Book Challenges: Lessons from a Panel Discussion

"Proactive Approaches to Book Challenges" Panel Image

Sharing Ideas

As we all know, school librarians are facing what may be some of the most challenging conditions to ever confront the profession (pun intended). It seems like most practitioners have either faced a challenge already, or are preparing for what seems inevitable.

As part of the recent Libraries.Today Forum, I was fortunate enough to take part in a panel discussion. The other speakers were Carolyn Foote, one of the founders of the #FReadomFighters group from Texas; Holly Eberle, public librarian and writer for the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom; and Amanda Jones, rock-star librarian. Our topic: Proactive Approaches to Book Challenges

There were a lot of important ideas that came up. Here are a few that of particular noteworthiness.

Messaging Matters – Drop “Age Appropriate”…

How we frame an idea can change how others perceive it. Changing one’s phrasing can alter how the audience thinks about and reacts to what is being said. 

One very easy change to make: Stop referring to materials as “age appropriate.” 

The word “appropriate” is extremely subjective. Some people think discussing sex in detail with their young children is an appropriate way to help them learn about a biological function. Other people think discussing sex in anything but the most euphemistic ways is never appropriate outside of a medical professional’s office. 

…Instead, Use “Age Relevant”

I’ve seen several practitioners using the term “age relevant” to discuss books. To my mind, this phrase is at least somewhat more objective than “age appropriate”. 

There are a lot of topics that might not be considered “appropriate” that are still very relevant to children at different stages of their development. “Relevant” moves the needle away from whether something is polite. It is much easier to point to real situations kids have dealt with in their lives as a way to show why a topic is relevant. 

Emotion Overwhelms Logic…

Emotional arguments are the go-to tool for would-be book banners. They claim “certain kinds” of books harm kids. They claim certain books are used to “groom” children for sexual assault by predators. 

This does not make any logical sense. Studies show that children are less likely to be sexually abused when they have a strong knowledge of health and reproduction, and counter-examples to illustrate perils. 

But it is a very scary thing for adults to consider. And unfortunately, human brains react more strongly to emotion than to logic. 

…So Provide Provide Emotion

As we prepare proactively for challenges, we need to marshal logic, reason, and facts. But we also must consider the emotional arguments we can bring to the table. 

Gather the pictures of students engaging with the library space. Find the individual story of the student who overcame a challenge thanks to resources found in the library. Help people see that there is an emotional component to the school library – that it is not just a collection of books. 

We Do Our Best…

One of the last lessons that came up during the panel was a tough one. 

During an anonymous breakout room chat, one of the school librarians told the story of a challenge in her district. She prepared diligently; she marshaled information, reached out to allies, provided data and information. In short, she did everything it was possible for her to do.

The school board sustained the challenge and removed the books.

…And We Carry On

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard says, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness; that is life.” 

"It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life." Jean Luc Picard

I think this is an incredibly important idea for school librarians to consider as we brace ourselves.

We can do everything right. We can work our hearts out. But unfortunately, sometimes we’re still going to lose. That is not a failure on our part. And we must carry on and continue to do what we can to help our students.

Because it’s not how many times you get knocked down. It’s how many times you get back up.


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. 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, Intellectual Freedom, Professional Development

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