I find it odd that we “celebrate” Banned Books Week. Celebrating doesn’t seem quite the right word. We’re not encouraging banning books! Yet it’s a wonderful opportunity to remind folks that censorship is alive and well – not only in other countries, but in our own. And no, I don’t think censorship is too harsh a word. If I forbid you from reading a book, I’m censoring your reading.
Which is why I tell my students who invariably ask for The Hunger Games or Divergent or one of numerous YA titles that I don’t have in my library, “You CAN read that. Just not from here.” I explain to them that since we’re an elementary school, I have to stock books that appeal to all my readers, grades K-5. With a very limited budget, I have to weigh if that YA title is going to be read and enjoyed by a majority of students.
I also explain to them that, while the library’s purpose is to provide leisure reading, a fair amount of that budget has to go to buy books that support the school’s curriculum. In other words, nonfiction and award-winners take a big chunk out of that pie.
At this point, the fifth graders are usually eying me with disdain. Which is when I offer to show them how to place books on hold at the public library. (There’s more than one way to skin a cat, right?)
The funny thing is that none of those students asking for the current hot YA hit come back after having read it and tell me I’m crazy and it was the best book ever. I’ve had a very few come back and tell me it was good, but most seem to be happy to have found another book.
On the other hand, students asking for middle grade hits WILL come back and tell me I’m crazy, and that the library desperately needs this book. Right now. I find it telling – books meant for an older audience don’t seem to spark the same passion among the fourth and fifth graders.
I spend a fair amount of time reading reviews and reading kid lit, trying to find those books that hit the sweet spot: appealing to fifth graders with their stronger reading skills and more sophisticated interests, but still approachable and interesting to second, third, and fourth graders. I must be doing okay, because the students are happy to see me back in the library each year.
I’ve only had a couple real challenges about books, and in both cases, they were from parents who did not object to that particular book being in the library, but that their child chose it and brought it home. To them, I can only say that I’m glad they’re involved with their children’s reading, and that I can’t act in loco parentis for 600+ students.
It’s a balancing act that most folks don’t appreciate. Being a parent myself, I understand that we want to approach certain issues in our own time – like the parent who wasn’t ready to explain the Holocaust to her kindergartener when he came home with Polacco’s The Butterfly. But I also understand the desire of that child and others to read a book that might not be “appropriate.” I was that reader myself, and I still am.
Maybe he just liked the cover, or maybe he wanted to explore something he’d only heard about in passing from an adult’s conversation. Either way, being a librarian means enabling curiosity and engagement, not discouraging it. It’s a challenge – walking the fine line between “Is your mom or dad okay with you reading that?” and “You’re responsible for choosing our own books in the library.”
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t harmed by reading my unrestricted way through the libraries of my youth. But I’m equally sure that there were plenty of books I read that I didn’t understand or didn’t enjoy as much I would have, had I come to them later. So I’m okay with not stocking all the latest YA best-sellers in my elementary school library.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t show my students how to find them elsewhere. 😉