Banned Books Week and The Freedom to Read

Censorship is a deadend. Find your freedom to read.This week, classroom teachers, librarians, and libraries across the country are honoring the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom’s annual Banned (and Challenged) Books Week, September 27 – October 3, 2020.

The observance began yesterday with the publication of the Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books: 2010 – 2019. This list is compiled and published every decade and once again testifies to the fact that books written expressly for youth dominate the list.

The top seven books on the list were written expressly for children and young adults. Perennial “favorites” on this list, including Captain Underpants, Hunger Games, and Speak, are some of the books that young people repeatedly request, read, enjoy, share, and eagerly discuss. Those are the books that should be in the hands of our youth. (See last year’s 9/24/19 post about Speak!)

Each year, the OIF publishes the ten most frequently challenged books from the previous year. The 2019 list should cause all school librarians to pause and reflect on their own commitment to students’ intellectual freedom and right to read. Nine of the ten books were written expressly for children and young adults. Of those nine, four are nonfiction titles focused on sexuality, gender identity, or LGBTQIA+ experiences. Let me repeat. Four of the nine are informational titles: biographies or narrative nonfiction.

Why would be deny students access to information presented in age-appropriate books?

Four Book Jackets for the Books Listed Below

Four Frequently Challenged Books – 2019

#2. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin – Narrative Nonfiction

#4. Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth – Expository Nonfiction

# 6. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas – Biography

#10. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole – Narrative Nonfiction

At this time in the lives of our K-12 students and in the life of our country, school librarians must raise our voices with and for young people’s access to ideas and information. For as long as I have been in the profession, school librarians have facilitated many different kinds of learning experiences centered on students’ right to read (See Banned Books Week Projects blog post 2016.)

Since 2011, school librarians have also been observing Banned Websites Awareness Day to hone a spotlight on over-restrictive filters that compromise students’ and educators’ access to information. It will be held on Wednesday, September 30, this year.

Last Thursday, I attended the ALA Connect Live: Intellectual Freedom webinar. Thank you to ALA President Julius C. Jefferson, Freedom to Read Foundation President Barbara Stripling and ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee Chair Martin L. Garnar for this program. (See information about ALA Connect Live! Programs.)

Here are some resources:

Check out the Banned Books Week Facebook page. There will be live events throughout this week.

For research related to banned books, read Banned Books: Defending Our Freedom to Read by Robert P. Doyle (2017).  ALA offers a link for members-only online access. You can also purchase the book for $15.00 from the ALA Store.

There are resources to support the popular “Dear Banned Author” program including printable and virtual postcards, author addresses, and tips for libraries in hosting virtual programs.

On Friday, October 2 at 6 p.m. CT, ALA is hosting a national watch party of “Scary Stories,” a documentary about the censorship history and impact of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. (I cannot count the replacement copies I purchased of Schwartz’s book during the ten years I served as an elementary librarian!) Libraries can learn how to stream the film for free, or host their own watch party.

Follow these Twitter hashtags: #BannedBooksWeek; #BannedBook; #BannedAuthor

Learn more about the webinar series hosted by Intellectual Freedom Round Table, the Graphics Novels & Comics Round Table and Image Comics.

I hope you will join me in proudly wearing your “I read banned books” button and continue reading, recommending, and discussing these books with youth.

Image Credit

American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/bannedbooksweek/ideasandresources/freedownloads

 

#lafcon Learning

Image: Books with a sign: "So many books, so little time."

And so many sessions, so little time!

Last week, I participated in the Library Advocacy and Funding Conference.  I appreciated that the conference organizers made it so easy for people to participate. All of the sessions were pre-recorded and those of us with other obligations on these days could dip and out of the presentations that met our perceived needs. (I also appreciate the access was extended through to the end of the week. Thank you, @EveryLibrary and #lafcon sponsors.)

When I wrote a conference preview last week, I thought I would write about all of the sessions I attended. However, such a post would be too long for this blog space and I did post thank-you tweets for most of the session I attended (see @CactusWoman and #lafcon).

Instead, I want to share my take-aways from two phenomenal sessions: “Small Doors and Broken Windows” presented by Alvin Irby and an interview with Elizabeth A. Davis, president of the Washington (D.C.) Teachers Union. Each of these speakers had so much to share with school librarians, in particular; the following are just the highlights.

Alvin Irby, Small Windows and Broken Mirrors
Alvin Irby, former classroom teacher and part-time stand-up comedian, is the founder of Barbershop Books, a non-profit which he calls an “identity-based” reading program. Barbershop Books puts books selected by Black boys in child-friendly, male-spaces (barbershops) with the goal of all boys seeing themselves as readers.

Mr. Irby puts this work in a context. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 85% of Black male fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. Fewer than 2% of U.S. teachers are Black and a majority of Black boys are being raised by single mothers. Barbershop Books creates the possibility for access to books and Black role models that can help boys identify as readers.

