It’s Not Obvious: A Post for Banned Books Week

It’s Not Obvious: A Post for Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week is almost upon us, and it’s made me think about censorship, and age-appropriateness, and what we let kids read and what we don’t, and when, and why. 

Whenever I think about censorship, I think of one parent who came into my school library a few years ago, brandishing a book that her child had checked out. “This picture,” she said, “terrified my son. He had nightmares. He hated it so much that he gave it to me and asked me to hide it away so he’d never have to see it again.” And she opened the book to the offending illustration, which depicted Goliath’s severed head after his battle with David.

I assured her that she’d done the right thing in listening to her son and bringing the book back, and thanked her for being so responsive to his needs, and offered to help her find another book for him, and said I’d remind him next time he was in the library that he didn’t like that kind of picture. 

But that wasn’t what she wanted.

“You need to label all the books in the library that have disturbing pictures,” she said. “That way, other kids who might be scared will know not to take them. Isn’t there a label you can put on the spine, or something?” 

I opened my mouth, and closed it again. I thought hard and fast, trying to remember everything I’d learned in library school about intellectual freedom and how to convey its importance to concerned library users. I tried to appear calm and unruffled (no librarian that I know of is truly calm and unruffled in the face of a book challenge).

Finally I explained as gently as I could that this was impossible to do for several reasons, one of which was that different images are disturbing—or not—to different people, and it would be impossible to guess what illustrations someone, somewhere in our school community, might find offensive. 

She looked at me as if I were not quite right in the head. “But everyone knows what a disturbing picture looks like,” she said. “It’s obvious!”

I looked at the illustrated page she still had open in front of us, considering the many kids who would’ve simply looked at it and said, “COOL!” and the religious parents who would just be glad that their kids were reading a Bible story (this was in a private religious school). I thought of the naked little boy in In the Night Kitchen, which illustration so offends some people (including some librarians) that they feel moved to draw a diaper over his private parts before allowing the book to circulate. I thought of the pretty pretty Disney princesses who so many people (including me) consider sexist and harmful to girls, and of the World War II books in the library’s collection that depict planes and buildings and entire cities getting blown up. 

“Well, no,” I said, “It’s not obvious. I’m afraid that’s just not something we can do.”

She left, promising to follow up with the administration about this. As soon as she was out the door, I sent an email to my supervisors, reminding them about the library’s Board-approved collection policy and the challenge procedure outlined therein. In the end, nothing happened—she didn’t go to the administration, and her son (who adored gory Bible stories even as they scared him) never, to my knowledge, checked out a book that terrified him in the same way.

But what’s stayed with me is that parent’s rock-solid certainty that surely everyone knows what’s offensive, that it’s so obvious—or should be—as to go without saying. I think that’s an attitude that many would-be censors share, and in my experience it’s simply not the case.

There are people who don’t want their children to have access to books about human reproduction like Robie Harris’s It’s So Amazing, and others who are grateful to the point of tears that their kids have a way to learn those facts from other sources besides their embarrassed parents. There are parents who find the whole idea of a series called “The Stupids” incredibly offensive, and those who think it’s as hysterical as their children do. There are librarians who won’t let the irreverent Captain Underpants books cross their threshold, and others who buy multiple copies for their reluctant readers. I’ve heard a parent object to a Curious George book because at one point George says he “wants to die,” and another explain that the first Harry Potter book was just too disturbing for her daughter to read, not due to any religious objections but because of how horribly the Dursleys treat Harry in the very first chapter.

I could cite dozens of other examples, and so could most librarians. The point isn’t that any of those people are wrong or right, it’s that their reactions are all different: there is no universal agreement on what’s offensive and what’s acceptable in a children’s book. 

Librarians and publishers accede to a general consensus about what’s appropriate for different ages—but even within that broad opinion you’ll find some dissenters, and that consensus itself changes over time. The Higher Power of Lucky, which won the 2007 Newbery award, might have undergone some controversy because of the word “scrotum” (in reference to a dog) on the first page, but fifty or sixty years ago that word never even would have made it past the editor’s first read-through, and the very subject of the book—a child abandoned by her parents, living on the edge of a desert town, listening in on 12-step meetings—might have been too questionable to be considered as children’s reading material.

