A mother storms into her daughter’s middle school library demanding that the book her daughter checked out the day before be removed from the school immediately! “How can you allow this book to be read by a 7th grader? My child is too young to be exposed to these awful topics and it’s your fault for giving it to her!” the enraged mother exclaims. The book in question is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and the mother is angry because the book contains the controversial topics of rape, depression, bullying, and mental illness. But what exactly is the right thing to do in this situation? Should the librarian ban the book from the school’s collection because of one mother’s concern? What about other children whose parents are ok with them reading the book? Or readers who may greatly benefit from the novel? Is it easier to just do what the mother says? When it comes to children’s and young adult literature in libraries, these types of situations are happening everyday. While there may be no clear right or wrong answer, we can explore the ethics of a librarian’s choices when dealing with the censorship of children’s and young adult libraries.
The ALA’s Stance:
The American Library Association defines censorship as “the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous” and occurs when, “expressive materials, like books, magazines, films and videos, or works of art, are removed or kept from public access” and “when materials are restricted to particular audiences, based on their age or other characteristics” (American Library Association, 2014). According to this definition, they do not believe that is it right to censor any material no matter the situation. The American Library Association believes that censorship is ethically wrong. In the example above, the ALA would tell the mother that they will not get rid of the book, and that it is her responsibility to monitor what her child reads, not the library’s. In fact, they offer a pretty harsh message to parents who feel that librarians should have anything to do with monitoring what a child is reading. The advice they give to parents on monitoring their child’s reading material is that, “Libraries can be extremely helpful, providing information about parenting, open communication between parents and children, how to communicate with caregivers and the parents of your children’s friends about your rules, and the opinions of various organizations representing a wide spectrum of points of view about materials for children” (American Library Association, 2014).
Their ethical stance on opposing all kinds of censorship regarding children’s and young adult libraries is based on their view of free speech as a welfare right: a right “that requires other people (or institutions) to take positive steps to satisfy those rights” (Fallis, 2014). The ALA believes that the right that gives objectors of material the freedom to express their opinions about books they believe should be censored, is the same right that children’s libraries have to provide these books. They believe that the right to free speech is one that must be upheld on both sides or “neither will survive” (American Library Association, 2014). The ALA states that censorship of children’s and young adult literature in libraries endangers “one of our most basic freedoms – the right to read” and it will take “constant support” to uphold the right of freedom of speech (Doyle, 2013).
The American Library Association not only believes that it is ethical to oppose censorship of children’s and young adult’ literature in libraries, they also celebrate it each year through an event called, “Banned Books Week”. This weeklong event is meant to raise awareness about the ethics of opposing censorship of material, “even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular” (Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, 2014). They encourage libraries and other book organizations to educate others about protecting intellectual freedom and how to fight censorship in their local libraries. They even release a list each year of the top challenged books. Current examples from children and young adult libraries are: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (challenged at Grandview Heights, Ohio High School), Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare (challenged by parents at a middle school in South Carolina), and 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, by Southwest Community Resources (banned by the Tucson Unified School District) (Doyle, 2013).
The Opposing View:
While the ALA believes that it is ethically wrong to censor children’s and young adult literature in libraries because censorship endangers their right to free speech, there are those that disagree. Many feel that it is their ethical responsibility to protect children from controversial material, such as violence, racism, sexually explicit material, and foul language in libraries. This group believes that exposing these themes to children and young adults can be harmful to them, and therefore it is only right to protect them from these books by removing them from children’s and young adult libraries. Some in this group even go so far as to attack the American Library Association for its stance on the opposition of censorship, and do not believe that their actions are ethical at all. In fact, they believe that the ALA’s fight against censorship is actually preventing the true ethics of free speech and the ethics of protecting children. In a modern blog called, “Safe Libraries”, the anonymous author states, “Stifle free speech? The ALA does that. Let someone merely complain about a book, and that person is shouted down as a “censor.” People are allowed to object. Libraries have policies in place to handle such objections. All final decisions come from the library. The library is presumably acting appropriately. It is simply wrong to attack people for filing objections in the manner libraries provide for filing those objections” (SafeLibraries, 2009).
Another popular blog called “The Annoyed Librarian” states that the American Library Association is more self-serving than ethical. The author of this blog believes that the ALA are actually unethical, because they pride themselves as heroes against censorship when they only fight against challenged books in the United States. The author states that this is not a worthy cause, because books are not technically censored in the United States since they have not been officially banned by the government. The “Annoyed Librarian” states that children’s books that have been re-shelved in the adult section or removed from a children’s library is not censorship since they can still be found through other resources. The author believes that if the ALA wants to actually take a real ethical stance on censorship, they should bring their cause to other countries where books have actually been censored by the government, instead of pretending to be an ethical hero of re-shelved children’s books in the U.S. (Annoyed Librarian, 2009).