And many of the books these boys choose for the program make them laugh! Mr. Irby cites information from the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report. Parents (and likely educators, too) want kids to read books that inspire them to do something good—books with good stories that make kids think and feel. And what do kids want? They want books that will make them laugh—good stories that are humorous.

In that vein, Alvin Irby delivered a critique of the books librarians honor with awards and the lists we curate for young readers. Where are the funny or gross books? You won’t see Captain Underpants or Walter the Farting Dog on these lists, but these are the kinds of books kids who are beginning to identify as readers want and need. (This may be a stinging critique for one of our sacred cows, but I think it is one to seriously consider as we rise to the challenges posed by illiteracy and aliteracy.)

There was so much in Alvin Irby’s session that was memorable and quote worthy for me. Here are two quotes:

“Cultural competency at its core is about humility. It’s about educators/librarians being humble enough to recognize that they (we) don’t know enough to recognize that they (we) don’t know everything that they (we) need to know to make that (reading) experience as relevant and engaging as it could be and that by actually taking time and making space to gain a better understanding of who the audience is and about what’s important to them…”

“If you look at a book list for any child and there are no laugh out loud books on it then I don’t even know what to say other than that book list is not allowing children to see their whole self.”

At the very end of his presentation, Mr. Irby gave librarians a critical key to success. Guest readers will read books differently. If, for example, we want to impact the reading experiences of 4th-grade Black boys, then we should invite Black readers into our libraries to share.

During the pandemic, many authors have given us the gift of reading their own books online (or giving recognizable celebrities permission to read their books). These recordings can be our guest readers. Let’s look for the ones read by Black men if we want to create relevant and engaging reading experiences for Black boys. (And the same practice will be true for any other group of library patrons.)

Whether or not you saw his #lafcon session, I highly recommend Alvin Irby’s 8-minute TED Talk: “How to Inspire Every Child to Be a Lifelong Reader.”

Elizabeth A. Davis, President of Washington Teachers Union (WTU), Washington, D.C.: Interview with John Chrastka, Executive Director, EveryLibrary.org
Ms. Davis: “Education is a civil right.” When she ran for WTU president, Ms. Davis’s platform was to transform WTU into a social justice union that would come to the table with solutions, not just problems, would amply the voices of teachers, and build respect.

She had been an activist educator who taught students how to write letters to decision-makers. In the interview, Ms. Davis tells an inspiring story of a 6th-grade student in her class in 2005 who wrote a letter to the principal asking why the library was closed. He responded that there was no librarian but he allowed the student access to the library during lunch. The girl discovered that the same books that were on the shelve in 1953, when the school was all White, were still on the shelves for her and her all Black and Brown schoolmates. After writing another letter, Representative Elijah Cummings invited the student to the Capitol to present her findings at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

When schools were on the verge of closing in spring 2020, Ms. Davis asked all teachers to survey their students regarding their tech access. They found 38% did not have computers, and all of them had TVs. Using these data and a commitment to equity, Washington, D.C. schools delivered instruction via TV during spring 2020. Brilliant!

John Chrastka: “Politics is people or money.”

Fully resourced, fully staffed school libraries are a funding issue. WTU sponsors an Annual Fund Our Schools, Fund Our Futures budget campaign to activate parents to speak before the city council in support of school funding. This kind of parent activism could transform how budget decisions are made in every district across the country.

As Ms. Davis noted, leaders must listen to all education stakeholders to learn what matters to them. Ms. Davis found that in Washington D.C. “equity is the thread that connects the dots among school stakeholders.” She also noted that “if logic doesn’t work, shame does!”

I agree with Ms. Davis that educators (especially school librarians) have to realize our power. Through the students we serve in our schools, we are connected to parents, relatives, and caregivers who are voters. Educators must activate voters to change things that aren’t working. We must adopt strategies to change our daily working environments for our own and our students’ and colleagues’ benefit.

Ms. Davis’s advice to school librarians: Look at the power of the services you are providing and where those services are falling short in your school. Then, focus on how your contributions are lifting that up for students and classroom teachers.

This is the second time I’ve heard Elizabeth Davis speak about her leadership and organizing efforts. She is a wonder and her personal stories as a student and an educator are powerful. I wish there was an organization specifically for teachers’ union presidents. If there is/were one, she should be speaking at their conferences and leading their charge.

The D.C. school librarians are doing outstanding work, and it helps their cause beyond measure that they have an advocate like Ms. Davis who will stand up for them and with them and speak truth to power. She is a brilliant impassioned leader. Thank you, @EveryLibrary, for spotlighting her voice and work.

#lafcon 2020
As a no longer practicing librarian, I might not have attended #lafcon without the support of the Lilead Project. I appreciate that they gave me this opportunity.

By participating, I learned that as a literacies and libraries consultant, author, and school librarian advocate there was so much valuable information in the conference for someone like me. Thank you to those in the School Librarians Group who posted reviews of the sessions they attended and engaged in brief exchanges in a discussion forum.

