By: Rebecca Slocum
At this year’s annual Texas Library Association conference, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a session entitled, “Author, Please Come! Never Mind. Please Don’t.” You can maybe guess the topic of the session. Authors Ellen Hopkins, Gayle Pitman, and e.E. Charlton-Trujillo each spoke about their experiences of being invited to a school, and then disinvited. Each author had their own story, yet the narrative was strangely familiar. They were invited to speak about or read from a particular book, and then a parent read the book (or more likely, opened to a random page) and was horrified to find mentions of sex, drugs, death, LGBTQ+, and other controversial topics. That parent (or community member) then puts pressure on the librarian or principal who invited the author to inform them that they are no longer welcome at the school.
Setting aside the fact that it’s just rude, rescinding an author’s invitation to speak because the content of their book is controversial is, in fact, censorship. The physical book may not be off the shelf, but the author’s message is still being stifled. One person is making a choice for the entire school community, that what this author has to say is not of value.
Why are the authors disinvited?
Many of Hopkins’ books deal with drugs, but I don’t think she’s going to walk into a school and start handing out joints. Pitman’s often challenged children’s book, This Day in June, and Trujillo’s book, Fat Angie, both deal with LGBTQ+ topics, yet they’re not going to schools to push any particular agenda, straight or gay. These authors are not there to corrupt children; they’re there to empower children. They, through the help of their characters, are there to guide students in making tough choices and to show them that they can, and should, be who they are.
So again, why? Why are people so afraid to let kids hear that message? I think it boils down to just that: fear. The message may be dressed up as “safety” and “protecting our kids,” but essentially, parents are afraid that if their children read books that deal with these difficult issues, that they will then, in turn, experience these situations themselves. If they read about sex, they’ll have it. If they read about drugs, they’ll do them. If they read about suicide, they’ll do it. If they read about an LGBT relationship, they’ll be in one. Fear, even irrational fear, can be a powerful motivator.
As a mother, I certainly understand and appreciate that feeling of wanting my child to be safe. However, Hopkins puts it quite plainly, “You can’t keep kids safe by withholding knowledge. Knowledge is a weapon.” Conversely, ignorance is not a weapon; rather, it’s a handicap. Students are going to better learn about these social justice issues when given more information, not less. It is through opening the lines of communication and allowing them to ask questions and voice opinions that children are able to develop a broad and informed understanding of the world.
What if this happens to me?
So what can we, as librarians, do if we find ourselves being asked to disinvite an author after an invitation has already been issued? Is it worth your job to stand up and fight back? Ultimately, that is up to each individual librarian. However, here are some tips and tools to better equip you to make that decision.
- Connect with fellow librarians. Check with librarians or teachers in your community. Reach out on Twitter or Facebook. Pitman observed that “building community is invaluable.” It’s likely someone you know or are connected to has experienced a similar situation. Their advice can better prepare you to take the next step, should you decide to take it.
- Connect with the author. When asked if they would want the librarian to reach out to them for support in this type of situation, Hopkins, Pitman, and Trujillo each answered with an emphatic, “YES!” Hopkins cited instances where, when one of her books was challenged, she responded by providing letters readers have sent her over the years. These powerful letters recounted stories of gratitude and appreciation from teens (and parents) stating how her books helped guide them (or their child) away from a decision, usually involving drugs or suicide, that likely would have resulted in tragedy. Trujillo emotionally recalled meeting a young girl at a previous conference, where the girl tearfully thanked Trujillo for writing Fat Angie because it helped her to deal with a bullying situation at her school. These authors spoke powerfully about how these letters and experiences affected them; they want to support students and help facilitate questions. Their support would likely go a long way in showing a principal the power these characters and stories have on students.
- Report the challenge. The Office for Intellectual Freedom is not just for challenges against physical books. They provide a wealth of resources to support librarians in all types of challenges and forms of censorship. Bringing these instances to light better prepares OIF, and in turn, other librarians for handling these types of situations in the future.
Our job is to provide students with diverse books that depict a variety of topics, themes, characters, religions, and world views. Even if you experience a challenge, to a book or author, and it doesn’t go as you hoped, don’t let discouragement keep you from being a librarian. Hopkins brought it home with this simple, yet powerful, observation: “Librarians are the first responders.” We are often the first to sense when a troubled teen needs guidance or when a child needs a hand to hold. We respond by handing them books; books that provide that guidance, that sense of friendship, and that knowledge that they are not alone. Don’t let the fear of challenges keep you from giving that life-saving response.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.