By: Kristin Pekoll
On Saturday, August 26, Gayle Pitman sent me a Facebook message about a library challenge to her 2014 picture book, This Day in June. She said that a community member of West Chicago, Illinois, contacted her and Gayle was hoping she could share my contact information with her for advice and support.
“Of course!” I said. And Mary Black contacted me a few hours later. Mary and I talked via Facebook throughout the weekend, and I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the library on Monday night. The library meeting room, lobby and vestibule were packed, and I didn’t get to introduce myself until after she spoke in front of the board.
The board voted to retain the book in the children’s collection of the public library, and as the meeting concluded, there was an atmosphere of joyful celebration.
Later, in reflection, I asked myself:
“Why would an ordinary citizen stand up to defend this book?”
So I asked her. Here’s what she had to say.
KP: How did you hear about the library’s challenge to This Day in June?
MB: I saw a post on the “You know you’re from West Chicago” Facebook page. Harnessing the power of social media!
KP: Why did you contact Gayle Pitman, the author?
MB: I contacted Gayle Pitman because I thought that if I was an author and my book was the subject of an upcoming meeting at a library, I would want to know about it.
KP: What made you want to attend the meeting and speak in favor of keeping the book available in the children’s section?
MB: I wanted to attend the meeting and speak in favor of keeping the book in the children’s section because I feel strongly that children should have access to this book. It was written for children, has beautiful illustrations and addresses a topic that is important. Some people have a hard time understanding that although children may not fully understand their sexuality, it still exists.
Looking back, I am sure that I have been gay my entire life. I didn’t really understand it, but I did understand that it was not accepted. Living with the knowledge that the people you love think what you’re feeling is wrong, bad or disgusting as a child can be devastating. That is why the suicide rate of LGBT teens is so high — not because they are gay, but because they are led to believe they are less than. This book would let a child know that it is ok to be proud of who you are.
KP: Have you ever been involved in censorship, book banning or free speech activities before?
MB: At first, I answered this question “no.” Then I remembered that when my daughter was in 5th grade, her class was reading Huck Finn out loud in class. I sought to prevent this. I’m sure you’re aware that the “N” word is used a lot in this book: 219 times to be exact. While I don’t have a problem with the book, I did have a problem with reading it out loud in class.
Let me explain; my daughter is mixed, African American and Polish/Irish American. She was the only brown skinned child in her class of white students. She had recently been being teased relentlessly by a few boys in her class for the color of her skin. This book could have provoked a discussion about how inappropriate this type of teasing is, but I didn’t think the teacher was up to the task. I say this because when I approached her to discuss this, she shut me down right away, saying my concerns were unfounded. I didn’t want the book to be removed from the curriculum, but just not read out loud by the students in class. I succeeded in this but I think the teacher did not like me challenging her curriculum. So I guess in the end, I was against the way the book was being used in the classroom, rather than the book itself.
KP: Describe the experience of attending the library board meeting.
MB: Attending the meeting at the library was empowering for me. I was one of the first to arrive. There were two sign-in sheets, one was for the book, one against. I watched as the line to sign in supporting the book grew and grew. I think there were approximately 135 supporting the book with 15 against the book. Hearing both sides of the topic it was clear that the side trying to limit access to this book had a much broader agenda. I appreciated that the board was open to listening to both sides and spent the time discussing before the vote. Of course, I was pleased with the outcome.
(Truth Against the Machine streamed the meeting live and the recording is available to watch on Facebook. Mary Black’s public comments start at the 24:21 mark.)
KP: What did you take away from the experience?
MB: I am so proud of my community. Facing the people who would have me marginalized in society was a watershed moment for me. Being able to stand up for the rights of all children in a public setting was a privilege. At this time in history I believe it is especially important to stand up for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves. We must continue to allow access to all sides of controversial subjects so that we may learn from each other and progress as a whole, inclusive, understanding society. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
It’s pretty rare that I have the opportunity to attend a library board meeting in support of intellectual freedom. Ideally, it’s the community that should speak to the board with their concerns and desires. Libraries are local. But I wanted to attend to be a quiet support for Mary, for other parents and readers and also for Gayle who couldn’t be at the library meeting to defend her work and her right to express ideas and share information.
I was in awe of the 100+ people who attended the meeting, including librarians, teachers, parents and teens who supported the inclusion of library materials that represent all families. They not only supported this book, but they also supported their neighbors, their librarians and the freedom to choose for everyone. As Mary said in her public comments, “And to the parents who do not approve of this book for their children, I suggest you do not check it out.”
Read more about the challenge to This Day in June by Gayle Pitman:
Kristin Pekoll is the Assistant Director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Kristin communicates with state library associations on current book challenges and publications that deal with censorship, privacy, ethics, and internet filtering. She organizes online education and training on the freedom to read and how to navigate reconsideration requests and media relations. Kristin started her career as a youth librarian in West Bend, Wisconsin. In 2009, over 80 YA LGBTQ books were challenged over 6 months. While the library board voted to retain all of the books in this case, she learned the indispensable value of support and education for librarians. She continued to fight against censorship in Wisconsin as the Intellectual Freedom Round Table Chair. Kristin’s husband and kids have joined her in Chicago but they all remain true Green Bay Packers fans. She enjoys zombies, knitting, and the Big Bang Theory. Find her on Twitter @kpekoll.