A Conversation about Book Challenges

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

The Cranston Public Library in Cranston, RI hosts a weekly podcast titled Down Time with Cranston Public Library where they talk with librarians, library workers and community members about a variety of topics. On February 15th, 2022 they spoke with Martin Garnar, director of the Amherst College Library, and Marianne Mirando, the Librarian from Westerly High School in Westerly, RI to talk about the recent increase in book challenges across the country. They discussed what it means for a book to be challenged in a school or public library and what you can do to protect intellectual freedom in your community. Below is an excerpt from their conversation.

Q: What would you say to someone who does not know much about the issue of book challenges?

Martin: It’s important to know that when it comes to a book challenge, even the language about the challenge can set up kind of a confrontational feel. We often will talk about requests for reconsideration because sometimes there are items that might age out of the collection. In terms of how we think about a topic or, sometimes at school libraries, collections change, if grade levels move from one building to another and you might have something that was okay when you had older students there and isn’t really fitting [there anymore]. And it’s all right for the community to say, “Hey, we’re not sure if this really should be in the collection,” and ask us to reconsider it. And you’re right, that the banned language is provocative and it gets people’s attention. Does this mean that it’s illegal to read the book? No. I mean that has happened in a very few cases, in earlier parts of our history when James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published, for example, that was declared obscene and copies were going to be destroyed if you found them. And that can still happen in certain jurisdictions, but on a very, very small level. But it’s what the impact of this decision has on someone’s access to a book. You probably have heard about the school district in Tennessee that has removed Maus, Pulitzer award-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, from the curriculum and from the libraries. And you can say, oh, well, you could go pick it up at the store. And I know that there’s a comic store that will send a copy to anyone who asks for it in that school district but you have to assume that you’ve got the money to go buy it from that bookstore. And if it’s not in your school library, well, maybe the public library has it. Well, maybe they don’t, or maybe you can’t get to the public library because you don’t have transportation to get there or your parents won’t take you there if you’re a kid. And so if you don’t have access to it in a library that you use most, for all intents and purposes, it might just be gone forever. And so that’s why it’s important for us to think about how the actions of an individual institution can have ripple effects and the people who will be hurt by it. The most are usually the ones who have been marginalized, who do not have the resources, uh, to just go out and buy it themselves and so it just deepens the divide that we already have. 

Marianne: That’s really an honest perspective at the high school level. It hasn’t gone so far as a challenge yet, but we have had people at school committee meetings talking about removing, and they were against the fact that we had certain books and, you know, it includes, the top lists that’s going around the country, Gender Queer is getting all the attention right now and oddly True Diary of a Part-time Indian. And then another one was Stamped, which is the Read Across Rhode Island choice last year. And it’s infuriating, you know, and I put Stamped into a student’s hands and when he came back just a few days later, he was so happy. And this kid was not a frequent flier in the library and he was so happy and that alone is evidence that that book needs to stay right here. So I look at it as intellectual freedom is what it’s about. And these kids, we have every kind of student you can imagine at this high school. And if I don’t have a collection that matches that population, I don’t feel like I’m doing my job. You know, there must be books that represent all of our students here. That’s as simple as that. So that’s, that’s what it’s about to me. When you try to challenge a book, you are challenging a student who may need that. And our kids are all at that age where they’re discovering themselves and if they can’t find books to identify with, then we’re letting them down. It’s a huge failure on our part.

Q:A lot of the challenges have been targeting books written by people of color about people of color because of, I want to phrase it as fear, but that might be a little bit of my opinion, of children learning critical race theory. People say, well, aren’t they too young to start thinking about that? And it’s like, well, they’re not too young to already start to learn that bias from the culture.

Martin: I think that your point about the fears around critical race theory are so connected to this. Should kids be reading critical race theory? The actual theory? Um, I will say that I just finished my doctorate and my dissertation used critical race theory as its framework and I was in graduate school… so we should not be going into any philosophical, theoretical frameworks with five-year-olds, that something we wouldn’t do because that’s not how we approach education, but to talk about the realities of race, when children experience racism, where they can witness racism, without giving them the skills to respond or to recognize that, we are setting them up for failure later in life. And so I think that’s absolutely critical. And, earlier you mentioned the ideas of mirrors and windows, and I think about Debbie Reese and her blog about American Indian children’s literature, and they put out a great infographic. They did a study of looking at representation of what kids look like in terms of main characters and they’re all holding a mirror. And the indigenous representation was around 1%. And so it was this crack little hand mirror. And then at the other end of the spectrum were the white children who had numerous [main characters that looked like them] all over the place. And the number two main character in children’s books, well, it was actually pets and animals. And so it’s white children, animals, and then children of other backgrounds. So again, what does that message tell you? And that’s what I think we’re trying to make sure, that our communities of color in particular, are getting a different message when they walk into the library and they can see themselves and see their own faces, looking back at them.

Children representing different racial groups stand in a line looking into different sized mirrors to represent the amount they appear in children literature. There is also a bear to represent animal characters in children’s literature. From left to right (least to greatest) is an American Indian/First Nations boy, a Latinx girl, an Asian American Boy, and a Black girl, the bear, and a white boy.
Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Marianne: And we’re also not teaching, you know, heart surgery and rocket science. Our kids just aren’t ready for those complex ideas, but…

Martin: They are learning about biology and they’re building up [their knowledge] so that someday they can learn about heart surgery and they can learn about rocket science and in the same way that our students should be learning about race and racism. So that those who want to someday can pursue a study of critical race theory.

Q: What would both of you say to parents or community members, or anyone out there listening who is hearing about these book challenges and is concerned for their children or the children in their community and their freedom to read. What could they do to help?

Marianne: I would say attend your school committee meetings because the negative voices have a very large foil. They are there maybe not in big numbers, but they’re loud and they bring their visuals and they make their presence known and they’re obnoxious about it. They’re always, they’re always in your face. And the majority of people disagree, but they’re not heard because they don’t speak out. So I wouldn’t just say, speak out in support of intellectual freedom and access to information. 

Martin: Marianne, I think those are great suggestions because yes, the voices are not being expressed in proportion to how people are represented and how these thoughts are represented in our communities. I think especially in school settings, you know, parents have such a greater leverage than non parents even when I go as the taxpayer it’s like, “you don’t have any kids. And so we’re not going to listen to you as much.” So parents really can make a difference here, but should we have something like this happening at my school, then I would go and talk about it. This actually did happen when I was living in Colorado, where we had some challenges to some books and I sent letters as a concerned resident. And I reached out to some colleagues who were parents from the district, so that they could also say something. The other thing to consider, because this is starting to happen is that we are seeing school boards and library boards, public library board elections, being targeted by groups to try to change the composition and radically rethink our approach to education or to library services and to what should be available in a way. Definitely not as representative as our approaches now. So if you really want to get involved, you should run for the school committee and you should get involved in that way and get on the board so that you can be assured that your voice will be heard. Because these are our neighbors.They are us. This is us. These are our schools. These are our libraries. And so if we care about them then we want to make sure that they are the resource that we need them to be for our communities. Then we should get involved in their oversight.

To listen to the whole episode this conversation was taken from, search for Down Time with Cranston Public Library wherever you get your podcasts. 

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