I know that most censors—the people behind the ALA’s List of Most Frequently Challenged Books—are trying to protect their children and the children of the community from scary or harmful images or concepts, just as that mom was trying to do for her son. I feel passionately about protecting kids and parents, too: about protecting their ability to read different books, to have different opinions, to decide for themselves and their own kids what’s offensive and what isn’t.

Happy Banned Books Week, and may we always be able to celebrate our freedom to read.

September 26, 2008

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Too Good To Be True? But It Is

Sorry, I’ve got to brag!  No, not brag exactly; the best word for what I am about to do here is “Kvell”. It’s a Yiddish word. I know less than twenty words in that language of my forebearers, and like most of the Yiddish words I know, “Kvell” has no exact English equivalent. If those Yiddish terms were easily translated, I wouldn’t bother to know or remember even twenty of them.

The spelling of “Kvell” here is phonetic and arbitrary; who knows how to spell Yiddish words in English. It has a different alphabet and is primarily a spoken language among the 2nd  and 3rd generation American born, although there is quite an impressive collection of Yiddish literature for those who do read it . We Yankees don’t read it. We just draw on it for the “precise bon mot” on a given occasion.  (An aside: Interesting that we’re illiterate in Yiddish: considering we are called the people of the book.  Which brings me directly to the thing I‘ve got to Kvell about. )

Here we go: Remember that 4 ½ year old grandson I have talked about before—the dude who asked his mother for a new baby once he felt he had taught his 18 month old brother everything he knows and so is ready for a new blank slate recipient for his wisdom?  Well, he’s done it again---made me Kvell. This is a biggy.

He ran out of school one day recently (a new pre-school for him) and rushed excitedly to his waiting mom.  “Mommy, Mommy,” he shouted breathlessly, “Guess What?  Guess What?”   My school has a library in it!!!!”  He was carrying evidence—a newly stamped library book. And this after he had very recently said to me on the phone, “Oh, Grandma, I love reading books”. He doesn’t read yet, but he sure is getting ready. Wouldn’t you kvell if he were your grandson?

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Arrrr! Pirate Books!

Arrrr! Pirate Books!

Avast! International Talk Like a Pirate Day be sighted on the horizon! Tomorrow, September 19, be the day! Shiver me timbers! Batten down the hatches! Yo ho ho! Walk the plank!

Well, okay, you don't have to walk the plank. But still, you might want to belly up to the bookshelf and pull down a pirate book like one of these:

Picture books:

Chapter books/Novels:


  • Pirateology:      A Pirate Hunter's Companion, by Captain William Lubber and Dubald Steer.      Like the other books in the "ologies" series, this is a visual feast. The      year it came out, I could've had a dozen copies in my library & they      all would've been checked out all the time.
  • Pirates,      by John Matthews. Includes lots of cute (not that pirates are EVER cute)      pull-out features, like a book of pirate slang, a treasure map, and even a      Wanted poster for Blackbeard. .
  • The      Pirate Queen, by Emily Arnold McCully. The true story of Irish pirate      Grania O'Malley.

September 18, 2008


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Developmentally Appropriate Learning Standards: An Oxymoron?

As promised in my last blog, here's a little more food for thought about Standards and young children.  Are learning standards and developmentally appropriate practice inherently incompatible? The gold standard bearers at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) say, "NO!" Having Standards to meet, even in very early childhood education, can be consistent with NAEYC's own highest standard---the insistence that educational expectations must fit the developmental level of each individual young child. Educators are expected to start where the kids are, as an age group, and individually. General principles of what to expect of children of any given age or grade, are important to recognize; but so too are individual differences in readiness.

"Learning standards and developmentally appropriate practices can indeed go together! No change in acceptable early childhood practices is necessary.  Learning standards can be incorporated into play, into emergent curriculum and projects and into small and large group times". (Young Children, July, 2008)

"All 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted early learning standards related to language, literacy, and math for 3-5 year olds." NAEYC strongly recommends that those standards consider "social/emotional development, physical development and approaches to learning in addition to traditional content areas associated with schooling."

Further cautions include: avioding a cookie cutter style curriculum. Trust young children's ability to learn in self-directed, exploratory ways. Be wary of testing and other inappropriate assessment methods for young children.  Find a way to support training of early educators in how to best implement standards. In short, "Take good care of young children and help them to grow and learn and flourish", given who and where they are developmentally.

