Michaela Goade, illustrator of the children’s picture book We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, is the first Native American winner of the Caldecott Medal. According to the American Library Association’s press release announcing the win, “Michaela Goade is an enrolled member of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and is of the Kiks.ádi Clan (Raven/Frog).” Read this interview published in Indian Country Today in which Goade speaks about the need to represent Indigenous communities not just during Native American Heritage Month.
But not all librarians share this excitement.
As the Facebook post below from a private group Future Ready Librarians shows, some librarians expressed concern that children will not understand the metaphor of the black snake to a pipeline.
However, that’s why children should have access to this story, in order to learn about figurative language. They may not understand that by themselves, but that’s the librarian’s role. I’m sure that children’s librarians share many picture books rife with metaphors, such as Where the Wild Things Are, and part of the learning experience is to be taught strategies authors use to construct stories and messages.
More disturbing is the next post in which the librarian directly shares that this story is “too political” for younger learners.
The idea posted here goes back to a previous post of mine in which I realized there aren’t always two sides to some issues, particularly when discussing conspiracy theories and false information. It is true that a librarian can have students research why some want to build a pipeline and how fossil fuels are obtained and then used by society. Then they can learn how that can harm the environment, and in this case, the specific objections of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. While librarians can certainly be legitimately concerned about the appropriateness of access to materials for particular ages, this book celebrates the spirit of community and how groups of people unite for a common cause.
When students do understand the metaphor, that’s when the political fears creep in. But we cannot withhold materials from children simply because an issue is presented about which people hold many different opinions. We can help children discover what those different opinions are, and then they can decide for themselves what they want to believe (or what their parents want them to believe).
Many librarians posted answers revealing a wide array of approaches and values. One poster mentioned that with parents listening in on online classes, she felt more hesitant to engage in any potentially divisive topics. One shared that she would focus on why the book won for the illustrations, thus diverting attention away from the political issues.
But by far, most posters pushed back against the original poster’s trepidation, stating that it absolutely belonged in the classroom and library even if it did address divisive issues. Many shared databases that students could use after reading the book to research water issues. Some mentioned how it is important to share stories such as these so students are aware that Native Americans are still very much a part of American society instead of viewing them as a historical group. Students can research the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to appreciate their point of view.
The political climate of the past 4 years certainly has had an effect on intellectual freedom, but maybe not in a way we would expect. Read OIF blogger Sabine Jean Dantus’s recent post, “Are Anti-Racism Book Challenges On The Rise?” and the ALA response to the Lafayette Public Library Board of Control which voted “to refuse a grant and cancel a program on the history of voting rights,” being concerned that the speakers were extremely far left leaning. This example perhaps best illustrates our current climate, that a discussion about the history of voting rights can be seen as a political interpretation instead of simple historical fact. Want a library to represent “all sides” and “be fair” on the history of voting rights? Then the other side is that there are people who don’t think all American citizens should be allowed to vote safely, fairly, and easily. I’m guessing that’s not the message they had in mind. And now, students at a charter school in northern Utah can opt out of Black History Month (it has since reversed course).
It is not un-American to study our past and current controversies in order to strive toward a more just society for all, particularly those who have been disenfranchised and made to suffer unjustly in the past.
Librarians, teachers, parents, all Americans would do well to remember the landmark case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982) which “identified a First Amendment right for students to be exposed to a diverse array of ideas, explaining that ‘such access to ideas prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members.’” Even our younger learners can start learning how to do this with grace, maturity, and intellectual humility.
The main point? Reading a book does not mean you are being forced to agree with any of the ideas in it. You can, however, appreciate the point of view based on sound evidence, which I argue is the overall goal of education.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism/newspaper teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education.