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

Students’ Rights to Literacy Instruction

The International Literacy Association (ILA) recently released a position statement titled: “Children’s Rights to Excellent Literacy Instruction.”

As you read, you will note that librarians and libraries are not mentioned in this document. Many of us who are school librarians and long-time members of ILA have struggled in the past to make sure school librarians and libraries were included in ILA’s position statements.

I am sorry to say that, this time, we dropped the ball…

Does this mean that the members of ILA who drafted and the board who approved this statement do not view school librarians and libraries as stakeholders in students’ literacy instruction?

I certainly hope not…

That said, there is a great deal for school librarians to consider in this document. The document is organized around four value statements. I have quoted a bit from each one and added my “School Librarians” comments.

Children Have the Right to Knowledgeable and Qualified Literacy Educators
In my worldview, school librarians would be included in the list of literacy educators mentioned in this section along with “principals, reading/literacy specialists, literacy coaches, and literacy coordinators.” The varied roles of literacy educators include designing “literacy learning environments, both face-to-face and virtual, that meet the needs of all students.” These educators are also charged with “dismantling” forces that marginalize any student.

School Librarians: Equity of access and opportunity are cornerstones of school librarianship.

Children Have the Right to Integrated Support Systems
In the position statement, integrated support systems depend upon the “successful alignment of a complex system of stakeholders working cooperatively to strengthen teaching and learning practices and knowledge-building framework.” Educators, who take a systems thinking approach, can help ensure that the “overlapping spheres of influence” support positive progress toward shared goals.

School Librarians: Coteaching and working alongside principals and teacher leaders, school librarians can be key contributors in cocreating a vital system of support for all stakeholders in the learning community.

Children Have the Right to Supportive Learning Environments and High-Quality Resources
For me, this section is ALL about school libraries and the work of school librarians. These are a few quotes. Supportive learning environments with high-quality resources are “accessible learning environments that provide opportunity for robust, literacy-rich experiences, interactivity, and exploration of thought.” Resources and practices within this environment must be audited “to ensure they are bias free, culturally responsive, and student centered.”

School Librarians: In both physical and virtual spaces, school librarians, who are stewards of the school library’s print and digital resources, align the collection and the literacy learning experiences that weave through the library program with the teaching and learning needs of all students, classroom teachers, specialists, families, and the community.

Children Have the Right to Policies That Ensure Equitable Literacy Instruction
From the position statement: “Policymakers should recognize the professionalism and autonomy of teachers to implement curriculum in well-resourced classrooms. Every child, everywhere, benefits from policies that safeguard not only their welfare but also their educational potential.”

School Librarians: School library policies that provide for open, equitable access to resources and protect students’ (and educators’) privacy and intellectual freedom ensure safe learning spaces that support all stakeholders in reaching their capacity.

ILA’s position statement ends on this call to action: “Excellent literacy instruction builds a strong foundation for learning and, in turn, equips children to develop their potential, growing into adults who participate fully in their communities and society, enjoying the fullness that continuous learning brings to their lives.

It is our collective responsibility to advocate for, ensure, and protect these rights for every child, everywhere.”

School Librarians: In our daily practice, I hope that all school librarians are advocating for students’ rights to excellent literacy instruction. When school librarians can articulate the intersection of library resources, reading development, information literacy, and inquiry learning, their work as instructional partners alongside their colleagues can contribute to equitable, effective literacy instruction.

As reading researcher Dr. Nell Duke writes: “Learning to read without books is like learning to swim without water” (2019, 11). I hope everyone involved in education and educational policymakers remember critical importance of access to reading materials in students’ reading development.  I want our ILA colleagues to know exemplary school librarians serve as partners alongside other educators to collectively close the gaps between access and opportunity for all of our students.

Work Cited

Duke, Nell. 2019. “Learning to Read by Third Grade: How Policy Makers Can Foster Early Literacy.” National Association of State School Boards of Education. http://www.nasbe.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Duke_May-2019-Standard.pdf

Image Credit:
Created at Tagxedo.com

News Based in Facts

As I pack my suitcase and organize my schedule for the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans (#alaac18), I am once again reminded of how important our national associations have been and continue to be essential components of my professional learning. In addition to seeing long-time friends and colleagues, participating in the Lilead Project meetings, attending AASL meetings, keynotes, events, and enjoying the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet tradition with select tablemates, I am especially looking forward to this session:

Fake News or Free Speech: Is there a right to be misinformed?
Saturday, June 23rd from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
With James LaRue, Nicole Cooke, Damaso Reyes, Joyce Valenza, and Mary Minow
Morial Convention Center, Room 288

This is the session description:
“‛Fake news’ has always been part of the communication landscape. The difference now is that we are inundated with social media that makes it possible to disseminate “fake news” quickly and easily. In the past ‛fake news’ was used as propaganda to isolate individuals or groups of people, destabilize governments, and foment anarchy. ‛Fake news’ may be inaccurate, dishonest, misleading, intentionally untrue, and even intended to damage the paradigm of factual information. But is it illegal? Is it protected by the First Amendment? Can ‛fake news’ — or suppressing it — undermine our democratic way of life?”

