Lisa Girard is the middle school librarian for Smithfield Public School District. The school district includes one high school, one middle school, and three elementary schools. Smithfield Public School District is located in Smithfield, Rhode Island. For context, this is about a half hour drive northwest of Providence. In addition to regular school librarian duties, Lisa has also served on the Rhode Island Children’s Book Award selection committee. Lisa spoke at a school committee meeting about three allegedly problematic books located in one of the elementary school libraries.
The initial book challenge first occurred in April 2022 after an open house night for parents at one of the elementary schools. The school library had all of the Rhode Island Children’s Book Award nominees on display. Lisa also told me that these three books were challenged systematically around the state of Rhode Island, so there is likely some online network of like-minded parents advocating for the challenges around the state.
Lisa spoke up at the June 6th, 2022 school committee meeting on the challenged books after being contacted by the assistant superintendent. As the middle school librarian, she was not aware of happenings in the elementary schools until then. She spoke to the RI Children’s Book Award selection committee process. She was not on the committee this year but has been in the past and is therefore qualified to describe their process. School librarians form a committee and read loads of books throughout the year and then come together to choose which twenty books should be on the upcoming year’s award list. Both school and public libraries then strive to purchase at least one copy of all twenty books so that students may read three of the twenty books and vote on their favorite. When things got tense, Lisa also spoke about the role of school libraries and how intellectual freedom is a core value.
I feel like the state book award initiative is common. Your state probably does this too. My home state of Illinois has the Monarch Award (gr. K-3), Bluestem Award (gr. 3-5), Rebecca Caudill Award (gr. 4-8), and Lincoln Award (gr. 9-12) with essentially the same processes. It’s just a fun thing that allows kids to participate and have their voices heard about what they like. Lists are published online as early as March before any given academic year, allowing parents five months or so to take a look and parent accordingly.
Anyways, the three books in question in Rhode Island are:
- Were I Not a Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry written by Lisa Robinson and illustrated by Lauren Simkin Berke
- A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart by Zetta Elliott and Noa Denmon
- Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman
What were the problems? They are all book specific. It was alleged that Were I Not a Girl was about gender identity and sexuality, deemed inappropriate for an elementary school by a parent. I hear that but would like to make a comment. This book is the American Civil War doctor version of Mulan. Girl is born in the 1800s and cannot become a doctor because it is the 1800s. Girl cross-dresses as a guy with a long-range plan so she can become a doctor. Girl is trying to save lives, just like Mulan was cross-dressing as a male soldier to fight the Huns. Mulan even has a hetero relationship with her male commander in case anyone was confused. She was essentially just playing dress up to bypass old fashioned laws. I saw Mulan in theaters in 1998 when I was 7 years old and I got it without yet knowing transgender folks existed. I hate to tell dads this, but girls understand sexism at an extremely tender age as well. They have eyes that can see advertisements. I say this as a former little girl.
Some folks did not appreciate the interpreted anti-police attitude of A Place Inside of Me. A parent who was a police officer spoke to this. I also hear this take because I know plenty of good police officers who are not about to kneel on anyone’s necks for ten minutes. Any child of a police officer is going to see their parent in all officers to some extent. Model the way for your child as a good officer and that’s probably what they will walk away with. Police officers have room for improvement and I am a-okay with saying that librarians also have room for improvement. Noble professions are not exempt from human nature slipping in – firefighters, teachers, clergymen…there are bad seeds occasionally. Art should be allowed to acknowledge that. Art creates these discussions which lead to knowing better and doing better.
Feed Your Mind uses the n-word on one occasion and a white parent felt that that word has absolutely no place in materials used for elementary school education. I use the word white to describe this parent because a Black parent spoke up from the crowd to ask the white parent his advice for when her young child has been called the n-word at elementary school. I thought this parent made a valid point. As a white lady, I did not really know about that word until my teen years but I have heard from Black folks that they knew about it at a tender age – usually before elementary school. I would like to reference Mildred D. Taylor’s forward to the 25th anniversary edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which specifically addresses the use of the n-word in children’s literature:
“In my books I have tried to present a history of my family as well as the effects of racism, not only on the victims of racism, but also the racists themselves. I have recounted events that were painful to write and painful to read, but I had hoped they brought more understanding. Now, however, there are those who think that perhaps my narrations are too painful, and there are those who seek to remove books such as mine from school reading lists.
If you haven’t read this forward in full, I would highly recommend it. It has to be the 25th Anniversary edition though.
Back to the meeting, the issue of racism was addressed by an extremely brave high school student. They admitted that other students in Smithfield Public School District were so racist that they were moving schools for the 2022/23 academic year. A Smithfield resident in attendance at the meeting wrote a letter to the local newspaper and had this to say:
“When [the high school student] got to the part of their speech about electing to leave the Smithfield public school system because of the consistent bullying, a very loud and sarcastic clap came from the back of the room from an adult. Take a minute to reread that last sentence and mentally digest what I just said. We are failing. We are failing as a community, and we are failing as parents.”
I think that speaks volumes to which I have no further comment. School librarians take note of this case – even if you are not THE school librarian in question, representing librarianship from other schools in the district can be extremely helpful. Not everyone is in the position to do this but librarians have strength in numbers and can absolutely help each other out.
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.