Here’s a scary reality: There are other ways adults can ‘ban’ a book without creating much of a stir. A school’s librarian may choose to not order the book for her shelves, even if the book is Award Winning or part of a Multi-Book Series. For instance, the award-winning author, James Howe, wrote a book called, The Misfits. It is a book about a group of four 7th graders who want to make a difference in their school, and one of the ways that they do so is convincing the principal of the school to have a “No Name Calling Day”. The book, in real life, inspired a National No Name-Calling Week (www.nonamecalling.org), and subsequent novels have followed focusing on the lives of each of the ‘Misfits’.
The second novel in the series is titled, Totally Joe. Joe is a smart, funny, caring seventh-grade boy who just happens to be gay. The storyline of the novel follows a natural progression from him making realizations about himself and then sharing those realizations with his closest friends and his family. I wondered if, Totally Joe, would be available in the same middle schools where I know, The Misfits, was on the Scholastic Book Sale carts. I checked the catalogues online ten minutes ago. Of the four middle schools in the district, only TWO had, Totally Joe, on their shelves for students to check out and read.
This leads to the other sorts of censorship that can happen under our noses. James Richardson, author of, And Tango Makes Three, states, “’I think we handle [public challenges] to books pretty well as a country. But I think there’s a greater problem which is secret challenges to books and soft bans; when a school official objects to a book and checks it out and fails to return it, or when a school librarian reads news about a particular book and is afraid to order it for the library. That self-censorship is something that I don’t believe we have an answer to’” (Grinberg 1).
We do have librarians who use their own beliefs to determine what books to order and put on the shelves. We do have administrators or other adults ‘check out’ a book to read it because it is being challenged, and take so long to ‘read’ the book that it never gets returned to the shelf for students to check out and read.
As a former English teacher, I have watched it happen. I have been asked by the school librarian to read a particular book and write out my opinion regarding that book to the “Challenge Committee”, and I was always happy to do so, but I also always got the book read in a few days, despite all of the other responsibilities I had as a classroom teacher, because I felt like timeliness was a must. I know of administrators on the same committee who would have possession of the same book, and the book would collect dust before it was ever picked up to read let alone read for the committee. The administrator keeping the book on his own desk certainly made sure that it was not checked out or read by any student.
Parents and educators, if you are passionate about Celebrating our Students’ Freedom to Read, be aware of these ‘soft bans’. Do what you will with that information. Just know that this is one of the ‘hidden’ realities of book banning.
American Library Association (ALA). Banned Books Week 2013. www.ala.org September 2013.
Grinberg, Emanuella, and CNN Libraries. “Banned Books Week: ‘Captain Underpants’ Tops List of Challenged Books.” www.cnn.com September 24, 2013.