In our middle school library, we have a small, but potentially troublesome accessibility issue. We aren’t entirely sure how to resolve it or if we even know what resolution looks like right now. We have a collection of books noncompliant with parts of The Library Bill of Rights as they apply to school libraries. This specific collection has major barriers reducing students accessibility via “age, grade-level…restrictions,” and established “restricted shelves” (ALA, 2017). The books in this collection are recommended for grades 8 and up, and a few are grades 9-12 or high school as the suggested audience.
A little background on my school: We’re located in the district where Looking For Alaska was challenged and removed from high school reading lists, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was challenged due to supposed pornographic content. We have almost 1,500 students, and a thriving reading program. In my opinion, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, many 8th graders, particularly towards the end of the school year, seem to be growing up and away from the middle school mindset.
These are the students who will ask us for books like The Martian or Ready Player One. Originally, we didn’t buy them, because they aren’t technically suggested for middle school and may have some questionable content for this age group. Content we probably couldn’t successfully defend as appropriate for the average middle schooler based on our school selection policy, professional reviews, and our own judgment. Later we would see these same kids in the hall with their own copies of these books, and we noticed they weren’t coming to the library anymore. We understood why…we weren’t providing them with what they needed and wanted.
We’ve had a few challenges over the years, but most times parents just return the book to us, stating it wasn’t right for their kids. We’d like to keep it this way, but we also want to address the needs of all our students, including the late year 8th graders. How do we do this without compromising the integrity of the Library Bill of Rights? We’ve had other middle school librarians tell us they do not keep books in the library that aren’t available to all students. If we do that, we will have to remove the books from our collection. Others have suggested making the books part of the staff collection and letting teachers make the call about certain books, but this route feels like a disservice to my profession.
Because we aren’t actively trying to create access issues, our 8th Grade 2nd Semester Shelf only has three books right now:
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline–Considered to be an Adult Interest book, but so many 8th grade boys asked us for this book. The more mature parts in this book aren’t off the charts for some 13-14 year olds, but the scenes might be too much for an eleven-year-old.
The Martian by Andy Weir–Right from the start language was a pretty big issue with this book.
The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas–Primarily suggested for high school or ages 14+, but we love this book for so many reasons.
Middle school is a unique range of development and maturity where Dork Diaries are just as popular with 6th graders as any John Green book is with an 8th grader. How do other middle school libraries handle books suggested for grades 8+, and if we aren’t getting those books because they create an accessibility issue for younger readers, are we failing the 8th grade readers?
Author: Mica Johnson
I’m a school librarian at Farragut Middle. I like the lib to be loud, messy, and full of student activity. I love tech stuff as much as I love books, and I’m part of an awesome rotating maker space.
Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models
I have gone through the challenge process at my high school. If challenges are successful, it does more than affect access to books, it also affects budgets: the money spent on those books could have been spent elsewhere. Now it’s money that is literally being “thrown away.”
I dislike denying books to anyone, but sometimes caution and common sense must be considered based on the population you serve. If you buy books and make them accessible to everyone and a rather innocent 6th grade starts to read a mature book, shows it to a very protective and vocal parent who successfully challenges the book, you’ve wasted the money and none of your intended students benefit. If you restrict access, although going against guidelines we cherish (they are guidelines, however, not chiseled-in-stone rules also tattooed on our foreheads), your 8th graders benefit from these books and you are unlikely to be challenged, the books remain on the shelves, and everyone is hopefully happy.
Your other option is to simply spend money on other books and not see those students you are trying to bring into the library. As public school librarians, we are stewards of public school funds and must spend them wisely in the ways that benefit our students. Sometimes that means doing things a little differently.
After struggling with that dilemma for several years, I now have a letter that a parent permission letter that any student can have their parent or guardian sign that says it is okay for the student to check out books that are recommended for ages 14 and up.
If I can find a review where the recommended age is 8th grade and up, I put it in the general collection. But if all the reviews say grades 9 and up, it goes in the permission needed collection. That’s also where I put the manga that are rated as Teen+.
You think your troubles are bad. I have a k-12 library and the thought of shelving Freckle Juice next to Forever is very troubling. We created several fiction sections including a YA and you must be in middle school to select materials from this section. At the beginning of 6th grade I tell the students to look within their hearts and family values when selecting a book. its not that they can’t read the books, its whether or not they should. If they select a book and if for any reason it makes them uncomfortable or they feel their parents would not approve they should just return the book. They know what their parents want from them and they should respect that.
