In the latest edition of the American Libraries Dewey Decibel Podcast, Phil Morehart led ALA director James LaRue, school librarian Sara Stevenson, and acclaimed author Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) in a discussion of the tough topic of censorship in American schools and libraries.
None of those interviewed is a stranger to book challenges. As the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, and a former Colorado librarian, James LaRue has stood up to protestors and politicians alike, becoming a staunch advocate for empowering librarians through adopting policies to handle challenged books.
Austin, Texas, school librarian and blogger for Knowledge Quest, Sara Stevenson has first-hand experience defending John Green’s Looking for Alaska — a book that has also been the target of would-be censors in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
And Marjane Satrapi, author of the critically acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, which depicts her growth into adulthood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, has faced challenge attempts from Chicago, Illinois, to Three Rivers, Oregon.
Despite dealing with book challenges at different levels, LaRue, Stevenson, and Satrapi all believe that conversation and understanding are useful tools in combatting the sometimes irrational fears that lead individuals to attempt to have books banned.
Additionally for LaRue, the adoption of a clear set of policies and guidelines like those outlined by the OIF enables librarians and schools to approach and resolve challenges in a way that can hopefully prevent bans and media incidents. “Don’t wait for the challenge to get ready,” says LaRue. Start adopting the policies you need and put procedures in place to handle challenge books before you are approached by an upset parent.
From his experiences as a librarian as well as data collected by the ALA, LaRue notes that concerned parents most frequently question books that are targeted at young readers during their vulnerable transition years. Less about the content and more about the fear that their babies are becoming adolescents and their teens young adults, parents “are often complaining about transitions.” It is the role of the confident librarian to help allay the concerns that these parents may have and through a firm understanding of policy help them understand the role of the library as a public service for everyone and to help them find the books that they are looking for.
Stevenson’s own experiences echo those of LaRue’s, although she admits that being a witness to a book challenge is not an easy thing. From dealing with the media to a fear that pulling the book might be the easier way to go, Stevenson has had to rely on her multiple years of experience as a librarian to stand up for everyone’s right to read in her library. “You can’t judge a book by four or five sections,” she notes. And as a librarian who sees the value in having a book for everyone on her shelves, she proudly states that she is “determined not to have a library where every book was appropriate for an 11-year-old.”
Through her years as a librarian, Stevenson has learned that young readers are curious, but more than that they know when something isn’t right for them. For young readers books can act as “bibliotherapy” and can also help them understand a world around them that extends beyond their community’s borders.
This is what Marjane Satrapi celebrates the most about reading and why she insists that everyone stretch their own experiences to learn about other people and cultures. “Education and culture is the basis of everything,” she says. Moreover, the experiences of people from entirely different cultural and social backgrounds may be similar and can be shared, but you wouldn’t know that if you closed yourself off to talking to and learning about those other people.
Satrapi herself admits that she learned a lot about the world, and in particular the United States, through the publication of her book in America. She not only learned that there are more public libraries than McDonalds, but also that those who read her graphic novel could relate to experiences she had as a young Iranian woman. She notes:
Repression whether it comes from your family, from a government, repression is repression, and feeling oppressed is the same thing everywhere. In a very incredible way [Persepolis] had an echo in other people that I was not aware of.
This is the value of books and banning or challenging them only further puts a barrier up between ourselves and the world around us.
That said, Satrapi is keen to note that though that “if you want to make adolescents read the book, ban it.” But even before it gets to that point with a book, though, “why not just take it, and explain it.”
To hear the full Dewey Decibel Podcast, click here. Also, if you are a teacher or librarian interested in learning more about how you can defend or incorporate challenged books in your collection, check out CBDLF’s Library and Educator Tools.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!