Banned books inspire heated debates—how can librarians and educators go behind the hype and offer more diverse content to students?

Are banned books challenges, or opportunities for innovation?

Banned books inspire heated debates—how can librarians and educators go behind the hype and offer more diverse content to students?

When I finished Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, I began researching the validity of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene sharing a bloodline protected by a secret society. When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was accused of promoting the devil and witchcraft, I dove into the series. When Oprah pulled Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt off her Book Club, I put it on hold at the library. 

When the world makes a fuss about a book, consider my attention piqued.

Skimming the American Library Association’s list of most banned and challenged books over time, I’ve read more than my share, from To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Diary of Anne Frank to Captain Underpants and 13 Reasons Why. I have to say I’m quite surprised Flowers in the Attic didn’t make the list as it made the 10-year-old me… well… blush.

This fall, the conversation around controversial titles is heating up in Texas and across the country. In the Lone Star State, there was an inquiry into the books available to students in Texas school districts. School districts are being asked to report if they own any of the 850 books in question and if they do, how many copies of each and how much they paid for those books.

Amid television news headlines like, “‘Pornography in Texas schools: Texas Gov. Abbott calls for removal of library books,” Texas librarians have turned to social media asking for help:

“Librarians, I need your help. This is what we are facing in Texas. My principal wants to discuss this. I have just glanced at “The List” so I know I’m going to have a bunch of these. If you’ve been through something like this, how did you handle this and what did you do? My principal is an awesome guy I’m not sure where his thoughts are on this. We’re going to talk tomorrow.”

The Texas Library Association has responded with a statement and letter writing campaign of its own, “Banding Together to Protect the Freedom to Read.”  In addition, the American Library Association has a challenge toolkit.

Yet, the available resources for school librarians do not seem to be enough. In my last column, I featured a panel discussion between three librarians for publishers who create content for schools and public libraries.  During the discussion, librarian Tamara Cox from Anderson School District in South Carolina asked publishers for support and resources to defend her growing collection of books that are generating parent challenges. 

All three panelists told publishers they have an accelerated need for more diverse authors and characters. Cox explains, “We are buying more and I’m in the deep conservative South. We are being very intentional about diversifying our collection.  We don’t want just realistic fiction that’s a sad story about a kid coming out. We want different genres.”

In one-on-one discussions with publishers, librarians say they are committed to producing more diverse content, but in recent years, sales have not reflected the vocal desire for such content. And now books that have won awards for groundbreaking content are the topics of long threads on social media where educators are sharing ideas about how to keep such books on the shelf, like this post on the Future Ready Secondary Librarians Facebook Group:

“My high school teaches Stamped by Jason Reynolds as part of the sophomore curriculum. It is being challenged by a few parents and I was wondering if any of you had any resources for the justification for teaching it.”

The replies direct the librarian to many resources including professional book reviews on collection development sites like Titlewave and state curriculum guides, because if a book meets state curriculum standards, it’s more likely to survive a challenge. Then there’s the author’s literary accomplishments, as another librarian replied, “From a purely literary perspective… he’s such an accomplished author – one who many high school students would be familiar with from reading his books in elementary and middle school…. I personally think that is reason to explore his more mature titles as well.”

Meanwhile in another Future Ready Librarians Facebook Group, a best-selling Young Adult title is under scrutiny:

“Help! My admin is bringing up a book that was challenged in a neighboring district (The Hate U Give….) and wants to know what our policy is. Before I tell him we don’t have a current policy in place, could you help me out with some language to include? THANK YOU!”

Publisher Harper Collins offers resources on how to teach The Hate U Give as part of its SHAKE UP YOUR SHELVES campaign that encourages educators to retire offensive or books and add titles that reflect the experiences of more underrepresented groups. In the The Hate U Give Educator Guide, Harper Collins explains the book can be a springboard for conversations around important themes ranging from “racism” to “identity.”

Buried in the social media threads about this book and many others, one librarian shared her hope for the future: “My hope is that all of these challenges will encourage kids to go out and actually read the books that have the adults so upset.”

Companies that sell books to schools could view these trends as an emerging crisis for our business. Yet, when I read that last comment, I smiled.  Because if students today are anything like me, reading all 850 books on that Texas list may be more of a welcome challenge than a deterrent.

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Britten Follett
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