Censorship versus Selection and Alternatives to American Dirt

If a book includes stereotypes, misrepresentations, and misinformation, the decision to not purchase it is selection. That decision is NOT censorship, self- or otherwise.

There has long been confusion and tension in librarianship over the distinction between censorship and selection. School librarians, according the 2016 Controversial Books Survey conducted by School Library Journal, are prone to self-censorship. Of the 573 U.S.–based school librarians who participated “9 out of 10 elementary and middle school librarians have not bought a book recently because of the potential for controversy.” If you haven’t already, please make time to read the SLJ survey data provided in three areas: weighing subject matter, age appropriateness, and general comments.

Although, to my knowledge, there is no similar survey of public library youth librarians, I would argue there are reasons this practice may be more prevalent in K-12 schools. Public libraries often have central purchasing. Youth librarians may recommend books but they are not directly “responsible” for the books on their library shelves. Their selection and censorship issues likely come at the point of selecting library resources to spotlight in displays and programming.

When there is a book challenge in a K-12 school, if librarians are lucky, the challenge will be made directly to them. Of course, a reconsideration policy must be in place. The librarian will explain the process to the patron, provide the forms, and follow up. Sometimes school library patrons, most often parents, go directly to higher-ups, including principals, school board members, and superintendents. In these cases, it is often the librarian’s role to explain the process to their supervisors and then facilitate the proper review of a complaint. In public libraries, even if the complaint goes directly to the youth librarian, challenges are most often handled by branch managers, the collection development department, or library administrators,

Budgets and Core Values
It is important to remember that the vast majority of school librarians do not have budgets that allow them to purchase every children’s or YA book published in any given year—not even close. There are far too many examples of school libraries with small budgets that will not allow them to purchase even one new title every year for every child they serve. (Consecutive years with zero budgets are not unheard of.) Most school librarians, therefore, must make careful selections in order to use their funds wisely to support the school’s curriculum and meet the independent reading needs of students.

That said, the prevalence of (self-)censorship in K-12 school libraries should be of concern to the profession since this practice flies in the face of our core values: intellectual freedom and the right to read (see ALA’s Access to Resources and Services in the School Library: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.)

Censorship versus Selection
“Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups, or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous” (ALA 2017). The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individuals to speak, publish, read and view what they wish. Young people’s access to “objectionable” materials has long been contentious. School library resources are at the center of these controversies; some of which are ultimately settled in the courts (see my review of Reading Dangerously published by ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation).

The difference between censorship and selection lies in the reasons behind a decision to purchase or not purchase a book or other resource. Most school librarians do not have access to advance review copies; they rely on book reviews. According to the SLJ survey, librarians read multiple reviews (as most often required by their selection policies) and use the age range and Lexile information as guidelines. Age “appropriateness” and connection to curriculum and community needs come into play.

In the case of “controversial” titles, the author’s treatment of sex and violence and word choice are often cited as reasons to tread carefully. Stereotypes are also mentioned. Some school librarians check out a controversial book from their public library and read it before purchasing. However, due to time constraints, it is likely that most decisions regarding whether or not to purchase these titles are based on book reviews, social media posts, and recommendations from colleagues.

Reliance on Book Reviews
Accuracy and authenticity come into play as well. Book reviewers’ cultural competence, their willingness to conduct research, their personal backgrounds and experiences, and more affect the quality of their reviews and their ability to determine accuracy and authenticity, in particular when reviewing books that are outside their cultural backgrounds. “Book reviewers are charged with documenting the merits as well as the flaws, if there are any, in the books they review. Reviewers who do not feel qualified to review particular books can seek further information from cultural insiders, the book review source, publisher, author or illustrator, or return the book unreviewed as appropriate” (Moreillon 2019, 7).

Choosing not to purchase or promote a book simply because it is controversial is (self-) censorship. However, if a book includes misinformation, stereotypes, and misrepresentations, the decision to not purchase or promote it is selection.

Reading American Dirt
I live in Tucson, Arizona, sixty miles from the U.S.-Mexican border. I have crossed the border at Nogales and Tijuana. I have traveled to Mexican resort towns on the Baja and western coast of the country and have visited cultural sites on the Yucatán Peninsula. I have some knowledge of Mexican culture and history, but I am assuredly a cultural outsider.

I borrowed American Dirt from the public library and read it as a personal challenge. I heard about the controversy in an NPR interview with author Luis Alberto Urrea and American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins. I had read a few blog posts and reviews—pro and con. I wanted to determine whether or not I could identify the stereotypes and misrepresentations in this book. I wondered if I, as a cultural outsider, could confidently review this book if it were under consideration for purchase for a high school library.

