By: Rebecca Slocum (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.)
“When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: ‘No. You move.’” Captain America
Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they are elementary school librarians. Sometimes they inspire children to love books and reading. And sometimes the lines of injustice against which they’re fighting is an attack on intellectual freedom.
Cheryl Campbell is one such hero. Now a public librarian in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Cheryl previously worked in Beaufort County ISD as an elementary school librarian. In August of 2017, a single complaint to the school board instigated the removal of the award-winning novel Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin from every school library in the district. Though the reasons behind the complaint are unknown, they are possibly attributed to the book’s overarching theme of death, as well as instances of sex and drugs.
District policy requires that in the event of a book challenge, a panel of community stakeholders should be selected to read and review the book before any action is taken. What is troubling in this situation, besides the decision to remove a book from library shelves, is that the review process to challenge a book was not followed. Librarians throughout the district were simply told to pull the book without any explanation.
Well, Cheryl could not, and did not, accept this decision. A firm believer in the freedom of access to uncensored information, she contacted the Office for Intellectual Freedom to report the challenge. But she did not stop there. She wanted copies of Denton Little’s Deathdate to be available to students throughout the district, so she started a GoFundMe page to help raise the money to make that happen. She also contacted the author, Lance Rubin, and the publisher, Ember (an imprint of Penguin Random House), to request donations of the book for her students. She ardently fought for the students’ right to access a book that deals with important and relevant topics for students today, and that passion shines through in her answers to OIF’s questions below.
(To learn a little more about the book and author Lance Rubin’s response to his book’s removal from the district, check out fellow OIF blogger Jane’a Johnson’s post “Q&A with Author Lance Rubin on the Suppression of his YA Novel in South Carolina.”)
OIF Blog: As librarians, we know that it’s always possible for a book we select for our shelves to be challenged, especially when it contains important topics such as sex and death. Were you surprised to see Denton Little’s Deathdate challenged? Why or why not?
Cheryl Campbell: When I first heard about this decision, I was an elementary school librarian. While we did not have the book at that age level, I was shocked to receive an email from administration, demanding the removal of the book, with no reason given. All libraries in the district were to remove it immediately from their shelves, digital sources, and any suggested reading lists. It was even more surprising because the book was a 2017-2018 South Carolina Young Adult Award nominee.
OIF Blog: Is this your first experience with a book challenge of this magnitude? How did you decide to take that step to report the challenge to the American Library Association?
Cheryl Campbell: This was not only my first experience with a challenge of this magnitude; it was my first experience dealing with a book challenge at all. I suppose I had always believed that there was a group of protectors out there — champions who were constantly fighting for the freedom of access to uncensored information. I realized that this group was out there, but that they weren’t appointed by anyone but themselves.
They were just ordinary citizens, like me, and I knew that it was my turn to step up. It was my turn to fight this extreme arrogance and blatant censorship.
OIF Blog: In today’s world of social media and instant access to information, it seems teenagers are constantly exposed to sex, drugs and alcohol, bullying, and, in the wake of the most recent school shooting, even death; yet society seems intent on trying to shield them from any books, television/movies, and music that dare to tackle these important issues. In your experience as a librarian and an educator, why do you think that is?
Cheryl Campbell: In addition to being a librarian and a former educator, I am also a parent of two teenagers. I haven’t always liked what they have read or the music they have listened to. BUT I have always fully supported their right to read or listen to whatever they choose. I didn’t realize how perilously close we were at any given moment to losing that right. As a parent, I completely understand that overwhelming sense of duty to protect your children. As they grew older though, I realized that keeping them sheltered from the outside world would only be a disservice to them. The world out there is full of complex issues and I wanted them to learn how to deal with them. Reading about challenges and how others deal with them gives them a safe place to explore. I believe it allows them to become better adjusted adults themselves, complete with coping skills who hopefully are more equipped to positively change their world for the better.
OIF Blog: I think it can be a knee jerk reaction to want to avoid controversy, from both parents and administrators. How do you combat that reflex to ensure your collection includes titles such as Denton Little’s Deathdate?
Cheryl Campbell: Fortunately, I’ve never been afraid of controversy. I’m more afraid of small-mindedness. I have always been willing to push boundaries, at least in my own small way. I wanted to make sure the kids in my libraries always had the opportunity to be exposed to many different cultures and viewpoints. I like the big picture, and have always tried to keep a global mindset.
OIF Blog: Your dedication to fighting censorship is evident through your persistence in the reporting of this challenge as well as through your creation of a GoFundMe campaign to distribute the book to Beaufort County School District students. What inspired this passion for intellectual freedom for you?
Cheryl Campbell: I have friends from all over the world, and have talked to people from countries where media is censored, where they could’ve lost their very lives in fighting for the truth. I realize how precarious our freedoms are in America. It’s like a game of dominoes, where the first tile falls, and the entire wall comes crashing down. Little censorships, like the banning of a book, are just the first step in losing larger freedoms.
OIF Blog: If you could talk to the person who challenged Denton Little’s Deathdate, what would you tell them?
Cheryl Campbell: I would ask why — what specific issue about this book caused you to want it completely removed from the shelves. Had they read the book? Or were they taking a certain incident out of context? Had they considered that, by dealing with difficult issues in a humorous way, the book could help teens going through those same issues?
OIF Blog: Based on your experience in fighting against this challenge, what advice do you have for other librarians who might be dealing with a similar situation?
Cheryl Campbell: Stay strong, and fight for what you believe in.
Issues like censorship can feel big and overwhelming. My advice would be that there is always, always, something that you can do. Change what you can, where you can, when you can. Because if we don’t, who will?
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.