Updated: Nov 20, 2021
Book challenges are on the rise. ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, which tracks requests to remove materials from library shelves, reported in September that there had been a 60% increase in book challenges over the preceding 12 months. Most disturbing about this trend is that it is the result of a coordinated and highly organized effort to push back progress made towards creating inclusive classroom and school library collections in which ALL kids can see their stories and experiences represented.
A lot of attention has been paid to the people behind these challenges, but I want to focus on the people who are in front of them: librarians, teachers and, above all, readers.
As a school librarian, I navigated several book challenges over the years. The first two - unsuccessfully. After that second challenge, I came to realize that the reason my efforts to defend the rights of readers kept failing could be boiled down to a lack of one thing: investment. I had followed all the procedures outlined by the national organizations and by my district and, yet, they still failed. So I decided to approach things differently - by preparing for a challenge long before it actually happened.
Most protocols for navigating book challenges begin with resources for reporting the issue, followed by instructions for forming a committee whose job it will be to review the book and make the final decision about whether or not readers will continue to have access to it.
This felt backwards to me.
This committee will ultimately render a verdict that will affect ALL readers in your school or library community. Surely, this gathering of people should exist, as an invested literacy community, BEFORE the challenge lands at your door. Readers will be better served if this committee enters the book challenge process already knowing you and understanding the work of the library. Readers are more likely to remain the focus of the book challenge process if this committee has been consistently involved in work that makes them more and more invested in what libraries do.
Here are the things my library advisory committee did before and between challenges:
Built targeted book displays that focused on representation/inclusivity
Pulled books for weeding (that I would then review)
Reviewed and suggested changes to existing library policies and procedures
Read book reviews and made suggestions for additions to the collection
(Helped) Create flyers and newsletters to share with staff, admin and parents about the work we as a committee and community were doing on behalf as readers
Here's who was a part of my committee:
Current parents. At one point nine current parents served on the committee, but the number usually hovered around five or six
Former parents. As a middle school librarian, I asked parents of former students (now in HS) to join and serve. I was always surprised by how delighted these parents were to return to our school as a volunteer, as those opportunities decreased once their kids moved on to HS
Teachers. I strove to include at least 4 teachers on the committee, but sometimes I was lucky to get two
Admin. My administrators played a limited role, but were kept informed by me and other committee members.
Students. I created a "friends of the library" club after school and those kids did a lot of the same work as the adult committee.
It was well over a year before we faced another book challenge, but having the committee already in place was a game changer. One member of the committee had been a part of the decision to purchase the book in question. Some had helped build a display that the book was a part of. A few had already read it. ALL knew that their job was to think about readers first. As a result, for the first time in my career as a librarian, the challenge ended with the parent who had submitted the challenge empowered to decide what was best for their own child to read, but prevented from making that decision for other readers.
Over the last few months, I've heard from so many librarians who feel as though they are under siege. I've heard countless stories of coordinated attacks on their professional ethics and personal integrity. These stories all have one thing in common: a feeling of hopelessness and isolation. Watching from afar, it can be hard to know how to help, but help we must. We must be as organized and as coordinated as those who are seeking to maintain a status quo that causes harm to our most vulnerable readers.
With that in mind, I created the infographic above to help outline, what I feel is, a proactive approach to book challenges. It's my hope that this guidance will help librarians who are facing unprecedented book challenges feel more empowered and less alone. The Padlet below is a complimentary resource that supports the steps in the infographic. (Thanks to Sue Kowalski who gave me permission to build on her original work). I created this resource for the preservice librarians I teach at Rutgers but have decided to share it more widely.
This week, I had the pleasure to hear Former First Lady Michelle Obama speak at NCTE. The following words from her remarks will be sitting in my heart for a long time:
"Kids are not dumb. They know when they are not being invested in... We do not have the right to give up. We do not have the luxury of disappointment, because we are here now. It's our time, our one chance, to make the world better."
As I write this, it's the fall of 2021. We're nearly 2 years into a global pandemic and many more years into a global INFOdemic which has, in some ways, been even more deadly. Mis-, Dis- and Mal- information are a poison - a poison that is fueling the current onslaught of book challenges that librarians and other educators are grappling with. It's easy to feel helpless and hopeless right now. My best advice is this: gather your community to you and stay focused on what really matters. Darkness is always easier to face with friends at your side.