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).
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