What Authors Think:
Many children’s authors have strong opinions about the ethics of censoring material in children’s and young adult libraries, and believe that children have the right to read about topics that some would consider controversial. They even believe that it is beneficial to them. These authors feel that it is unethical to censor children from these topics. This ethical stance is backed up by the belief that by reading about controversial issues, young readers are able to, in a way, experience them and their often negative consequences through a safe medium. Ann Curry, who conducted a study of 220 banned books, states that, “librarians who want to include those [controversial] stories believe that a book is a much safer place than “real life” in which to develop wisdom about unsettling and possibly dangerous activities. Children and young adults are often looking for images of themselves, images as they are at that moment, struggling with parent conflicts, problem acne, feelings of rejection, raging hormones, and images of what they might become. Literature affords the distance to examine one’s self or potential self in a way not otherwise possible. An unbiased portrayal of a love affair gone wrong or of the difficulties and joys of teenage pregnancy shows life as it really is and allows a teenager to think about the “what ifs” without really being in the situation” (Curry, 2001)”. Author Ellen Hopkins of the often challenged young adult novel Crank, reported that “When I hear about a challenge, it’s usually from a librarian who is fighting it. I send a file of reader letters thanking me for: 1. Letting them see the destructive path they were on, and encouraging them to change it. 2. Giving them insight into a loved-one’s addiction. 3. Making them want to help troubled kids. etc.” (Kendall, Hopkins, 2011). The authors in this group believe that it is ethically responsible for libraries to include children’s and young adult books that contain difficult issues in their collection. It is not only about freedom of speech for these authors, but they believe that is it necessary for the young reader’s well being, and is needed to promote the overall happiness of children and young adults. As for the earlier example of the mother angered by a book in her daughter’s middle school library, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor author of the censored book Shiloh would say that the mother does not have the ethical right to control what other children are allowed to access in their library. Shestates that, “It is important that parents understand that the have the right to approve or disapprove of what their own children are reading, but they have no right at all to censor what other children might find interesting” (cited in West, 1997, p. 20).
What Children Think:
In the majority of the research I did on the ethics of censoring literature in children’s and young adult libraries, only one article thought to ask a child about their ethical stance on censorship. Authors Natasha Isajlovic-Terry and Lynne McKechnie conducted a study with a small group of nine to twelve year olds and asked them how they felt about censorship in their libraries. When asked what she thought about adults censoring books in a child’s library, nine year old named Emily stated, “I don’t think they should stop you…I still think they should let it [the book] out because I think kids should be able to read whatever they want and believe in whatever they feel like believing in” (Isajlovic-Terry, McKechnie, 2012). The main consensus of the children was that other children should be allowed to read what they wanted, and while they understood that their parents could tell them what they were and were not allowed to read, they should not have a say in what other children did. The children also believed that other children had the right to have a different opinion about a book’s content. For example, one child might find a book too scary to read while another would not, but it should be up to the reader to decide what they liked. The authors stated that the children, “showed sensitivity to the idea that the perception of inappropriate content is subjective, understanding that what one person finds controversial or offensive can be enjoyed by many others” (Isajlovic-Terry, McKechnie, 2012).
I think that looking at the ethics of censorship in a children’s library through the eyes of a child is an important factor. Adults often base their ethical beliefs on their own feelings, and forget to consider the ones who are most affected in the censorship of children’s and young adult literature. Author Roald Dahl, another often censored children’s book author, has an interesting opinion on this when it comes to censorship in children’s libraries. He states that when deciding on the ethics of censorship, “they [adults] may be unsettled because they are not quite as aware as I am that children are different from adults. Children are much more vulgar than grown-ups. They have a coarser sense of humor. They are basically more cruel. So often, though, adults judge a children’s book by their own standards rather than by the child’s standards” (cited in West, 1997, p. 112). Dahl also states that, “Children know that violence in my stories is only make-believe. It’s much like the violence in the old fairy tales, especially the Grimm’s tales. These tales are pretty rough, but the violence is confined to a magical time and place. When violence is tied to fantasy and humor, children find it more amusing than threatening” (cited in West, 1997, p. 113). Perhaps in the debate on the ethics of censoring material in children’s and young adult libraries, the most ethical thing one can do is to listen to the children themselves. They seem to be capable of more thought on the subject than many give them credit for.
American Library Association. (2014). Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A. Retrieved fromhttps://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=basics&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=60610
Annoyed Librarian. (2009, September 30). Celebrate Banned Books Week!. Retrieved from
Curry, Ann. (2001). Where is Judy Blume? Controversial fiction for older children and young adults. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, 14(3), 28-37.
Doyle, Robert P. (2013). Books Challenged or Banned 2012-2013. Retreived April 10, 2014, fromhttp://www.ila.org/BannedBooks/BBW_2012-2013_Shortlist.pdf
Fallis, Don. (2014). “Rights”. D2L IRLS 520. Retrieved April 10, 2014, fromhttps://d2l.arizona.edu/d2l/le/content/328246/viewContent/2665141/View
Isajlovic-Terry, Natasha & McKechnie, Lynne. (2012). An Exploratory Study of Children’s Views of Censorship. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For The Library Science To Children, 10(1), 38-42.
Kendall, Jennifer & Hopkins, Ellen. (2011). An Interview With Ellen Hopkins: Best-Selling Author Of The Crank Trilogy For Teens. Retrieved fromhttp://childrensbooks.about.com/od/authorsillustrato/a/Interview-With-YA-Author-Ellen-Hopkins.htm.
Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. (2014). Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read. Retrieved April 10, 2014, fromhttp://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek
SafeLibraries. (2009, September 30). “Annoyed Librarian Rips ALA for Banned Books Week “Nonsense” and for an “Incoherent and Self-Serving” Definition of Censorship. Retrieved from http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2009/09/annoyed-librarian-rips-ala-for-banned.html
West, Mark. (1997). Trust Your Children (2nd Edition). New York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.