Supporting Our Learners’ Right to Read

Thank you to everyone who came to the AASL President’s Program: Freedom to Read Ambassadors at ALA Annual. And a huge thank you to the amazing panelists: Kelly Yang, Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul, Amanda Jones, and Becky Calzada who all spoke from their hearts about their experiences and about why it is so important for our learners to have access to diverse books. They all shared powerful truths and wisdom and also ideas about how we can engage and activate individuals across the library ecosystem, the publishing community, the educational community, and the public to speak up and to become a community of Freedom to Read Ambassadors.

The Truth About School Librarians
When I first earned my teacher certification as a school librarian in 2001, I never imagined that my profession would be facing the current organized and well-resourced systematic campaign to ban books and attack the school library profession. My colleagues and I have been called groomers, indoctrinators, pedophiles, and more. This bullying and name-calling is hurtful  — because it is so far from the truth.

The truth is this: school librarians have the professional education and expertise to curate quality, diverse, inclusive, and age-relevant resources to support the mission and curriculum of their schools as well as to support learners’ interests and independent reading. School librarians are dedicated teachers who want to make sure that all learners can find materials in their school libraries to see themselves and learn about their community and the larger world. The concept of providing “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” as per Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop is important to us.

We understand that providing learners with access to diverse and inclusive books and resources helps to increase their achievement levels, support their well-being, and build their critical thinking and empathy skills. The Unite Against Book Bans report “Empowered by Reading” provides details of how access to a wide range of materials is vital for learners. School librarians want to teach students “how to think” rather than “what to think.” Our national standards call for us to teach students about multiple perspectives, to think critically, and to respect others.

The groups shouting for book bans are calling for “parents’ rights” and I do believe in parents’ rights. Educators want parents to be involved with their child’s education and know students do better when their parents are involved. However, I firmly believe that each parent has the right to guide their own child’s learning and choice of reading material. I strongly believe that one parent or a small group of parents should not dictate what reading materials are available for all children in a school.

In the past, I and my fellow school librarians would receive inquiries from a parent about their own child and a book that they checked out. For instance, one time a parent contacted me saying that their child had checked out a book that was “scary” for them and that they had a nightmare. The parent and I agreed that I would work with their child the next time they came to the school library to help them find something of interest that would not be scary. The parent and I worked together for what was right for that particular child.

Now, community members are going directly to school boards with lists of books demanding that they be removed so that no student can access them. These efforts are about more than an individual parent being concerned about their own child. They are coordinated attacks against our students’ freedom to read. PEN America reports that of the 1477 titles banned in the first half of the 2023 school year, “30 percent are about race, racism, or include characters of color, while 26 percent have LGBTQ+ characters of themes.” The truth is: school librarians are very concerned about their learners in these marginalized communities and the impact of these bans upon them.

There are several surveys that show that the majority of Americans oppose book banning. A March 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the American Library Association found that 71% of voters oppose book banning. In addition, the survey found that 90% of voters and 92% of parents have favorable opinions of public and school librarians. These supporters need to speak up.

School librarians need support in their fight for their students’ right to read. When I saw parents in Tennessee speak up to support a school librarian whose inclusive Mother’s Day lesson had been canceled, I must admit I teared up with appreciation. It is so important for community members who are against book banning to take action in their communities. The Unite Against Book Bans website provides resources and talking points. To oppose censorship in schools, it is important for community members to speak at school board meetings or write to school boards. I have seen instances when community members have shown up to support students and their right to read and it has “turned the tide” in local book-banning efforts.

Please join Unite Against Book Bans and ask friends, colleagues, and community members to do so as well.

We all need to stand together to fight against censorship and support our learners.

The truth: school librarians care about all students and want to make sure all students have access to the resources and books they need to see themselves, learn about others, and achieve.

Author: Kathy Lester, AASL President 2022-2023

Categories: Intellectual Freedom

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