This is what I learned: I don’t have sufficient cultural knowledge to determine the accuracy and authenticity of American Dirt. I did not “see” all of the cultural stereotypes that insiders have recognized in the book. I did not make time to research aspects of the book that others have questioned. I did not catch all of the situations that echoed scenes found in previously published fiction and nonfiction books centered on the border and immigration.

As a reader, I didn’t find American Dirt well written. There were inconsistencies that appeared within paragraphs of each other (see pp. 266-267 regarding Beto’s life on el dompe in Tijuana.) There were long sentences and paragraphs in which the omniscient narrator’s voice seemed confused. The sprinkling of Spanish words and phrases didn’t authenticate the text for me.

As one reviewer noted, “Once one cuts through the noise and actually reads the book, what becomes clear is that the problem isn’t that Cummins wrote a story that wasn’t hers to tell, but that she told it poorly – in all the classic ways a story is badly told. Two-dimensional characters, tortured sentences, an attempt to cover the saga of a migrant without even addressing the wider context of migration or inequality” (Malik 2020).

That said, I have to admit that I was drawn into the story in terms of the will, determination, perseverance, humanity, and courage of Lydia, Luca, and their fellow migrants. I strongly disagree with one reviewer’s criticism that Lydia, a privileged woman, should NOT be surprised by the hardships and inhumane conditions of the poor, immigrants, and asylum seekers depicted in the story. I believe all of us who are privileged would lack this understanding. We may read, hear, and see images in the media about the struggles of those who are less privileged, but until we actually live in the conditions of their lives, we cannot know them.

Alternatives to American Dirt

Collage of Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Border” Books: Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Anchor, 1993), By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border (Anchor, 1996), The Devil’s Highway: A True Story (Little Brown, 2004), Into the Beautiful North: A Novel (Little Brown, 2009),

 

I would not select American Dirt for a high school library based on the poor writing, inaccuracies, stereotypes, and a lack of authenticity, as pointed out by “insider” readers. “Authors and illustrators who create literature from outside their own culture must be vigilant as they write and illustrate books for children and teens (and adults, too, for that matter). In addition to research, consulting with cultural experts is a more effective way to ensure that their texts are culturally authentic, accurate, and free of stereotypes” (Moreillon 2019, 7).

I have not read that Jeanine Cummins shared her manuscript with one or more cultural insiders before submitting it to her editor, who is also a cultural outsider. It appears likely that her editor did not share the manuscript with anyone who could have helped Ms. Cummins improve her writing and make corrections in her representation of Mexican culture.

In her author’s note, Ms. Cummins wrote, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it” (382). As this author clearly knows, there are others much “browner” than she who have written novels and nonfiction about the border and immigration. (Ms. Cummins’ grandmother migrated from Puerto Rico to the U.S. in the 1940s.) Others have told this story, including Luis Alberto Urrea. In the NPR interview, Ms. Cummins talked about the impact Urrea’s work has had on her.

The collage above shows four of Urrea’s titles that I would select for high school students rather than American Dirt. Three books are nonfiction; one is a novel. And I would further explore the writing of other Latinx writers who accurately and authentically portray present-day Mexican culture, including the “Real Dirt – Works by Latinx Authors” List recommended by Pima County Public Library.

I share this reviewer’s perspective. “If English-speaking readers assume that this novel (American Dirt) accurately depicts the realities of Mexico and migration, it will only further the cause of disinformation and prejudice. And in this day and age, we can’t afford any more of that” (Schmidt 2020).

Works Cited

American Library Association. 2017. “First Amendment and Censorship.” ALA.org. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship

Malik, Nesrine. 2020. “American Dirt’s Problem is Bad Writing, Not Cultural Appropriation.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/03/american-dirt-problem-bad-writing-cultural-appropriation-mexico

Moreillon, Judi. (2019). “Does Cultural Competence Matter? Book Reviewers as Mediators of Children’s Literature.” Children and Libraries 17 (1): 3-8.

Schmidt, David J. 2020. “A Poor Imitation: American Dirt and Misrepresentations of Mexico.” The Blue Nib Literary Magazine. https://thebluenib.com/a-poor-imitation-american-dirt-and-misrepresentations-of-mexico

School Library Journal. 2016. “Self-Censorship.” SLJ.com. https://www.slj.com/?page=features-self-censorship

2020 Sibert Awards and the Edwards Award

 “Nonfiction should not suggest nonfeeling.
Nonfiction offers us the chance to learn not only about the world and the people in it,
but about ourselves” (Beers and Probst 2017, 49).

This spring graduate students in IS445: Information Books and Resources are exploring nonfiction and informational books and resources in the context of inquiry learning. That said, it is important for all librarians (and other educators and parents) to pay attention to the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards (YMA), which were announced last Monday, January 27, 2020. The first Sibert Awards were given in 2001.

