Banned Books Week 2016: Librarians Stand Up for Intellectual Freedom

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By Steve Zalusky

While waiting to check out books at your local library, this is a good time to consider thanking your librarian for protecting your freedom to read. From Sept. 25 – Oct. 1, our nation will be celebrating Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of our First Amendment freedom to read.

Every day, librarians from all types of libraries are standing on the front lines, standing up to challenges that threaten to restrict the free flow of ideas.

Those challenges can happen anytime, anywhere.

Sara Stevenson, librarian at O. Henry Middle School for the past 13 years, found that out the hard way, when two mothers of children at the Austin, Texas school challenged John Green’s “Looking for Alaska.”

Stevenson had read and enjoyed the Printz-Award-winning book in 2006, appreciating the quality of the work as well as the respect Green showed for teen readers. She also valued the intelligence he showed in addressing such issues as bullying, mental illness, depression and suicide.

She said she had some worries about selecting the book for students. There is a scene depicting oral sex, but she reasoned that one mother might also have objected to her daughter reading Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns,” which also contains sexual content. That child had read both.

Stevenson said her decision to put it on the shelf was cemented by hearing John Green defending the scene at a conference and also vetting the book with her 8th-grade reading club. She even placed YA stickers on the book’s spine, a hint that the book may be too mature for younger readers.

For 10 years, the book had been exposed to the children of 15,000-20,000 parents without incident.

That is, until the mother of a 7th-grader complained about the book, while another mother of a 7th-grader filed a formal challenge, even though her daughter had not checked out or read the book.

Now the book is on an 8th-grade shelf behind the counter, after a committee of parents, teachers and administrators at O. Henry read the book over the summer and met in August to make its recommendation.  They voted to keep the book in the collection but restrict it behind the counter to 8th-graders only.

Stevenson said an 8th-grader just checked it out.

Stevenson’s experience is not isolated. “Looking for Alaska” topped the list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2015.

The list is compiled by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), which said the reasons for the challenge were “Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.”

Other books on the list include “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, which raised concerns that “a group of teenagers will want to try it,” and “I Am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, about a transgender teen, which was challenged on grounds of “homosexuality, sex education, and religious viewpoint.” “Religious viewpoint” was also the basis for the challenge against the Holy Bible.

Book challenges are highlighted each year during Banned Books Week, as library professionals across the country work tirelessly on the front lines to safeguard free access to information and to fight censorship.

Events such as the Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out will focus on library books that have been targets of censorship.

The celebrity playlist includes Read-Out videos from frequently banned authors: Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Chris Crutcher, Stephen Chbosky, Dav Pilkey, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Frances Hardinge, Bill Konigsberg, Alex Gino, as well as actors, Jeff Bridges and Whoopi Goldberg. 

The public is encouraged to join efforts by submitting a Banned Books Week Read-Out video for posting to the American Library Association (ALA) YouTube channel at .

Live events also will serve as a call to action for freedom to read advocates. Along with the hundreds of libraries, bookstores and theaters that will celebrate Banned Books Week, six Freedom to Read Foundation Judith Krug Fund Banned Books Week grant winners will host engaging programs.

The Los Angeles-based Water Buffalo Club will host “Busted! Banned Books” (BBB) in partnership with the Topanga Community Police Station. The event will educate young people about the history of banned books and censorship. BBB will start with a summer reading challenge, with youth invited to select books from the banned book reading list. In Saint Paul, Minnesota, local authors Pete Hautman, Phyllis Root and Marion Dane Bauer, who have had their books banned or challenged, will participate in the Banned Authors Book Signing event. The community is invited to talk with the authors, learn how the authors express their ideas in a sometimes hostile environment and have their books signed. 

Also, to raise awareness of the overly restrictive blocking of legitimate, educational websites and academically useful social networking tools in schools and school libraries, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of ALA, has designated one day during Banned Books Week as Banned Websites Awareness Day. On Sept. 28, AASL asks school librarians and other educators to continue the discussion on how overly restrictive filtering affects student learning.

With more than 75 years of collective experience in fighting for free access to information, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) collects reports from libraries, schools and the media regarding attempts to ban books in communities across the country. The OIF compiles and analyzes information to develop the ALA’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books, a list that is released annually to break the silence about attempts made to remove materials. 

“Books have been and always will be hugely powerful and important to peoples’ lives,” said Kristin Pekoll, OIF assistant director, who herself faced a challenge while a librarian in West Bend, Wisconsin. Referring to the struggle against censorship, she said, “It’s not going away. It never has and never will.”

In 2009, while Pekoll was young adult librarian at the West Bend Community Library, a couple filed a request to reconsider books included in the library’s “Out of the Closet” bibliography aimed at youth interested in GLBT issues, as well as books deemed “sexually explicit.”

Despite challenges from citizens groups that grew out of the initial request, including one organization that claimed the library had injured its members by placing the young adult novel “Baby BeBop” in the library’s collection, the library board voted unanimously to retain the challenged books in its YA Zone, “without removing, relocating, labeling, or otherwise restricting access.”

Pekoll said, “I had always been a fairly passive participant in doing Banned Books Week and putting up displays. I always celebrated the holiday in library land. It wasn’t something that I truly understood. I hadn’t been under fire yet. And so this was the first time that I risked and lost things based on my convictions. “

She said, “It’s an incredibly trying time to go through a challenge like that. When something like this happens in their community, it seriously impacts a librarian’s professional and personal life day to day, their mental health, their stress, their emotions. And having the support of their community, reaching out and thanking a librarian, talking to them, being their shoulder, showing up at meetings, supporting them in the press, supporting them on social media, all of those things can go a long way to really alleviating some of that stress. Even if it’s not a big community situation like it was in West Bend, Banned Books Week is the perfect time just to thank your librarian for providing access to the books that they love.”

