Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Preemptive Censorship: BBW Post #3


Love this photo of librarian
Jessamyn West (from her blog)
Maybe a third of the authors I know who write for kids and teens have had their books banned, pulled from reading lists, defaced, burned, etc. Others have been “uninvited” to speak at a school after an administrator or parent hears that their book contains offensive language, or gay characters, or drugs, or unacceptable politics, or the wrong religion. It happens a lot. These overt examples of censorship are well-publicized, and they often result in healthy public debates with varying outcomes.

But a more pervasive, invisible form of censorship is not so easy to deal with. I call it preemptive censorship. Others have used the term stealth censorship.

Imagine this: A middle-school librarian has a budget that will allow him to purchase 100 new books for the school year. He looks through the reviews in School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, etc. He talks with teachers and other librarians, he reads as much as he can, he considers the academic needs of the school and the tastes of the students, and he comes up with a list. Some are replacement copies of old books that have been chewed on by dogs or left in the rain. Some are new titles by favorite authors. Some are new books by new authors. He buys several sports-themed books in hopes of enticing boy readers, and because he’s a guy. He buys multiple copies of wildly popular series books. He buys a few new manga titles. He buys the books with shiny gold and silver seals on the cover. Most of his decisions are easy, but he’s running out of money, and there are so many interesting books available.
It's not my real name!

What about this new book with the provocative title (I am making this up.) Satan’s Lover? It got starred reviews from all the magazines, and it’s not really about Satan the spooky devil guy, it’s about an orphaned cat named Lover who is adopted by an armadillo named Satan.

Curious, the librarian borrows a copy and reads it. He likes it! But then he remembers a few years back when a small group of parents— one of whom still sits on the school board—freaked out over the Harry Potter books because the books contain non-biblical magic. And the time they demanded that The Giver be removed because…well, he never did quite understand why that one got them riled up. And, OMG, the flap over And Tango Makes Three that put his elementary school librarian friend on Ativan!

So he says to himself, if I buy Satan’s Lover, the title alone guarantees that I’ll have a fight on my hands. Plus, I won’t have enough money left to replace my worn out copy of Flowers for Algernon, and the school board might cut my budget even further. I might even lose my job—library staffs are being cut in schools across the country. Do I need the grief? Is it worth it?

Often, the answer is no. Is this censorship? Not in a strict sense. It’s normal, perfectly reasonable professional triage, the sort of thing we all do make our lives bearable. But in the larger picture, it is censorship, because the reason the librarian backed into his decision was because a small activist group of fearful, conservative parents managed to get inside his head and influence his behavior.

Happily, there are many librarians who love a good fight. These are the librarians who created Banned Books Week, the librarians and teachers who continue to promote edgy books, the educators who understand that when a book makes people uncomfortable, there is a very good chance that book is saying something important.
Check this out!

Celebrate Banned Books Week by asking a librarian to recommend a book that will challenge your world view.

2 comments:

proseandkahn said...

As a middle school librarian, I wrestle with the dilemma all the time. The interesting thing for me is that with each passing year, it isn't getting any easier!

I really enjoyed your post.

brenda

Pete Hautman said...

Thanks, Brenda! I guess the good news is that it's getting harder in part because there are so many more books to choose from.