Hallway Conversations as Book Challenge Repellent, Part 2

Hallway conversation between the musicians Peter Jenner and Mike Relm.

“Peter Jenner, Mike Relm, Marc Perlman” by lucas via https://flic.kr/p/75DFyQ CC BY-SA 2.0

Previously on “Hallway Conversations as Book Challenge Repellent”…

Last month, I shared some topics that school librarians might want to discuss with colleagues, supervisors, administrators, and members of the school community ahead of any book challenges that might come their way. The topics are meant to help people who may not be as aware of book challenges understand why challenges can be very problematic for our students and their education. 

Having a hallway conversation is a great, casual way to help raise awareness of this issue. And when the folks around you – and especially those above you on the org chart – are more informed, they are more likely to act from a place of thoughtfulness and rationality, rather than emotion. 

With our recap complete, here are a few more things you might drop into conversations around your school community. 

“Violence? Yes! Sex? No!”

There’s one other layer to this onion that seems ignored. Folks seem to have much less of a problem with exposing kids to all types and levels of violence. They play games in which they shoot other players, with various levels of reality layered on top (though rarely any actual, corresponds-to-the-real-thing reality). Their cartoons use violence regularly as a response to all kinds of situations – again, rarely appropriately or realistically. And while there are a few books that have been challenged due toviolenceover the years, violence has not been a major focal point for the current wave of challenges.

The main points of conflagration in materials challenges seem to revolve around complainants using terms like “pornography”, “pedophile”, and “groomer”. This strongly implies much of the motivation focuses on issues related to human sexuality. 

Ironically, studies have shown that young people who have more, and more accurate, information about sexual health are less likely to end up victims of sexual assault or sexual violence. So calls to remove information about sexuality and sexual health from collections actually increase the risks to students. 

Everyone’s Story Matters

While the language is not as strong, there are also an overwhelming number of challenges against books that present perspectives and information about or by non-whites, non-males, and non-heterosexuals. Often this is coupled with calls to stop white children from “feeling bad” or helping them see that they have societal privileges people who are different than they are don’t have. 

No one should want to make children feel bad as a main goal. But there are good reasons for children to feel bad as part of the learning process – having empathy for others who are in pain encourages kindness and compassion. 

Removing the stories of characters who are non-white, or who are LGBTQIA+, or who are neuro-atypical, or who are from different cultural backgrounds, or who deviate from what is traditionally seen as “the norm” is unlikely to prevent white heterosexual kids from feeling bad at some point. But it’s guaranteed to hurt the children who see themselves in those books. Refusing to recognize differences through representational texts and accurate historical information is refusing to acknowledge the existence of people who are already marginalized. Prioritizing the feelings of one group of students over the lived experiences and existence of other students is a misguided and unnecessary cruelty.

Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors

There have been some arguments that School X’s population doesn’t include anyone “different”. Let’s put aside that it’s likely that some percentage of students have non-visible differences that are often represented in these challenged materials. Instead, let’s consider how important it is to build empathy. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors offer such an excellent metaphor for how books help students learn about themselves and about the world around them. 

Imagine if students were only able to gaze into mirrors all the time, everywhere. Their mental and emotional growth would be horribly stunted. And they would have trouble relating to anyone outside of themselves. 

Providing readers with windows into other people’s lives is crucial for helping those readers see that their experience is not the only experience. And multiple studies have found a correlation between reading fiction and multiple desirable traits, such as moral development, prosocial behavior, and increased empathyeven when controlling for pre-existing empathetic personalities. While there are some caveats to the research, it is widely found that reading fiction with vivid imagery makes readers more humane.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend…” 

An old saying falsely attributed to Mark Twain reminds us that “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Limiting students’ reading materials to the most bland and “safe” materials is not doing them a favor. Talking with students about difficult situations within the pages of books helps them mentally consider and prepare for those situations in advance, rather than leaving them ignorant and unprepared.

Reading provides opportunities to broaden minds, develop critical thinking skills, and increase empathy. 

Are there any things more important for students to learn right now?


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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, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Intellectual Freedom, Literacy

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