As a youth librarian, it’s important to me to both fight for intellectual freedom and to help kids understand what it means for them.
Of course, Banned Books Week offers an opportunity to talk about intellectual freedom and banned books. But books are being challenged all the time. Kids need to know that this is an ongoing struggle and how to respond.
Adults can advocate for themselves. Teens, though sometimes stymied by school boards and a need for parental consent, have some agency.
But what does advocating for intellectual freedom mean for kids?
I recently read Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein. It’s the second book in the bestselling Mr. Lemoncello’s Library middle grade series. In this second installment, kids from all over the country come to Mr. Lemoncello’s Library to compete in his Library Olympics. A “duodecimalthon” of twelve library-related challenges — including trivia about books and a Dewey decimal book sort/relay race — will determine the winning team.
However, the unannounced ultimate challenge occurs when the kids discover that someone from the local community has been removing books about squirrels (the guy really dislikes squirrels) from the library and plans on burning them. Despite their library-related disagreements, the kids do agree that they can’t allow the permanent removal and burning of library books. So they work together to stop the squirrel book hater.
Although the challenge to intellectual freedom in the book is overly dramatic and the reason for removing the books is a little, well, squirrelly, the book affords a great opportunity for kids to think about challenges to intellectual freedom. It also affords an opportunity for adults to have conversations with kids about them. Starting with the example of someone thinking squirrels are terrible, adults can prompt kids, especially those in upper elementary and middle school, to think about why people would want to censor and remove books from public spaces.
It also provides an opportunity to talk about how, just like in the book, kids can disagree with adults and speak up for what they believe is right. The answer to one of the puzzles in the book is even “librarians are intellectual freedom fighters,” which tells kids that librarians are allies.
The book also includes a “thirteenth game,” which challenges readers to figure out the twenty titles of banned books mentioned throughout the story by Mr. Lemoncello. Additionally, the author’s note includes links to ALA’s page on Banned Books Week and TeachHUB’s Banned Books Week activities. All of these things make Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics a valuable resource for kids and adults.
My only qualm with the book is that it doesn’t really address the main reason materials are challenged, which, in theory, is to “protect” others from exposure to the material. Even the antagonist’s mother removes a book about her family history so unsavory details aren’t discovered and her reputation ruined.
In contrast, most actual challenges at least claim to be about protecting others, which is an important distinction. How can you confront a person or a group who believes they are doing the right thing and trying to help others? This is an issue that’s prevalent in all aspects of American society, and kids are exposed to it every day.
We owe it to kids to talk to them about their rights and what support looks like — be it for challenged books, authors, or marginalized people — and how all of it ties into the power dynamics of their country.
We owe it to kids to acknowledge these dynamics and to help them find ways to advocate for their rights and what they believe in.
Kristin McWilliams is a youth services librarian/assistant branch manager at Houston Public Library. She started in June 2017 after completing her MLS at Indiana University. While studying at Indiana University, she worked as co-coordinator of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center Library on campus, center supervisor with IU Residential Programs & Services Libraries, and as a public service assistant and reference blog editor at IU’s Herman B Wells Library. As a queer woman, she has a particular interest in LGBTQ+ materials and serving LGBTQ+ youth. Find her on Twitter @writteninblue.