Robert F. Sibert Award
In the context of our class, the Sibert Medal and Honor Books may be the most notable awards for our reading and discussions. The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal is given annually to “the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in the United States in English during the preceding year.” Mr. Sibert was the long-time President of Bound to Stay Bound Books. The Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) administers the award.

Among the 2020 award and honor winners there is a narrative nonfiction story told in verse, two memoirs (one in verse, one a poetry collection), a biography, and what I consider a multigenre text. For me, the Sibert Awards show for how members of this committee have taken up the charge to embrace positive trends in publishing, including increasing diversity in authorship, genre, topics, and themes.

2020 Winner and Honor Books
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story earned the 2020 Sibert Medal. It was written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Maillard, who was born in Oklahoma, is an enrolled citizen of the Seminole Nation; Martinez-Neal was born in Lima, Peru. This concept book is told in verse and shares this American Indian food tradition through the experience of a present-day family. The multiracial illustrations are child-friendly charming and connect the importance of fry bread in native homes and communities. (In Arizona, the Tohono O’odham are makers of the best bread I’ve ever tasted.) The book includes extensive back matter.

There were four Sibert honor books this year.

All in a Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World was written by Lori Alexander and illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger. (Lori happens to be a colleague and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, Arizona, and a Tucsonan.) This chapter book biography, written for an elementary- and intermediate-level readership, tells the amazing discoveries of van Leeuwenhoek who invented the microscope and is known as the Father of Microbiology. (Note: Search Amazon to hear a recording of a segment of the book.)

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality, written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, is a memoir told in verse. It tells of Ann Boyce’s school desegregation experiences in Tennessee. (I have not yet read this book.) From reading reviews, I believe the power of this book is the primary sources and research used to document Boyce’s experiences as one of the “Clinton 12.” See the National Education Association video published on YouTube.

Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir is a collection of poems written by Nikki Grimes. Grimes is known for her poignant and powerful poetry and this collection is especially moving for a young adult readership. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time Nikki Grimes reader and fan.) I appreciate the way she introduces this collection: “Memoir: a work of imperfect memory in which you meticulously capture all that you can recall, and use informed imagination to fill in what remains.” In Ordinary Hazards, Grimes relates the people, places, and experiences that shaped her growing up to how they have affected her adult life. The storied quality of these poems will capture the hearts and minds of her readers who are living their present circumstances and looking forward to their futures.

Hey, Water! was written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis. In her narrative (multigenre?) nonfiction/informational book, a young girl talks directly to and about water. She plays “hide and seek” as she learns and tells readers about how water is everywhere, changes throughout the seasons, and is an essential part of her body. Young children are fascinated by things they can experience through their senses. They will enjoy the child-friendly (and beautiful figurative) language, written at their level of understanding, with labels and clear illustrations. The book includes diagrams, information on the water cycle, conservation, and experiments using water. For me, the innovation in this book for young children is the combination of narrative and the features of expository texts.

Margaret A. Edwards Award
The Margaret A. Edwards Award is given to the author whose body of work has made a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” The award was established in 1988 and is administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association, YALSA, and is sponsored by School Library Journal. In addition, the award “recognizes an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.”

Steve Sheinkin earned the 2020 Edwards Award based on these three titles: Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery. I have read both Bomb and the Benedict Arnold book and concur that Sheinkin’s research is impeccable and his storytelling is captivating.

However, from my perspective, another of Sheinkin’s titles could/should have been mentioned, particularly in light of librarians’ efforts to reach young adults who are interested in sports. Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team (2017) is, in my opinion, one of Sheinkin’s most compelling narrative nonfiction reads… and I am not a football fan.

I am, however, a student of American Indian peoples and their history, and this book is an astounding true story of the impact Thorpe and his teammates made on college football. With the Super Bowl having been played yesterday, I am wondering how many fans realize that college football spawned professional ball and that the Carlisle Indian School players arguably made the greatest impact on this sport.

The other significance of Sheinkin’s award is that from my reading of past Edwards Award winners, he and Jim Murphy, who earned the award in 2010, are the only recipients in the history of this award who write nonfiction/informational books for young adults.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst: “Nonfiction should not suggest nonfeeling. Nonfiction offers us the chance to learn not only about the world and the people in it, but about ourselves” (2017, 49).

Work Cited

Beers, Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. 2017. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. New York: Scholastic.

#AASLslm School Library Month: Global Connections

April is… School Library Month (SLM). “Every April school librarians are encouraged to host activities to help their school and local community celebrate the essential role that strong school library programs play in transforming learning.”

This year the American Association of School Librarian (AASL) chose this theme: “Making Connections at Your School Library.” The official hashtag is #AASLslm.