She said Banned Books Week is needed in order to highlight “all the different stories, ideas and viewpoints that are out there and the absolute necessity that they be accessible to everybody, because everybody has a right to read any of the ideas that they want and to write any of the ideas that they want.”

Librarians protect that right, she said, by putting books out on display, choosing to purchase books for their collections that someone might consider controversial and following their policies and not backing down in the face of negative opinion.

She gave one example of a school librarian on the East Coast who heard a complaint from a parent complaining that a series of early reader books was racist because of the depiction of “white bunnies and dark bunnies.”

She said, “The parent was very educated and intelligent and had written a very long, detailed explanation of why she felt this way and the influences of these simple stories to children. This librarian really listened to the parent and met with her many times, responded very respectfully. She went above and beyond and did a lot of research on these books. She contacted the publisher. She tried to contact the author. She spoke with social justice advocates in her area and really took in a lot of different opinions with this challenge in determining whether the books should be available for her elementary school students.“

Ultimately, the books were retained, “because ultimately her mission as the school librarian is access and, while this parent made have had really valid points, it was for her to decide for her family and not for all of the other families, because the issues that strike a key with that family may not be what strikes a key with other families.”

Pekoll said a great number of challenges are arising in school libraries.

“One of the issues that we’re seeing rise is the absence of an educated school librarian in the building, she said. “School librarians are trained to understand intellectual freedom and to be aware of the policies. It’s not just about being in the room to check out the materials. It’s not just about placing the orders. There is a science to understanding collection and reader development and weeding books and protecting the First Amendment. And when you don’t have someone that is skilled and trained in those areas, it can get lost.”

Stevenson said school librarians are placed in a difficult position when it comes to challenges or the threat of them.

“I really feel like middle schools are caught in a really difficult situation,” noting that middle schoolers go through a lot of changes in those three years, arriving as “innocent 11-year-olds” and leaving taller and, in the case of boys, with mustaches.

Stevenson is a staunch supporter of academic freedom and quotes from the Library Bill of Rights, which cautions against librarians censoring.

Being challenged was a particularly unpleasant experience for her.

“Basically, you’re being accused of corrupting the youth. And now I can understand why librarians don’t want to deal with it,” she said.

Social media has only increased the pressure. She said one school librarian faced a Facebook campaign started by one parent complaining about a book on the shelves.

Stevenson said, “I cannot be the parent for every kid in the school.”

She said parents will try to coax her into the parental role.

“I’ve even had parents say, ‘OK, don’t let Johnny check out any more graphic novels. I want him to read real books.’ And I say to them, ‘If Johnny wants to check out a graphic novel, I will check it out for him. I can encourage him to read something else. But I’m not going to deny him. That’s something you need to work out in your family.’”

Even if she had decided to remove “Looking for Alaska,” that would not have prevented the book from winding up in a child’s hands. If a child has a smart phone, she said, that child can check the book out from the Austin Public Library on Overdrive.

Public libraries, she said, are vulnerable in ways that public schools are not.

“Because the public library is for all ages. But the school library usually has an age range,” she said.

Now that she has experienced the pain of a challenge, she said, she understands why a librarian may back down.

“I don’t blame them anymore. Who wants the hassle of that? It was very painful. It’s very awful. I was terrified that my mother was going to read about it. I didn’t want my 85-year-old mother to read that I had bad books in my library,” she said.

But Stevenson said, “We can’t give in.”

When an author whose book about coming out that is recommended for grades 9 and up was visiting the eighth graders, one of the English teachers remarked, “Well, after ‘Looking for Alaska,’ maybe we shouldn’t do this.”

Stevenson disagreed. “And I said that’s why we should do it. Because I’m not going to let them win. If I have to keep fighting it all the time, I will.”

“For me, the whole thing with Banned Books Week is it’s all about intellectual freedom and the right to read. The Library Bill of Rights says that a library is not allowed to discriminate based on age. Which is why I didn’t want to have that eighth-grade-only shelf.”

She said she has parents who want their children to read everything.

Stevenson said her eighth graders appreciate “Looking for Alaska” and have demonstrated their maturity in writing about it.

One eighth-grade girl wrote in her review, “Kids are going to find out about this stuff from friends’ experiences and TV shows. It’s better to read them in books, because they can skip over it and read it when they’re ready for it.

“Let kids make their own boundaries. Many kids will skip stuff they aren’t ready for. It’s important to read the entire book, because if you just look at the parts with drugs, alcohol and sex, you’re not getting the whole book and all of the message, which may be drugs, alcohol and sex are not good for you to do.”

Stevenson also credits parents who make responsible choices for their children.

A mother came to her and pointed out that one book was too explicit and recommended she read it and see for herself.

After reading it, Stevenson said, “I passed it on to the high school. I thanked that mom.”

Stevenson said she does have limits, one of them being that the sex can’t be too graphic.

“I really want to have the books in my collection that the kids are really excited about reading. If I have erred in any direction, it was maybe being too open and lenient in that direction. Part of that comes from my background in the high school and working with older kids. And my faith in kids. No one is checking out ‘Looking for Alaska’ to read the dirty parts.“

Learn about other was to celebrate Banned Books Week at  Check to find an event near you.