Last year I wrote a piece for this blog highlighting Jason Reynolds as the Inaugural Honorary Chair of Banned Books Week. His trajectory as a rising star in the literary community has not slowed one bit, so you may have seen him interviewed by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show about being the Library of Congress National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. When Colbert asked Reynolds what he wanted people to know about censorship of books in American right now, he said:
That first and foremost, it’s not a badge of honor. For those of us that are going through it, for those of us on that list, it’s not a badge of honor. People always say, “Congratulations, you’re doing something right!” It’s like, yeah but at the same time there’s been access cut for all the young people who might need these books and where they only might get them in schools. You can’t take for granted that there might not be a library or bookstore in everybody’s community or that there might not be a $20 bill to go and buy the books that they no longer have access to because of these bannings, right?Jason Reynolds
There is one such community not too far away from me in the small towns of Franksville and Raymond in the state of Wisconsin. Neither town has its own public library and instead the area receives library services from Racine County Public Library. Their Bookmobile is stationed in the Franksville US Bank parking lot on Saturday afternoons. Maybe there are local bookstores? It was hard to find one closer than Racine. The Graham Public Library is nine miles away, which is a little closer but if you are a fourteen year old middle school student, it is still a bit of a cumbersome distance.
And like a Kafkaesque roller coaster from late night to school board meetings, Jason Reynolds was banned in Franksville’s Raymond School Library for All American Boys. The reason? One parent objected to police brutality, profanity, and racial slurs. Reynolds’ company was Laurie Halse Anderson for Speak and Sherman Alexie for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Anderson and Alexie’s books were removed at the direction of the district administrator without being formally reviewed by a committee. Reynolds’ book went to board meetings.
Many parents in this community do not support the book bannings, though there has not been much light shown on the story so far. All American Boys was first discussed on September 9th, 2021 when a parent challenged it. As per school policy, a review committee was formed. Members of the committee were tasked with reading the books and deciding if they were appropriate for the students. Their review found that the books were appropriate for middle school students. The district administrator presented this to the school board but ultimately the school board voted to remove All American Boys in December 2021. The book is no longer on the shelves at the Raymond School Library. School staff have concerns about future restrictions on books – especially those with profanity.
This is the part where some lady from Wisconsin smirks at me for defending profanity in books for children, but allow me to remind her that includes dictionaries, educational encyclopedias, religious texts, and even presidential quotes. I do not think children’s books ought to be littered with frivolous profanity. That being said, well-placed, accurate to the character, or historical profanities have a place in children’s literature. See Lillian Jean Simms in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. See Aunt Marge Dursley in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Profanity is a slippery slope that can be exemplified with the challenges to James Allard’s The Stupids picture book series. Some people believe the word “stupid” to be profane but a lot more people do not hold that view.
Another completely valid concern that school staff have concerns the Lexile Framework for Reading, which is used by the school. For those that do not work with youth, Lexile is a quantification of a student’s reading ability. Students are assigned a score and in many cases, instructed to read books within that score. High achieving readers will eventually start to score higher and higher Lexile scores. Lexile itself will start to suggest Stephen King or Homer to a middle school student. I ran into this issue all the time as a public youth librarian. Frustrated tweens and frustrated parents red-faced at the reference desk, unsure what books will count towards reading at school. The student is great at reading, so that should be celebrated! But then we run into the issue of content & age maturity. No way am I going to hand an eleven year old It by Stephen King. This is why Young Adult books have value!
The Young Adult section is now suspect at Raymond School. Removing books in the young adult collection at a school library that serves middle school students does a disservice to its patrons: the middle school students. Young adult books present adult themes to tweens & teens, but they are done so with professional intent. They are intended for teens and not children or adults. It makes sense that a K-8 school would run into this issue. 5th grade readers are totally different from 8th grade readers and then we have the kindergarteners who are just starting out!
I will close out with the rest of that Jason Reynolds quote I started you out with.
Second of all, I just think that people should understand that at the end of the day, we as adults, we claim that we want our children to grow up to be better than we are and in order to do so they must have the information that we did not have. So to stop that information really makes us all hypocrites and it’s something that we should be thinking about.Jason Reynolds
For those local to Raymond that would like to support their local school, there is a school board election coming up very soon. The Wisconsin primaries are February 15, 2022 and the general election is April 5, 2022. School board candidates that are known to support the students right to read are Jillian Berman and Alison Ebert. For more information on voting in Wisconsin, click here. Think about this all, take note, and change your community with your vote this spring!
Hold your school board accountable to following district policy, encourage them to protect the First Amendment rights of their students, and say NO to banning books!
Holly Eberle is the Teen Programming and Outreach Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in Illinois. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. In addition to intellectual freedom, she is also passionate about the opioid epidemic and getting Narcan inside every public library.