AASL’s SLM Committee curated an outstanding selection of resources organized into four buckets—one for each week of the month of April.
• Making Learner Connections
• Making Educator Connections
• Making Community Connections
• Making Global Connections

Congratulations Jillian Ehlers (Chair), Cynthia Alaniz, Michelle Cooper, Shannon DeSantis, Hattie Garrow, Cathy Pope, and Denise Tabscott for your fine work.

While all four of these subthemes are essential aspects of future-ready school librarianship, I want to share a new resource and an additional idea for the “making global connections” subtheme.

Worlds of Words: Globalizing the Common Core Reading Lists 

The Worlds of Words (WOW) has created global book lists that pair classic children’s and young adult literature with global books that reflect the cultural diversity of our students and our world. These fiction and informational books, organized by grade level, can support librarians’ global collection development as well as provide critically reviewed texts that can be integrated into the curriculum.

I will be spotlighting this resource in my “Intercultural Understanding through Global Literature” session at the Texas Library Association Conference on Wednesday, April 4th. During the session we will discuss the importance of critical book reviews for competent collection development and integrating global literature into our coteaching in order to help students broaden their perspectives, develop empathy, and prepare to learn, work, and live in a global society.

Antonio S. Pedreira Elementary School Library in Puerto Rico

Immersing students in another culture through global literature is one way to increase their intercultural understanding. This example connects with students who may be studying weather or natural disasters as well as those learning more about life in Puerto Rico. When Hurricane María hit landfall in September, 2017, all of the books and other resources were stored in the Antonio S. Pedreira Elementary School Library. They lost everything.

My colleague and fellow WOW Board member Carmen Martínez-Roldán, an associate professor of bilingual/bicultural education, is supporting the rebuilding efforts of the Antonio S. Pedreira Elementary School Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico. These students, educators, and families must rebuild their school library from the ground up. Carmen recently launched a GoFundMe.com campaign to support students, educators, and families in recreating their vital resources for learning.

One way to launch an inquiry and engage students in making global connections is to read books about Puerto Rico. (See the list of books in the comment section below.) If yours is a school library of plenty, reaching out to help rebuild a school library for the benefit of global classmates is a way to make global connections and a most worthwhile way to celebrate School Library Month 2018.

Wishing you the best for #AASLslm 2018!

Image Credit: Original Photograph by Judi Moreillon

Harmony in Difference

tt54-coverSaturday, December 10th, was the United Nations’ Human Rights Day. Making the connection between human rights and finding “harmony in difference” feels like a timely post for me.

In 1992, when I was serving in my first school librarian position, my father-in-law gave me a copy of the Southern Poverty Law Center magazine Teaching Tolerance.  Founded in 1971, SPLC is a U.S. non-profit organization monitors the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremists.

Shortly after reading my first issue of Teaching Tolerance, I became a card-carrying SPLC member and have religiously renewed my membership every year since. Over the years, Teaching Tolerance has given me inspiration, encouragement, and teaching tips to make social justice a central component of my service as a school librarian and school librarian educator.

On their “about” page, Teaching Tolerance notes that their definition of “tolerance” aligns closely with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Declaration of Principles on Tolerance: “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference” (UNESCO).

The Fall 2016 issue of the magazine (cover above) was published before the election. (It is downloadable.)  Read or review this issue and think about the fact that SPLC counted 867 incidents of hateful harassment in the ten days after the U.S. election. How can educators, and school librarians in particular, teach young people to find “harmony in difference?”

Read the latest from Teaching Tolerance: “New Report: School Climate Worsens in Wake of Election.” More than 10,000 educators took the survey; 90% of respondents reported that their school climate has been negatively affected by the election.

These are some tips for school librarians who serve as information specialists, instructional partners, and leaders in their schools:

1.    If you don’t already have a free Teaching Tolerance subscription, sign up for one or read the magazine online. Sign up for the weekly newsletter.
2.    If you receive a print copy of the magazine, share it among your colleagues or send the link to the .pdf version to them. Encourage your colleagues to subscribe to the magazine and newsletter.
3.    Engage students and colleagues in discussions related to the articles in the magazine and newsletter.
4.    Reflect on your own practice of teaching tolerance.
5.    Reach out to colleagues to coteach lessons and units of instruction that affirm diversity.
6.    Consider following Teaching Tolerance on Twitter and Facebook.

As we approach the winter holiday season, it is especially important that our nation’s “public spaces,” including our school libraries, honor the traditions of all of our citizens and library users. Even in homogeneous communities, and maybe most especially in religiously homogeneous schools, the season for caring and giving is a time to acknowledge that diversity is, thankfully, an essential and laudable aspect of U.S. society.

Cover art by Nigel Buchanan
Magazine cover reprinted with permission of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. www.tolerance.org