September 17, 2008

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We’re living in a pulse elevating moment. It is not mere political hyperbole to call this a turning point for western civilization. The imminent Presidential/Vice Presidential election offers nominees with a remarkable diversity of origins and self-understanding. Those ultimately chosen to lead us will confront issues demanding insight, humility and wisdom like never before.

To consider some qualities needed to lead, let’s take a look at just one circumscribed aspect of a single issue, the education of young children. I am presuming that it is an issue about which readers of Scholastic blogs share a keen interest. We may not agree about the steps needed to spur kids on to academic success, about what qualities and characteristics, skills and knowledge, will propel them forward and which are likely to leave them behind. But we are all hoping to aim them in the same direction—FORWARD.    

Decision makers about how to go about this are not, for the most part, experts in either education or child development. Many, like the current Mayor of NYC, are gifted political leaders and some, like him, have had highly successful earlier careers, in his case, as an entrepreneur.  The self confidence that allows a would be entrepreneur to take big risks and the ultimate realization of financial success beyond even his own wildest dreams may contribute to his certainty about how to predict academic success/failure. He is absolutely certain and determined to begin formal testing in reading and math in the kindergarten through 2nd grade, rather than waiting until third grade.

Principals in city elementary schools are being urged to enter their youngest kids in a pilot program using standardized pencil and paper tests which last between an hour and 90 minutes. Up until now, kids ages 5-7 have been assessed for literacy on an individual basis by their teachers.  One harsh critic of the proposed change, Jane Hirschmann, quoted in the New York Times, pronounced the proposed pilot program “’criminal behavior’”, slamming the Mayor’s administration for what she called its commitment to “’turning curriculum into a testing regime’”.  

In my view, the Mayor is doing what he thinks is best and doing so in good faith.  But it hasn’t occurred to him to bring in experts in child development and early childhood education who would point out the fact that few children this young, no matter how literate or math skilled, can be expected to stay focused on a standardized pencil and paper test for up to one hour and a half.

In fact, the about to be discarded method of individual teacher assessments combined with the teacher’s familiarity with each child’s every day performance are the best predictors of the learning potential and skills of children this young. (Yes, that does take more time, but what good is a quick, but unreliable measure?)

No one who represents the position of the National Association of the Education of Young Children would consider standardized paper and pencil testing of K-2 children to be developmentally appropriate.     But make no mistake about it: the leaders of NAEYC and the overwhelming majority of its close to 100,000 members are supportive of Learning Standards, those which are truly developmentally appropriate.  Details about this will follow in my next blog along with a further plea for exercising emotional intelligence and humility in governing all the people, no matter how young, at such a critical time.

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Seven Years Ago Thursday: Fireboat and Other Books About September 11

Seven Years Ago Thursday: Fireboat and Other Books About September 11

That day, we were all trying to be normal, at least at work. I had a cold, but came to school in the afternoon to teach a class; it was the kindergarteners’ very first library session and I didn’t want to miss it. For most or maybe all of them, it was a regular first week of kindergarten; we were in Seattle, far from the attacks, and they didn’t know what was going on, maybe just that the grownups were weirdly jittery. 

I was a mess: disorganized, stuffed up, exhausted. And terrified. At one point, I left the story rug and went to my desk to find a book, trying all the while to keep up a cheerful patter so I wouldn’t lose the kids’ (always tenuous) attention. Standing there at my desk, I heard a single plane. I looked up and saw it out the window, up in the clear and empty sky. Everyone knew by then that all flights were grounded.

I did the weirdest thing: I ducked down, next to my desk. Then I looked at the kids and saw that they were all staring at me, bewildered. So I pulled myself together, stood up, picked up my book, and went back to the story rug to read it. I didn’t refer to what I had just done; there was no way I could explain it.

A year later, the first books started to appear. The first one I saw was called September 12…We Knew Everything Would Be All Right. Written by first graders in Missouri, and published as the winner of that year’s Scholastic Kids Are Authors contest, it was a simple illustrated list of the reassuring ordinary things that happened for them the day after the attacks, simple things like going to school in the morning, playing at recess, and doing homework. I snapped it up at the Scholastic warehouse, glad to have something to give the primary teachers who needed to present the issue with their students before the memorial ceremony the school was holding.

