Book Challenges: Coming Soon to a School Near You?

10 books facing frequent challenges

Challenging Times

If you or someone you know hasn’t yet had a book challenge, give it time. As you are undoubtedly aware, there is a rising tide of book challenges across the country. Targets include specific titles and particular topics; multiple challenges used identical phrasing and approaches. 

I had, of course, seen the national news about Jerry Craft’s Newbery Award-winning graphic novel New Kid being removed from a Texas school library and his visit cancelled, before counter-protests led to the book being reinstated in the school’s library. But I hadn’t realized how far-spread such challenges were until I learned of a nearby school librarian who was embroiled in a similar situation (which was her second in the past several years). 

Frankly, it was surprising and scary. I hadn’t figured my generally liberal East Coast area would be a home to such attacks on knowledge and information. Unfortunately, I was wrong. 

An Ounce of Prevention… 

Americans are seeing unprecedented challenges to information, knowledge, freedom, and democracy. It is unsurprising that school libraries are in the cross-hairs. A school library’s commitment to intellectual freedom provides students with access to reliable information, challenging ideas, and diverse perspectives. Sadly, some people see that as a threat. 

So what steps can a school librarian take to ward off challenges, or at least to prepare to face them? Quite a few, actually.

…A Pound of Cure

In the past several months, articles and suggestions have flooded school library information channels. It’s been an eye-opening crash-course in intellectual freedom, school policies, and political maneuvering. And make no mistake: there are candidates for public office on all levels across the country using attacks on schools, their programs and curricula, and their libraries as planks in their platforms.

The following information is by no means a complete collection of everything a school librarian can do to prevent or deal with challenges. But it should give you a running start on how to think about what you might do if faced with an attack on your materials or program. 

Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library AssociationALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom

You may know about the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) due to their Banned Books Week event. But they offer so much more! Sign up for their weekly Intellectual Freedom News e-mail to see the top stories and issues affecting school and public libraries. Check out their Intellectual Freedom Issues & Resources page. It provides neatly organized sections on topics such as “Schools and Minors’ Rights,” “Academic Freedom,” and “First Amendment and Censorship,” among others. These provide some basic knowledge and familiarity with key concepts involved in book or program challenges.

State & County Organizations

Book challenges run contrary to the school library's mission of promoting intellectual freedom.

Check in with your state school and public library organizations. See what information and suggestions they can offer, particularly if there are book challenges happening in your area. They might have or develop local resources that you can utilize. Also consider the wisdom that can be found in your PLN. Often, they can provide a fresh perspective and a new idea.

Book challenges impinge on students' intellectual freedom.

I once read that learning from our own experience is intelligence, but learning from the experience of others is wisdom. With book challenges, it is better to be wise than intelligent!

Gaining Wisdom

New Jersey high school librarian Martha Hickson has successfully dealt with challenges in the past, and is currently facing objections to her books, programs, and self via comments at public school board meetings. She penned an excellent guide to preparing for and dealing with challenges and posted it to the OIF’s Intellectual Freedom Blog. It includes excellent and specific ideas like knowing particular titles drawing challenges and preparing “book resumes” for each; reviewing your district’s reconsideration policies; and sharing preparation tips with members of your school.

Most importantly, advocate for your school library! As school librarian and advocate Mary Moyer pointed out, it’s important to know the people in key positions in your district and build relationships with them and other stakeholders before there is an issue.

More from Martha

In a series of short tweets, Hickson gave three suggestions for addition to schools’ materials reconsideration policies that can help defuse some of the strong emotions that often come with challenges. Marth Hickson's Book Challenge Policy Suggestions, #1

  1. The materials shall remain in use until the reconsideration committee makes its recommendation.

Marth Hickson's Book Challenge Policy Suggestions, #2

  1. If the challenged library resource is retained, the district will not convene a reconsideration committee relative to the same complaint for a period of five years.

Marth Hickson's Book Challenge Policy Suggestions, #3

  1. A decision to sustain a challenge shall not be interpreted as a judgment of irresponsibility on the part of the professionals involved in the original selection or use of the material.

All of the above can help you prepare for a process that we’d all rather avoid, but which may come calling at our doors anyway. 

If you find yourself with a challenge, the most important step to take, according to Hickson: Don’t panic. 

#BetterTogether

After facing a challenge, consider what you and your school can learn from what happened. What could have gone differently? Were district policies clear, or are there ways they could be improved? Consider those who provided supportthank them, and work with them on ways to ensure fair policies and procedures are in place in the event of future challenges.

Unfortunately, when there are people who oppose knowledge, equity, diversity, inclusion, and freedom of thought, schools and their libraries cannot be politically neutral. 

Because Representation Matters

Eric E Castro via https://flic.kr/p/969unS (CC BY 2.0)

Jonathan Evison is one of several authors whose work has made “the list.” His post on how the attack on his novel Lawn Boy has affected his life is moving. It made me think of the confusion of figuring out who we are and who we might become. Many kids would benefit from knowing they’re not alone in their feelings and self-explorations. 

The furor over Evison’s book, intended for mature readers, reminds us that representation matters, especially in school materials. School libraries allow students to explore, discover who they are, and learn they are not alone. This is one of their most important functions.

Book challengers often tout their efforts as a way to prevent students and parents from feeling uncomfortable. As award-winning author Kekla Magoon said during a presentation at AASL 2021, “We mustn’t try to run away from discomfort or keep it from our children.” And as Martha Hickson points out in her OIF post, “ultimately, no book is the perfect fit for every reader, especially works that tackle difficult topics reflecting real-world circumstances. But one reader’s objection is not a license to restrict all other readers from the book.” 

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Author: Steve Tetreault

Steve has been teaching for over 20 years, mostly middle school English Language Arts. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!



Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Intellectual Freedom

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