk about the Right to Read and the dangers of censorship, I am usually wearing my professional hat (Educator Prep., Curriculum Studies, and Literacy/School Library Media are my main areas of interest), though when we’re talking about books, it’s always personal for the kid who needed that book—and it’s not there.

I’m not advocating that you buy 15 copies of 50 Shades of Gray for the high school library — or any for that matter (I don’t think anybody is making the case for the “high quality” of that particular text or, for that matter, arguing that teens are the intended audience).  But books recommended for the age range you teach that are well-reviewed by the pros (School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, etc.) or award winning shouldn’t be a source of worry in our selection process.

And let me begin by saying that I am a product of, and was a teacher in, small rural schools. I’ve worked with elementary and secondary students in a conservative region of the country. The assumption that rural parents don’t want their children to explore the world through literature is a damaging, dangerous stereotype — and rural kids can and do handle tough ideas with aplomb. Over the years I’ve heard the same thing said of kids in all kinds of spaces, but it still most commonly uttered about rural kids and families, and it’s simply not so. I could go the whole rest of my life without hearing, “But you couldn’t use that book in a rural school…” or “Well, we can’t talk about that here.”

I call shenanigans on that; books that foster difficult conversations can bring cognitive dissonance anywhere – and yes, that’s not always comfortable. But if we never give our students in all settings the chance to consider a broad array of perspectives, we’re doing them a disservice.  We’re also setting them up to struggle a great deal more when they do go on to interact with the wider world, not to mention the missed opportunities for their personal growth and development right now. Further, since books that face challenges are often books that offer diverse perspectives or are from authors with diverse cultures/identities, choosing not to add those voices to our classrooms can perpetuate the inequities of our society – it’s a form of silent complicity whether we acknowledge it or not.  And it’s not getting better very quickly.  Researchers keep checking out what kids are reading, and the authors and characters read in high school are still very white, male, Christian, straight,* etc.  The same holds true for younger kids.  With so few diverse authors’ books even being published, relatively speaking, if we censor some of those, it’s no wonder most school libraries (classroom libraries included) are extremely narrow in their representation.  And this sends a message about who matters in the classroom.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.                                                                                                              ~Desmond Tutu

But fifteen years ago, I sat where you sit, fingers trembling as I clicked through my book orders. I thought I was really pushing boundaries by buying books that had LGBTQ characters quietly at my school and making them available, but then after one of my 17 year olds attempted suicide after he was outed and was subsequently wholly rejected by his parents, I realized it wasn’t enough to quietly buy books. I needed to have conversations with my students. Sure, I didn’t allow students to say, “That’s so gay,” but I wasn’t doing enough to let my students who were LGTBQ (some of whom didn’t come out until many years after high school) know I was a supportive, safe adult. I just wasn’t doing enough. I started making sure to book talk those books and tried to be more overtly inclusive to let my students know that I was an ally – and not one person complained. And something else happened too; my students and I had better relationships because it became clearer that I truly cared about them all.

I’m a strong advocate for the right to read and the Library Bill of Rights (LBoR), an adamant opponent to censorship from external and internal sources in schools. Self-censorship is pretty prevalent too, as too often teachers quietly decide not to include a particular piece because of the fear of potential backlash, which I can tell you first hand, happens far less often than you’d think in most spaces, particularly when the teachers/library media specialists have built trust with their school community.

That trust can only be built though demonstrating equal respect for families with ideas divergent from our own, as well as those with similar views and everyone in between. When we discuss the right to read, we too often forget to note that the right to read also means the right not to read. With their families, children and teens always have the right to an alternate reading selection for themselves/their own child without ridicule, overt or subtle, from the teacher or peers – a tone of real respect must be present. Perhaps more importantly, a thread of the conversation in any classroom must be that simply because we encounter a behavior, word, issue or event, that doesn’t mean we are expected to embrace it; on the contrary students are expected to apply your own moral lens to what is happening – in short, readers are required to think. Reading is a transaction between the reader and the text; just ask Louise Rosenblatt here, one of my favorite salty researchers, rest her soul.RosenblattLouise

