Middle Schoolers React to Censorship (A Story told in GIFs)
By: Kristin Pekoll, OIF Assistant Director
A couple times of year, I am invited to visit schools around the Chicago area to talk about censorship and banned books. I really enjoy doing these visits because I used to work with middle schoolers and high schoolers in my position as a young adult librarian. As much as I love my job at ALA, I miss the kids. What’s great about this age is their openness and honesty. I pack my “I Read Banned Books” tote bag full of buttons, stickers, bookmarks and Field Reports. The Field Reports list incidents of censorship and requests to ban materials or cancel events or remove resources and services that were published publicly. The Field Reports tell a brief story about what happened, where it happened, why it happened and what was the resolution. In my experience visiting students, they love to scan through the pages and spot books they know or have read. Their reactions have no filter.
Sadness is a profound emotion that tends to leak from their skin when their favorite book is censored. When I told stories about books they cherish being removed from libraries, you can smell the sadness in the air. I told students about how Harry Potter books were burned. Their faces express touching emotion. Harry, Ron, and Hermoine are their friends, kids from a neighboring school who they’ve grown up with. When censors ban or burn these books, they are banning their friends, kids they relate to. They think of this censorship as a judgment of themselves.
While I don’t condone temper tantrums, I can certainly understand reacting with anger. Students aren’t the only ones who often express righteous indignation, throw things, or yell curse words when confronted with injustice. We live in a country where freedom is a vital part of our culture. When our freedom is taken from us, we may feel violated and outraged and often we lack an outlet for our frustration and anger. It’s even worse when reports of censorship include abuse of power by librarians, teachers and people we are supposed to be able to trust.
In a small town in Minnesota, a school librarian removed the K-12 school’s copy of This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki because she didn’t think it was appropriate for the younger grades. But her censorship clearly affected high school students too. Many people, including the students, responded in anger to this censorship report.
My visits with middle schoolers, usually 8th graders, often involve critical thinking questions and discussions about Nazis, abuse of power, and the First Amendment. I do like to lighten things up by including a few situations that are more lighthearted. I describe reports of challenges to Curious George. In one of the books, our cheeky monkey friend gets a job at a hospital and clumsily knocks over a bottle of ether. The illustration shows George with a dazed expression and loopy stars dancing in front of his eyes. In a formal complaint to the library, a parent wrote “Curious George is a STONER!” That always gets a few laughs.
Pride is a mixed bag of reactions. Many students are still developing their sense of self and ownership for their own beliefs and values. Issues of racism and injustice often expose the complexities of intellectual freedom.
With some reports, there is pride in how students campaigned for change that they believed in, even if a book was removed. For example, in Philadelphia, a class of students petitioned their school board to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum because the N word made them feel uncomfortable.
With other reports there is pride in how the community reacted to confront injustice and discrimination. Outside of Madison, Wisconsin, the public library hosted the author of I Am Jazz to a public reading of the childrens picture book after it was cancelled at the school due to a threat of a lawsuit by a conservative religious organization.
I’ve seen middle schoolers react with pride and in awe of the mother who filed a lawsuit against a school district in Utah for violating the First Amendment rights of her child when they stored the book, In Our Mothers’ House, by Patricia Polacco behind the desk. The book was reinstated without restrictions and the school district agreed to pay $15,000 in attorneys’ fees for the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Incredulity is the reaction of the day when I talk about challenges to Junie B. Jones and Bad Kitty. Or especially the Dictionary! They can’t believe that someone would go to the trouble of challenging a book because of a character’s grammar or because an author used symbols to mask a possible “bad” word. When I tell them that in Alaska, the Dictionary was banned because it contained too many slang words and was deemed “inappropriate” for teens to view; their mouths literally drop open.
Why is all of this important?
Reporting censorship is important not just for our profession. The next generation of students who are learning to think for themselves and to discover who they are and are shaping the world we live in need to know the reality of censorship so they can fight for their own rights.
Every report received by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is tracked in a secure database with thousands of records from the last three decades. We don’t collect this information to shame people or to raise book sales. We collect this information so we have concrete facts that we can reference when we talk about the harms of censorship.
- Harms to readers, like the students I visit with their priceless and honest reactions
- Harms to librarians, like my colleagues who are trying to provide access to stories and information for their community.
- Harms to authors, like the rock star writers who see inside the hearts of a reader and make paper feel like a friend.
- Harms to our society, like the skilled and educated professions of teachers and journalists who are distrusted and maligned.
We need to know about these situations that happen in every type of library, in every state, to all types of resources, for every reason under the sun. When we know, when we educate ourselves, when we talk about these issues, they become less scary. Reports are important so we know we are not alone.
Please take five minutes to report any challenges that your library or institution has encountered in 2018 to the ALA online challenge reporting form before Dec. 31, 2018.
PS. Each of these GIFs represents a banned or challenged story.
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.