I gained a great deal of knowledge that I will apply in my consulting, writing, and advocacy work. My only wish was that I had had more time to take advantage of more of the session offerings.

Image credit:
Prettysleepy. “Books Library Education.” Pixabay.com, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/books-library-education-knowledge-5430104/

 

Speak-ing of #BannedBooksWeek

This week (September 22 – 29, 2019), classroom teachers, librarians, and libraries across the country are honoring the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom’s annual Banned (and Challenged) Books Week. When I served as a secondary school librarian, this week was one of my most treasured. For those three years, I collaborated with 8th grade (one) and high school English language arts classroom teachers to spotlight the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 2000-2009. (I look forward to the 2010-2020 list!)

I gathered as many as possible children’s and young adult books from 100 Most Frequently Challenged list from our library and interlibrary loaned through the public library. (There were a few titles that were not appropriate for the school environment such as Private Parts by Howard Stern.) We launched the lesson by helping students make connections among these three terms and books written for youth: banned, challenged, and censored. Students who had read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 made connections and often led the discussion.

The classroom teachers and I co-read one of the picture books from the list and modeled a conversation about why the book had been challenged. Then, students working in small groups were given a short stack of books and the task of discussing each one to determine why they thought the book had been challenged. Students read picture books and book jacket information for novels to guide their thinking. Their ELA-R teachers and I facilitated these discussions by monitoring students’ conversations and asking probing questions.

Each group reported to the class by selecting the most surprising book in their stack and shared their determination for the “reason” the book had been challenged. One of the biggest takeaways from this lesson was that students had read a good number of these books in the past and where annoyed or shocked that any adult would think they were incapable of thinking critically or shouldn’t have even be allowed to read the story or information.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Books
Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak appears as #60 on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 2000-2009. I have been a fan ever since the book was published… and this year read both the graphic novel version and her latest book Shout. It isn’t often that readers have such a powerful example of three texts—one novel, one graphic novel, and one free verse memoir—to compare their responses to the “same” story told by the same author. Anderson has given us all a gift with Speak (1999), Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018), and Shout: The True Story of a Survivor Who Refused to Be Silenced (2019).

Speak, the Novel
I read this book when it was first published. In 2002, I facilitated a student book club at Sabino High School. (It was my first year as a high school librarian after serving in elementary school libraries for ten years.) The students in the club were freshmen and sophomores. I provided students with a stack of books for which I could secure multiple copies. They picked Speak as our first read. I sent home information to students’ families about the book club (we met once a month during lunch) and noted the list of nine books the students had chosen to read that year.

Of course, I suspected that Speak would be an important book for the young women in the group. Protagonist Melinda’s experience, silence, inner turmoil, and trauma were clearly and poignantly conveyed in the story. What surprised me, at the time, was that the young men in the group were equally affected by Melinda’s story. Anderson’s voice rang true and authenticity created an invitation for readers to relate to the story on an emotional level. Students’ discussion was open and frank. It was an outstanding beginning for building our caring and thoughtful community of readers.

Speak, the Graphic Novel
Emily Carroll’s illustrations in the graphic novel add another dimension to Anderson’s story that may help some readers relate more deeply to Melinda’s story. The black, white, and sepia tones of the illustrations portray the fear and suffering of a freshman girl who has been raped and shunned. Her isolation and depression are vividly drawn. When Melinda finally takes the opportunity to strike back at the rapist, the image of her punching him captures the emotional power of finding one’s courage, using one’s strength, and protecting one’s self from further harm.

The parallels with the acts of superheroes will not be lost on readers. Carroll, who is known for penning horror comics, was the perfect pick to illustrate Anderson’s modern classic. The graphic novel format with brief text, frames that sequence and chunk the text, and drawings that pack an emotional punch will bring many new (and returning) readers to this text.

Shout, the True Story of a Survivor Who Refused to Be Silenced
And finally, for me, Shout, the free verse memoir brings Laurie Halse Anderson’s first-hand experience with abuse, rape, and resilience into an even sharper focus. Her intimate poems about family dysfunction, microaggressions (a word I didn’t “have” when I first read Speak), and most importantly of all, ending the shame associated with sexual assault will tear at your heart. As a woman, mother, and grandmother, I wept for young women who have suffered and continue to suffer in silence and must find resilience without family or societal support.

With today’s #MeToo movement, I believe all three “versions” of Speak/Shout provide a rich literary experience for critical conversations. But from my personal perspective Shout was the most powerful of the three. For me, Anderson’s memoir presents undeniable truths from which I, the reader, could not turn away.

Thank you, Laurie Halse Anderson, for your courage in breaking the silence, for openly sharing your life experiences, and for your heartfelt truth telling.

As you honor and celebrate The Freedom to Read and The Library Bill of Rights, this week and 365 days a year, school librarians must recommit to advocating for and protecting students’ rights. Our library materials reconsideration policies are a place to begin. Please read Mona Kirby’s article that appeared in the September issue of American Libraries: “Up to the Challenge: Dealing with School Library Book Challenges Before They Happen.”