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

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

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


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

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

AddThis Social Bookmark Button