So children and teens have a moral compass already, and they use that to guide them through their reading. No one can take that from them, and I know a caring teacher doesn’t wish to do so. Books do not hold the power to corrupt, as many fear. I’ve always been fascinated by our cultural fear of books, to the point that there is often clear distinction between what people will let their child view in a movie and what they’ll allow them to read. Many of the same parents who said they objected to the magic in the Harry Potter series had for many years let their children watch Disney movies chock full of magic, sorcery and spells, witches, wizards, fairies and all other manner of magic, including my personal favorite (not really) Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, summoning “all the power of hell!” as she turned into a big ugly dragon. But that’s a question for another day…and more importantly, their right to decide for their child is just that – theirs (though after talking about this comparison, most parents with whom I spoke decided their children could navigate the boundary between fantasy and reality as well here as they could in non-print media).

Books do have a power of a different kind. They have the power to save lives (an LGBTQ teen who feels completely alone in the world may find solace in a character’s story; a Chris Crutcher piece that navigates the painful but very lived-in waters for many kids of abuse and neglect affording them a chance to see that a way out is possible; and countless other examples too unique to list and others still that occurred so quietly no one but the reader knew). Books have the power to build empathy, help us understand others’ points of view and experiences, and, yes, occasionally, to change our minds about something when we find (as we all do now and then growing up) that our compass has been a bit off-kilter. Those are a few of the stances from which I advocate as a professional.

But so often, with fear in their voices, I hear teachers say, “But parents will complain.” Some may, but most who’re concerned just want their voices to be heard. I had many diverse, difficult, and by some measures “controversial” books – whatever “controversial” means – I’ve heard of everything from books with dinosaurs to playing cards to divorce being considered contraband for kids – we could spend our lives trying to anticipate potential concerns, but we’d also have empty bookshelves.

Steps for Navigating a Potential Challenge (As Rec. by the ALA)
Meeting (face to face* is always better) with teacher. Teacher must listen respectfully, offer an alternate text for this child (this begins and ends it, most often).  The book is not removed while a decision is being determined.
  1. Request that the complainant read the whole book before they decide.  Some spaces attempt to mandate this but I don’t see how we can force anyone to do that, so ask the complainant to please read the whole book, but also don’t be naïve enough to believe it will necessarily occur.
  2. If they are still concerned, the next step is to meet with teacher and building admin.
  3. Then, if still not satisfied, they can fill out a “request for reconsideration of materials” form, at which time it becomes a formal challenge.
  4. The form goes to a “reconsideration of materials” committee who know and uphold the Right to Read and LBoR. They have 2 weeks (normally, depending on length of text) to read/view in full and make a decision about whether the item as a whole is of value based on selection policy.**
  5. Decision may be appealed by either party (teacher or complainant) to the school board who must also uphold the Right to Read and LBoR, and follow the same procedure, reading the text in full and determining if it meets selection policy and has value within that. Note: One central component of any selection policy must be fostering the love of reading.
*Seriously, please don’t have this conversation by email — email nearly always ratchets up tensions, minimizes clarity, and increases defensiveness. Face to face is ideal, but a phone call is needed at the very least. Parents need to hear your tone of voice to trust that you’re not rolling your eyes or being snarky — parents are often nervous about reaching out to a teacher, especially with a concern.  Nobody wants to be labeled as “that” parent who fusses about everything at school.  If a parent reaches out to you, chances are it’s because they care about their child; that’s always a good starting place.
**If your school doesn’t have a board-approved selection policy, I’m happy to send you a mock up of one to modify for your district’s needs.

The books I had were well-reviewed and/or award winning. I could articulate why I’d included them in my collection and that they met the selection policy** — and most importantly, why they mattered for my students. And I NEVER had a formal challenge. Let me repeat that: not once did a parent ever try to insist I stop making a book available to students. Not one person went to my principal and demanded I lose my job or even asked for the removal of a single book — nor would they have been successful had they tried because a.) we had a process in place and b.) my administrators were familiar with and respected that process–because they respected kids and families.

