Laying the Groundwork Ahead of Book Challenges
There is a lot of information about book challenges out there. I’m just one of several folks who have written about this in Knowledge Quest previously. Out in the wider world, there are great pieces featuring school librarians and intellectual freedom fighters Martha Hickson and Amanda Jones. There are sites and articles and resources aplenty about book challenges.
While I love resources like Martha Hickson’s excellent LibGuide on what steps school librarians can take to have their ducks in a row in case of a challenge, perhaps conversations can lay some groundwork ahead of challenges. Having some talking points to discuss with colleagues, supervisors, and administrators ahead of challenges might help reduce some of the censorship – whether “soft” or overt. This is a great chance to practice some “soft advocacy”, subtly support equity, diversity, and inclusion, and gently champion intellectual freedom.
With that in mind, here are a few topics you might drop into conversations around your school community.
The Pico Decision
It seems like not enough people are aware of the Supreme Court decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982). It’s often referred to simply as Pico. In this case, the Supreme Court “held that the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content” (Bill of Rights Institute). Further, “[t]he decisions called libraries places for ‘voluntary inquiry’ and concluded that the school board’s ‘absolute discretion’ over the classroom did not extend to the library for that reason” (Bill of Rights Institute).
It is obvious that many school districts across the US are violating students’ rights as set out in Pico. It can’t be long until lawsuits against districts follow. If school boards and administrators were more aware of this legal precedent, perhaps they would be more likely to follow book challenge guidelines and avoid automatic removals or soft censorship.
“Age Appropriate” is Not Appropriate
The term “not age appropriate” is often used as justification for removing books from collections. The problem word here is “appropriate.” It carries connotations of “proper” and “polite”. But those words mean different things to different people in different situations. Not to mention that the phrase implies an “appropriate” book is well-manner and unlikely to cause offense. Unfortunately, there are several issues with basing book selections on the term “age appropriate”.
This term suggests that there is a timer inside every person set to exactly the same age, and at that age, it becomes allowable for one’s brain to start considering an idea, and before that point, the idea should not be thought about.
But no two humans are the same. Even twins growing up in the same environment have different perspectives on the world, if only because of their physically different perspectives. But it goes much deeper than that. We each learn differently, we have different experiences, we have different feelings. So the idea that there is an age at which one is suddenly prepared to consider new ideas simply does not make sense.
Additionally, while some object to books not being “age appropriate” because of the content they contain – content which is considered “too mature” in one sense or another – there are actually important reasons for people to be able to consider that content. The primary reason is that letting readers encounter those ideas and situations in a book for the first time is much preferable to having them encounter them first as part of their lived experience.
We need to move away from “age appropriate” and replace it with “age relevant.”
Learned v Lived Experiences
Would you throw a new instrument at a kid who’s never seen it before and demand that they play it perfectly? Of course not. But when we deprive kids of books, we are doing something similar, except with their life experiences. Books are a form of practice for our minds.
Another problem with the idea that some content isn’t age-appropriate posits that readers aren’t already encountering those things in their lives. As much as we may wish to protect children from all things that might hurt them, it is an unfortunate reality that sometimes they are exposed to situations for which we haven’t yet – or weren’t able to – prepare them. Giving readers books that provide guidance on how those situations and ideas can be navigated – either by example or by counter-example – can help those readers contextualize their own situations, thoughts, and feelings.
This is why “age relevant” needs to replace “age appropriate” in discussions of book retention. And it is extremely relevant for all students at all ages to read books that feature a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, cultures, and ideas. How else can they prepare to take part in a global society?
Let’s take it a step further and admit that there are topics kids may not feel comfortable talking about with adults. Books can provide access to vital – and most importantly accurate – information that readers might otherwise simply not know. What kids learn from each other on the playground or online often gets more than a few details wrong, either from incorrect base information, or in translation from person to person.
These are all logical reasons we should not remove students’ access to a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and information.
Bill of Rights Institute. “Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982).” Bill of Rights Institute, billofrightsinstitute.org/e-lessons/island-trees-school-district-v-pico-1982.
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!