The Problem with Problematic YA Authors

Earlier this year, a few popular YA authors, illustrators, and editors found themselves caught up in the #MeToo movement. With accusations ranging “from abuse of power, to sexual harassment to sexual assault,” some accused have been dropped from publishers or professional organizations, had awards rescinded, and some have issued statements of regret and apology. For me, the problem is deciding how to move forward with books written by problematic authors.

This very relevant blog post makes some valid points about censorship and why immediately pulling the books or not purchasing any future publications by these kinds of authors may not be in line with the ALA Library Bill of Rights. I completely agree with this idea, but I also feel like I need to do more. Keeping problematic authors on the shelf feels a little like I’m giving them a pass, or that what they did in life isn’t really that big of a deal. By keeping the books on the shelves and not taking any action at all, am I passively supporting a problematic author?

Beyond the ALA Library Bill of Rights, I also have a selection policy I follow. Line thirty-three of the policy lists the criterion for selection as “Reputation and significance of the author, producer, and publisher.” Going forward this line could play a more significant role in my selection and weeding practices. Is this a slippery slope? Definitely it is, but I don’t think that should stop anyone from rethinking a selection though. I opt to not buy books that have been reviewed as problematic, why can’t that extend to the writer in some cases? As a school librarian purchasing books, I make judgment calls all the time in regards to what I believe is beneficial for students.

My co-librarian and I do not make these types of choices quickly or on a whim. To address issues with problematic authors, we created an informal process/flowchart for assessing these books.

  • Who is a problematic author? We define this as any contemporary writer who has admitted to inappropriate or illegal behavior or there is enough credible information to support the veracity of the allegation(s).
  • Does the problematic author’s book have any merit? We look at circulation, reviews, and revisit our initial reasoning for buying the book(s).
  • What do our stakeholders think? Initiate discussions with students, staff, and teachers while keeping an open mind to suggestions and varying opinions.

The idea of separating the artist from the art has always been debated and discussed without much resolution. Factors in these kinds issue are often nuanced and assessed on an individual basis within the court of public opinion. Discussions with students often end with students wanting to keep the books, but also wanting potential readers to know the author’s background so they can make an informed reading choice.

Has this been an issue in other libraries? How do other school libraries navigate social issues while avoiding censorship and maintaining a respectful culture?

Basic FlowChart to assist with evaluating problematic


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

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. This is a modern day problem. I think we must separate the art from the artist otherwise I would be compelled to pull Hemingway from the shelves as he was known womanizing alcoholic.

  2. Mica, I appreciate your desire to address selection gray areas. You ask a lot of great questions and I hope others in our profession reach to lofty heights of input and consideration when making these decisions. I would like to also put forth the professional guidance of the ALA Code of Ethics.

    “We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

    What if a student hears about the American Indian Literature Association (AILA) rescinding the 2008 YA Book of the Year Award for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and wants to answer/debate for themself the idea of separating the artist from the art? But the librarian has determined that the book lacks merit and isn’t “beneficial” to a student.

    “7. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

    I realize the role of a school librarian is partly as instructor and not just librarian, but I would argue that could be said of most librarian positions. But the Code of Ethics is clear in our mission to provide unrestricted access to information above all else. Even when we disagree with the actions of the author.

  3. Excellent discussion. I had this problem with biographies of O. J. Simpson (from when he was a football star) and Lance Armstrong, who was a local hero here in Austin. I’m wondering about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie apologized to the women and accepted responsibility. It’s such a great hook book for non-readers. What did you all decide about it? I’m trying to separate the author from the art. Also, I keep Orson Scott Card books although he has a reputation for homophobic opinions.

    I’d love to know some of the specific authors you struggled with.

  4. Where does this all end? It’s like the old saw about finding a book that won’t offend anyone only to open the book and find that all the pages are blank.

    I can imagine someone who is anti-immigrant not purchasing books by Junot Diaz or anti-gay so they won’t add “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” or anti-black so there is no “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich”, etc.

    Music has come to terms with Richard Wagner who was a virulent anti-Semite and was by extension loved by the Nazis and yet the Ring cycle is performed all over the world.

    I think we have to be very careful in basing exclusion on what we feel is best because it suits our own prejudices — and we all have them.

  5. Sara,
    Right now we aren’t considering removing any specific books, but we are considering the idea of separation between art and artist (writer and book). I can’t say that removing a book is off the table, but it would not be a decision left entirely up to me either. I think students would have to have a voice in that decision.

    We didn’t really struggle with almost removing anyone’s books, but the actions of D. Handler really prompted us to think about this issue, and how we can and should address it. As far as Alexie, we’re keeping it, and we’re talking about both the importance of the book and the actions/accountability of the author.

    We’ve had some interesting discussions on this topic in our library though. A student suggested we put some kind of sticker on the books, like an “Ask us about this author” type thing.

  6. I grew a little cold reading this blog. I remember the days when we as a profession resisted the labeling of music and videos as appropriate and inappropriate. Now there is this serious talk of labeling authors’ books as such based on their personal sins and mores.

    Any book can change anybody’s life in ways we can’t foresee. That’s the glory of being a librarian. We don’t unnecessarily insert ourselves into that dynamic, that relationship.

    The most personally inappropriate author’s work may be appropriate for the person reading it. By all means, teach what you will about the author but don’t censor or label the work itself.

  7. Honestly I find all of this perplexing. So far, no one has been able to prove Sherman Alexie guilty of anything more than making his sexual interest known in grown women. Ditto for illustrator David Diaz and Castellano of Penguin Publishing. While I don’t exactly condone the behavior of these men, it seems a lot more like the publishing industry is purging itself of known heterosexuals than anything else. I find it utterly absurd that in the 21st century, a grown man asking a grown woman up to his hotel room would be considered such a scandal that it would be enough to ruin his career. Put away the torches and pitchforks and get a grip everyone.
    And no, we shouldn’t pull their books or take any action against these works ala Beatty in Fahrenheit 451. I have a Michael Jackson CD in my car. Doesn’t mean I have no sympathy for victims of pedophiles.

  8. I immediately think of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. It’s not something I want to read nor an author whose behavior I condone, but I haven’t discarded it because it is an important text in understanding history. This school library’s copy is currently checked out. (And my local public library also lists a copy in the catalog.)

  9. This idea is something between silly and scary, for all the reasons stated above. It really bothered me when I looked at the flowchart. “Does the problematic book have any merit if No remove it. Well if the book has no merit why is it in the collection to start with? Does the book lose its merit because the author was proven to be a jerk? If the book would only have a temporary interest i.e. a biography of the latest teen sensation then it would get pulled sooner or later either way. Just saying

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.