A few days ago, Loretta Gaffney posted a compelling reflection in her Knowledge Quest Blog post: “School Librarians and Truth in an Era of ‘Fake News.” Loretta shared how students had come to her in the library on 9/11 when they were unsure about what was happening in the world. They trusted Loretta and they trusted the information they could access in the library (with her support).
This was the comment I posted to Loretta’s article:

Loretta, Your experience in creating and promoting the library as an information source learners can trust is a model for all of us.

I, for one, would like to see the term “fake news” abandoned by school librarians and the library profession as a whole. Yes, all information/news is a social construct and reflects the perspective of the author/reporter.

However, using the term “fake news” legitimizes it in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Nearly every day, the Arizona Daily Star publishes a “Fact Check” article that has taken up to two pages in our small Tucson newspaper. The constant need for fact-checking our country’s leaders and political candidates is alarming to me.

I believe we can acknowledge that news always has a point of view and still agree that there should be “facts” to back up any information source. I also believe we should expect our leaders to get their facts straight, and we must start holding them accountable at the voting booth.

Let’s give no more credence to “fake news.” Let’s encourage students and classroom teachers to abandon the term in favor of “news” and call the fake stuff what it is: half-truths, distortions, propaganda, outright lies…

To my way of thinking, that would be a start at maintaining the librarian’s and the library’s reputation as a person and place of trust (end quote).

As Brian Bess, Library Assistant, Huntsville Madison County Public Library, recently posted in ALA Connect: “…our mission is to disseminate reliable, reputable, and helpful information to the public…” I agree with Brian and am very much looking forward to learning what others in our profession are thinking at next Saturday’s session at ALA. Could suppressing “fake news” undermine our democratic way of life? Really?

I welcome your comments here. I will post a follow up after the session. Thank you.

Image Created at The Ransomizer.com

Start with Why, Part 2

While authoring my forthcoming book, Maximizing School Librarian Leadership: Building Connections for Learning and Advocacy, I have read many professional books. This is part two of the eighth in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Before participating in the Lilead Project Summer Institute in Norfolk, Virginia, I had no intention of extending my review of Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why. (See Part 1 published on 7/17/17.)

But last week, twenty Cohort 2 Lilead Fellows, four Cohort 1 speakers and other supporters, the Lilead Project Team, and five mentors  (of which I am one) spent four days thinking and talking about, writing and revising our “whys” in terms of the Fellows’ Lilead projects.

Throughout this process of connecting the purpose and value of school librarianship to goals for their projects, Fellows had support for pushing their thinking and connecting their “whys” to their personal and professional values and to their school districts’ priorities.

During the week, John Chrastka from EveryLibrary shared information and strategies related to the importance of political literacy, particularly in terms of the Fellows achieving their project goals. (EveryLibrary is registered as 501(c)4 social welfare organization and supports library organizations around the country in achieving their goals.) John said this, “Our concern is on the basics: fix the disconnect in districts that say they want successful schools and fully prepared students but don’t fund their libraries or hire qualified librarians.”

John noted that for many library supporters a librarian “who cares (about other people’s literacy needs and welfare) is a proxy” for supporters’ own desire/need to care. These people comprise the “library party” and believe that the library is a transformational force in their communities. Everyone in the room agreed that passionate librarians are “true advocates for lifelong learning.” These connections apply directly to the “whys” Lilead fellows are addressing with their projects.

The Fellows were asked to write about their values related to education and librarianship, their vision for their school/district, why they do this work, and what happens if they don’t do it. All of these thinking activities connected and reconnected to their “whys.”

When the Fellows were asked to share the key ideas that frame their projects, the similarities in their “whys” were very exciting. This is what I heard in terms of key concepts: issues (access/budget/resources/staffing) related to equity (7), cultural responsiveness (2) a subset of equity, librarians as instructional/digital leaders/building capacity (5), advocacy/changing perceptions/increasing visibility (3), K-12 curriculum (2), and increasing future-ready learning spaces (1).

To “see” the Fellows’ “whys” expressed in these ways leads me to believe that the school library profession can coalesce around a shared overarching “why.” With a collective “why,” the “what” we do and “how” we do it may look different in different schools and districts but the benefit of an overarching “values-based approach” (John Chrastka) can help school librarians work within a shared values framework. It can help us identify and build coalitions. It can help the Fellows elevate their projects because they are based on authentic truths—on the school library profession’s shared values.

Thank you to Simon Sinek for giving us the “why” prompt as a stimulus to our thoughts, discussions, and the feedback we shared with and received from one another.

Thank you to John Chrastka for teaching us about political literacy and helping us apply these principles to help us achieve our goals for and with our library stakeholders. We look forward to learning more with you.

Thank you to Roger Rosen, president of Rosen Publishing, for joining us in Norfolk and for sponsoring our learning with John. We are grateful.

Resources
EveryLibrary.org. Newsletter Subscription.

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Sweeney, Patrick PC, and John Chrastka. Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2017.