Community Perspective: Hidden censorship: limited availability of diverse books

A community perspectives piece by Sandy Parks

Almost every day there is news about another book, or list of books being banned somewhere. Across the nation, there were 155 unique book challenges in the second half of the year alone, a marked increase from past years. Most of these challenges target books that focus on LGBTQIA issues and books by Black authors or that document the Black experience or experiences of other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals. 

Sometimes these challenges follow the reconsideration procedure similar to one I wrote about previously, in which retention or removal of a book is decided upon by a committee that is representative of the community after examining the work in its entirety. However, most challenges are not reported and are often handled quietly within schools.

When these censorship attempts hit the news, sales of these books typically go up, but that does not necessarily make them more accessible for kids. For many students, school provides their only access to books. Besides the school library, many teachers maintain classroom libraries for their students to borrow directly so that students are surrounded by books. A literate environment promotes reading.

A literate environment should also include diverse books. The interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights focusing on diverse collections states, “ A diverse collection should contain content by and about a wide array of people and cultures to authentically reflect a variety of ideas, information, stories, and experiences, ” and emphasizes that library workers should be “proactively inclusive.” Diverse books not only provide the “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” described by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, but reading these books also helps students develop empathy.

Some students, however, do not have access to a diverse selection of books because of soft censorship, also known as self-censorship or pre-emptive censorship. This type of censorship is more insidious because it is harder to detect, and it can happen for a lot of reasons. It may be the result of individual biases or unofficial or unwritten direction from school administration. Some librarians will not include a book they fear may be challenged. Reconsideration is an important process, but it’s also scary, especially if a challenge receives media attention.

The societal pressures on librarians are increasing. In a recent interview with CNN about librarians pushing back against book bans, the librarian featured asked that her identity not be revealed for her safety. An Oklahoma lawmaker has proposed a $10,000 per day bounty for each day a book deemed unacceptable remains available.

The impact of the Republican push against “divisive topics” in schools and the tip line focus on LGBTQIA issues and books by Black authors or that document the Black experience or experiences of other BIPOC instituted by Governor Youngkin is also likely to have a chilling effect on book selection. In some places in the United States, punitive actions against librarians have been proposed. The recent passage of the Virginia law requiring parental notification of use of “sexually explicit materials” in the classroom does not apply to libraries but its ripple effects remain to be seen.

Across our area, access to diverse books varies widely. Absence of a title in a particular school could be for a variety of factors. What seems like censorship may also have an innocent explanation. An individual book could be missing because the librarian may have missed that glowing review, or the budget was too limited, or the book was not available at shipment time, or the much-loved copy fell apart and hasn’t been replaced yet. The trends of availability are more important.

I searched the library catalogs of most school libraries in Harrisonburg, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Augusta for diverse fiction and nonfiction books. I found that students’ access to reading materials with LGBTQIA themes, works by Black authors and books that document experiences of BIPOC communities depends on where they go to school. In my searches, I searched by keyword, which is how most students search for books. If a child can’t locate a book, it is essentially not available.

LGBTQIA books

The graphic novel Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, is a wildly popular award-winning book about kids in a middle school drama production. One of the characters is gay. About half of the elementary schools in our area have most of this author’s books except Drama.

One librarian told me she took this book off the shelf in her elementary school for two years because she feared a particular parent would object. When that student moved on to middle school, she put the book back on the shelf. This practice can be difficult to document, as the book may remain in the catalog, but only available if a student asks for it. Many students are not comfortable asking for diverse books, especially ones with LGBTQIA themes.

And Tango Makes Three, a frequently challenged nonfiction picture book by Justin Richardson about two male penguins who raise a young penguin, was also not present in most elementary schools.