Another early title was Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman. Ultimately, it’s a tale about working together and not giving up, as well as a worthy companion to older titles about underdog machinery and buildings, like Little Toot, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, and even The Little Engine that Could.

But unlike September 12, which only briefly mentions the actual terrorist attacks, Fireboat directly tells what happened in New York on 9/11, and the true story of a group of friends and a scruffy retired fireboat who helped in the rescue effort.

In 2004, Fireboat was nominated for a Washington Children’s Choice Picture Book Award, so I read it—with some trepidation—to most of the primary classes, which were filled with kids who’d been too young in fall 2001 to have much or any memory of what had happened.

I remember blanching when I got to the pages where Kalman’s vibrant, colorful painted illustrations show planes flying into the World Trade Center. But the kids I read it to were more curious than upset, and their most urgent questions were: Was there really a fireboat? Did it really help put out the flames? How much of the story was true?

I think, for those kids, it was already something in the vague past before their own personal memories kicked in: not something directly to do with their lives.

When I was a kid, the grownups all remembered where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed. It was on the news every year in November, but to me the story was just background noise. I didn’t truly understand the import—and how it must have felt to hear that news when it was news--until much later, far into adulthood.

Most people who can remember the events of September 11, 2001, seven years ago this Thursday, are adults or at least adolescents themselves now. The kindergarteners I taught that day started 7th grade last week, and if any of them recall the moment when their brand-new librarian flipped out because a plane (probably, in retrospect, an aircraft carrier from a nearby base) flew by outside the window, it’s as a bizarre, maybe disembodied image in a week filled with new events.

Even the books will take on different meanings, different uses, as current events pass into history: informational titles like A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 And Its Aftermath are as valuable and useful today as they were when first published soon after the attacks, but September 12…We Knew Everything Would Be All Right (now out of print) is most meaningful now not as a comfort to other children who’d witnessed September 11 in person or on television, but as a tool to help kids understand that whatever happens, caring grownups and comforting routines can help you get through it.

I haven’t read Fireboat to a group for a few years now, but imagine that if I did, the class response would be even more detached, much as it is to books about World War II and other faraway events. The illustrations are still gorgeous, and the story is still compelling, but now it’s a book about a historical event, with more in common with The Little Red Lighthouse than with the evening news.

And I’m one of the grownups who experienced something that my daughter will learn about only as a lesson in school.

September 9, 2008

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For the Parents

After my last post, about  books for children approaching the first day of school, Charlotte (of the lovely and highly civilized kidlit blog Charlotte’s Library) commented:

“Yes well. You left out the fun for the parent as she tries to buy everything on the lists--worried both about the cost (I just dropped $60 bucks) plus the anxiety of being told to get a specific brand and type of glue and the biggest craft store around not having it but they told me that what they had was exactly the same thing but what if it's not????? And I bought the 6 four inch glue sticks as ordered but glue guns come in different sizes and although Ben was pretty sure it was the big kind we are not certain. If only I had not left it all till the day before. And we haven't tried to relocate the back packs yet, or put name tags on the spare clothes, or done our summer reading. Nor have we sat down and cooperated while our hair was trimmed.

“So where's the comforting book for me????”

Let it never be said that I don’t know a reader’s-advisory challenge when I read one. It took a few days, but Charlotte, I think I have a comforting book for you:

Voyage to the Bunny Planet, by Rosemary Wells. I wrote about this title a long time ago, in a multiple-recommendation post. But now it is back in print! Yes!! In an omnibus three-in-one volume! Everyone—even parents, or maybe especially parents, and most especially parents who are scrambling to round up school supplies and supervise summer reading and trim the hair of uncooperative offspring—needs a visit to the Bunny Planet, where we can all can have the day that should have been. And the bunny queen, Janet, is just the one to take us all there.

Also, while it’s not strictly a book—okay, it’s not a book at all—the song “Orange Cocoa Cake” by Lou and Paul Berryman perfectly captures that, er, delightful and action-packed pace of contemporary family life, from a parent’s point of view. To truly appreciate the song, it helps to hear the breathless (literally—it’s a patter song) delivery that Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer give it on their album A Parents’ Home Companion. (You can hear an excerpt from the song on their website.)

Now I’m off to make lunch, unpack the kitchen, and harass my kid into cleaning up all the birthday presents scattered around the living room floor. Toodle-oo!

August 31, 2008

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