By: Allyson Mower (The following post is part of the Librarians Lead Against Censorship blog series. In celebration of National Library Week and its theme “Libraries Lead,” the Intellectual Freedom Blog is highlighting the voices and experiences of fierce librarians who have defended the right to read in the past year. Learn more about the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2017 and this year’s Banned Books Week theme “Banning Books Silences Stories. Speak Out!” at ala.org/bbooks/NLW-Top10.)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie has had its fair share of official book challenges. It was the top most challenged book in 2014 according to notices sent to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Add Wisconsin’s Sauk Prairie School District to the list of entities that had to consider whether or not to ban the book from its high school curriculum. The district received a formal complaint from the parents of a student in early 2017. As the school district worked through its policies regarding challenges to the curriculum, other parents provided public comment, but no additional, official complaints materialized. The same parents also submitted an appeal after the superintendent decided to maintain the title in the curriculum as recommended by the majority vote of the district’s ad hoc review committee. In the end, the school board voted unanimously to retain the book as part of the curriculum.
The Sauk Prairie High School librarian, Lynn Evarts, remained very close to the situation throughout its unfolding and provided key leadership to the community on the matter. For her efforts, Evarts, plus her colleagues, earned the 2017 Lee Burress Intellectual Freedom Award from the Wisconsin Council of English Teachers. I wanted to interview Lynn as part of National Library Week in light of the theme “Libraries Lead.” In this instance, Lynn Evarts represents librarians leading against censorship.
OIF Blog: Hi Lynn, it’s great to be able to have the chance to interview you. Let’s start from the beginning. How would you characterize the nature of the original complaint?
Lynn Evarts: The parents who submitted the complaint felt that the book was inappropriate for young readers because it could potentially “provoke impure thoughts and hate towards God.” They also felt the book could lead to defiant behavior, disrespectful attitudes towards parents, and have a negative impact on the learning and development of young readers.
OIF Blog: What approaches did you take in navigating the situation as the librarian?
Lynn Evarts: I had many conversations with parents, teachers, and administrators, but the very first thing I did when the principal told me the school had received a book challenge was call the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. They sent me a packet of information about the book which I shared with the principal, the teacher, and the superintendent. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking with members of the community. I’ve been a part of this community for over 30 years and have built many relationships. I reached out to those I knew to tell them about this particular book challenge. I handed out copies of the book and encouraged community members to read it — former teachers, library board members, farmers, doctors, lawyers.
OIF Blog: And how did the community respond?
Lynn Evarts: They responded very well. Most people thought the book represented resiliency and making the best of what life gives you. As members of a small, rural community, these ideas resonated with people. The book challenge itself was not indicative of the broader community. People in this community realize that exploring ideas is not a bad thing — it’s part of learning.
OIF Blog: How did you keep the community informed about intellectual freedom and curiosity throughout this process?
Lynn Evarts: During the school board’s public meeting, I focused on the fact that we don’t give kids enough credit. I made an analogy to cooking lentils: Kids are more than just adding salt and water. They have their own minds. For example, several 9th-grade girls attended the public meeting and two of them spoke in support of the book saying how the book helped them realize that people have different lives. This was incredibly courageous of them to show their independence and I was proud of them. But, unfortunately, after the public meeting, the girls and their families were questioned by their parish priest about the fact that they had read the book and also spoke up about it. I never got a chance to have a conversation with the priest about intellectual freedom. But the overall experience was valuable in talking with other community members about the importance of independent thinking.
OIF Blog: I was glad to see that all the members of the school district’s Complaint Review Committee had read the book before they voted. Do you think the parents who filed the complaint and those who issued public comments had also read the book in full?
Lynn: Everyone was given two weeks to read the book. And anyone in the public meeting could vote if they had read it, but not everyone voted. The parents who filed the original complaint said they had familiarized themselves with the book, but it’s not clear if they read it in full.
OIF Blog: In the end, the book did not get banned from curriculum. What do you think influenced this determination?
Lynn: The book itself. It’s an easy title to defend. The character’s story is what most people want for their children, the hope it provides. In addition to the book itself, the role of the school board was crucial. They showed strong, independent thinking on the matter and were incredibly supportive of the teacher and me.
OIF Blog: What did the experience teach you about censorship, freedom to use one’s mind, and the role of the librarian as a leader on these topics?
Lynn: It taught me that librarians and teachers need to have close partnerships and they need the support of administrators, too. My overall career in librarianship has also taught me about the importance of reaching out to others. If there are any new librarians reading this or any librarians who haven’t navigated a book challenge, I say find someone to reach out to. Don’t hide! Speak up, build relationships. ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom was incredibly supportive (Kristin Pekoll emailed me right after the first news story), so was the Wisconsin Library Association as well as individual librarians. The superintendent didn’t want us to complicate the matter by posting on social media, a decision I thought was wise, but the librarians I knew used their social media accounts to talk about the issue and build support for students’ freedom to read. I’ve also learned that you don’t have to be afraid of a challenge. Kids take from books what they need. And maintaining those community connections and partnerships makes discussions about censorship and book challenges easier to have. In addition to asking for help and reaching out to people, it was also important to have a strong policy in place and to have our procedural ducks in a row.
Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.