A handful of parents did call me (I got one or two calls a year, maybe) to say they’d rather not have their child read a book. I’d listen respectfully, assure them they had a right to determine that, explain to them why I had the book (which sometimes prompted them to let their child read it after all and sometimes not), and thank them for contacting me and for their honestly about their concern(s). That’s almost always where it ended. The one time it went beyond that to the next step, I was all geared up with my reviews and the book’s awards, as well as remembered conversations with students (not naming them of course) for whom the book had mattered when we began the meeting. The parent said to my principal and me, “I was really worried about my daughter reading this book, and she’s not going to…but I really just wanted to say how much I appreciate the way Mrs. Fuxa listened and didn’t try to talk me into having her read it.” I exhaled, and, couldn’t help it – I chuckled. “Man I wish you’d told me you were going to say that before we met.” We went on, both smiling, into the rest of our day.

So, yes, those instances occur, but most often, like all of us, parents want someone to listen to their concerns for their child.

A Common but Problematic Approach: Signing for It
If a book is well-reviewed and recommended for your age range of students, please don’t try to “compromise” by having students get a parent signature to read it. This inadvertently labels the book as “inappropriate” and acts as a de facto form of censorship. It’s hard for parents not to wonder, “Why am I having to sign for this?  Must not be a ‘good’ book.”

Another huge reason for the very limited number of concerns is that kids are very good, especially when we teach them how to do so, at selecting books that appeal to them, and for which they’re ready.  They’re also good at recognizing it when something they picked up wasn’t going to be up their alley. A bright, sweet seventh grader had picked up Flowers for Algernon, and the next day returned it, grinned at me and said, “I don’t think this one’s for me right now.” A couple of years later she read it and loved it, but at 13, she recognized it was more than she was ready to “wade into” – and that was okay.

In our decision making as teachers, too often the vast majority of parents who will not object to a book thoughtfully chosen by their child (or assigned by a teacher) are not considered. The inner voice you hear is an angry parent screaming to your principal about what a horrible person you are.  That person surely exists, but I haven’t had the pleasure.

Please do not forget that I, too, am a parent.

It’s an infringement of my rights, and more importantly, those of my children, when someone else, be they a teacher or another parent, deems a book inappropriate for my kids. And frankly, I might be there respectfully voicing my concern, but in cases of “preemptive” censoring, I’ll never even know what was never made available in your classroom library because of worry about parents. But I, too, am a parent.

I am not naïve enough or arrogant enough to think I know everything about what my kids’ lives at school, or away from me in general, will be like. Their world is always wider than we imagine. I do know that I want them to have a lot of choices. I want them to have many quality pieces of literature on which to chew. I want them to have considered “What would I do?” in any number of situations long before they’ve had a chance to find themselves there.

I am grateful to authors, many of whom are far more in touch with middle school, for example, these days than I, for anticipating conversations I may not ever even think to have with my kids. I try hard to be open with my children and have those difficult conversations, but the world is growing increasingly complex, and I need all the conversation starters I can think of — and some I can’t. I know that some of the most important conversations a parent can have with a child often begin with “Whatcha readin’? What do you think?” Talking about a book can create just enough comfort – put the topic at enough distance (“We’re just talking about fictional characters, after all.” Or someone else’s circumstances in the case of non-fiction.) — to talk about something a child may not otherwise bring up.

I need a rich, diverse and complex set of texts (well-reviewed, for her age range or close to it) available to my school-age child, and I need your help to give her that. I support my child’s right to read, and if you’re a teacher (or admin), you should too. And there are many more like me. So when you’re worried about what a would-be censor would think, please remember there are many more of us who have your back in supporting our children’s right to read…please consider our voices:  I, too, am a parent, and I need your courage.

Thanks for doing what you do. With respect,

Robin

*It is important to note that greater intellectual freedom doesn’t mean the exclusion of these voices, but rather the addition of more voices to the conversation.  To put it differently, if our reading selections’ characters and/or authors are dinner guests, more people are welcomed to the table.  No one is made to leave.

 

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