I post the following notice on my website and go over it with the kids at the beginning of the year. I’ve had a few challenges, but with the exception of Stephen King (final judgement of committee was that his books were too scary because they were so well written) all prevailed. He went to the high school, and now I see kids carrying around IT.
I borrowed this idea from someone else, feel free to copy and use as well.
A Note about responsible reading
In a library that serves students ranging in ages from eleven to fourteen, a wide variety of materials are needed. What is interesting and appropriate for eleven-year-olds may not be interesting and/or appropriate for fourteen-year-olds and vice versa. When students first visit the library each year, Mrs. Parks will tell them that “Libraries are all about choice. If you choose a book that makes you uncomfortable or that would make your parents uncomfortable, please return it and find a book you can completely enjoy.”
Parents can help students enjoy the library. Ask students what they are reading and talk to them about their choice.
Get the more mature books as e-books. Then have a Kindle to check out & download the books onto it. Might be more expensive but the books are essentially ‘invisible’ and thus nit tempting younger readers.
I put books not meant for younger reader on the highest shelves.
Our school is a 6-12th-grade boarding and day school. This is an overwhelming range since we have an adult best-sellers section, a YA section, a Middle-School section, a children’s section, and a very large non-fiction section.
When we first see parents, we let them know that this is both a community library and a research library. We never forbid readers from any particular section. However, most of our Middle schoolers like to stay in that section. We also encourage parents to read with their children and to discuss the reading. One site we recommend to parents for mature content is common sense media. This gives parents an idea of age appropriateness. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/reviews/age/9/age/10/age/11/age/12/age/13/age/14/category/book
Selection for the whole community is our job – but the decision of what to read is a personal and/or a family decision right? We see the sections as just a convenient guide for students, parents, and faculty to find books that match their ability and maturity.
BTW – How much does your “headed to high school” section :) circulate?
In our district I let the HS purchase the older content books. If a middle school student requests a book I can get it from the HS for them. That way there is no restriction or shelving problem in the library, and only those readers who are aware of the book will request it. That said, there has been times when we will not “borrow” a book from the HS based on our administration’s request.
Our school library serves grades 6-12. The previous librarian had set up a system that seems to work pretty well.
The middle school students receive a letter home at the beginning of each year outlining the fact that we serve multiple grades/needs and asking if parents want to approve of any YA titles that their child wants to check out.
If they want to restrict their child’s access, they provide an email and I put a message restricting YA access with a parent contact email address in the notes field, where it pops up when they check out a book. I then contact the parent with a personal and online review and let the parent decide.
So far this has generated only positive responses.
We are a K-8 school and the best solution I could come up with is to have what we call the YA section of the library. 6-8th grade can check out most books from that section. There are a few that are flagged in our opac as “need parental permission” When that comes up I simple had the student a permission slip to have signed and returned. It seems to work pretty well.
There are a lot of good ideas in these responses, and I feel like we may be able to get a better handle on our YA collection. Right now our super YA books circulate at about the same rate as any other books, but our 8th graders tend to keep books longer and take longer to read a book-probably due their workload. The super YA books also tend to get passed along to a friend for checkout as opposed to getting returned and re-shelved.
Mica, I had similar concerns as yours when I was a middle school librarian, and here’s how I solved it. In Texas, our State library association has a recommended reading list for each grade segment: Bluebonnet for elementary, Lone Star for middle school, Tayshas for high school. I had early on created a “Special Collection” of Lone Star Books using special stickers & shelving the multiple copies of the current 3 years together in one section, and rotating older years to the regular collection as new ones were purchased. This special collection was very popular and was what actually motivated me to separate the rest of the Fiction collection by Subjects (genres).
When it became clear that 8th graders needed more stimulating material that reflected their maturity, I began purchasing titles from the Tayshas HS list–those which book reviews recommended for grades 8-10–adding their sticker and shelving them in their own Special Collection at the end of the Realistic Fiction section, which had much higher circulation among 8th grade than 6th or 7th. That little “corner” was already popular with the older students and having those books shelved there was very inviting to them, whereas the younger students rarely congregated in that area. I also added a few YA stickered books there, but by choosing mostly titles recommended by many librarians at our State level, I knew I was making quality books available to older students without worrying whether they were appropriate for younger ones.