George (now renamed Melissa), by Alex Gino, is a book about a transgender child that has received multiple starred reviews and awards. School Library Journal recommends it for grades 4-6. It’s available in only one of our elementary schools in our area. However, when I checked this title for a presentation a few years ago, there were only 3 copies in the whole area. Now most, but not all, of the middle schools carry this title. A keyword search for “transgender” at the middle school level averaged around 5 results, with a few schools having none. Area high schools range from 2 books to 43, with most having around 10 books.

I also searched for the keyword “gays” in middle and high school catalogs as that seemed to be the term that found the most LGBTQIA books. Again, there was a wide range. A few high schools had 20 books mentioning gays, while one had 98. Most high schools had around 50-60. In middle schools however, there were a number of schools that had only 2 or 3 books that I found, while one school had 70, and a few others had around 40. A few libraries, however, had developed LGBTQIA collections, a tool for students to easily access books like these that may not be easily searchable otherwise.

Black Authors and Experiences of People of Color

I conducted a keyword search on the word “racism,” looking for both fiction and nonfiction titles dealing with historical and contemporary challenges faced by people of color. This was an overly broad search but gave me a feel for the contents of various collections. I saw a range of 12-65 books with the keyword racism in area high schools, while middle schools had around 40. Elementary schools contained from 1 to 26 books. I also noticed many outdated books in all collections, and did not count anything older than 10 years old.

For representation of works by Black authors, I searched for Jason Reynolds, a Black author who serves as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The first book of his Track series, Ghost, was a National Book Award finalist and a Virginia Readers’ Choice Award winner as well as an NPR 100 Best Books of All time. This realistic series features Black children on a track team. This book is not available in about half of the elementary schools in our area although it is recommended for Grades 5-8. It is available in most, but not all middle schools.

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is about the death of a young Black boy similar to Tamir Rice. It is recommended by School LIbrary Journal for Grades 4-8. This title is available in almost all middle schools, but only 4 elementary schools.

Jason Reynolds has also co-written Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You with Dr. Ibram Kendi. The book is a remix for kids of Dr. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning, a scholarly history of racist ideas in America. This book is highly recommended by School Library Journal for all middle and high schools, but was also the second most challenged book in 2021. It is available in all of the high schools, but only about half of the middle schools in our area. Only 2 elementary schools have the version adapted for younger students, Stamped for Kids.

Meg Medina is a Hispanic author whose book Merci Suarez Changes Gears won the Newbery Award. Winning the prestigious Newbery Award almost guarantees a slot at all elementary schools and middle schools in perpetuity, and yet for some reason this book is not present in a number of schools. Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, another Newbery award winner featuring a Chinese immigrant family, is also not represented in all elementary and middle schools.

As a librarian friend once said, our libraries should contain books in which every child can see themselves, but I fear not all of our schools in the area accomplish this. How can you help? Don’t bash the librarians. Support them. Request diverse books. Advocate for better budgets for school libraries. Speak up about access to diverse books. Read diverse books. Contact your school board about the importance of libraries and diverse books.

Remember, most challenges come from people who have not read the entire book and take references out of context. Talk with your kids and your community about choice in reading materials. No book is for everybody, but there should be a book for everybody. Multiple books, actually.

Works Cited

“Book Censorship Database by Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson.” EveryLibrary Institute

Chavez, Nicole, and Evan McMorris-Santoro. “Some School Librarians Fed up with Book Bans Are Organizing and Fighting Back.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Dec. 2021

Flannery, Mary Ellen. “Why We Need Diverse Books.” NEA

Jensen, Kelly. “There’ve Been More than 155 Book Challenges since June: This Week’s Censorship News, December 3, 2021.” BOOK RIOT, 3 Feb. 2022

Kate Masters, Virginia Mercury February 28. “Virginia Lawmakers Give Parents a Say on Sexually Explicit Classroom Materials.” Virginia Mercury, 28 Feb. 2022

“ALA Statement on Book Censorship.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, American Library Association , 3 Dec. 2021

Migdon, Brooke. “Oklahoma Lawmaker Introduces Book-Banning Bill with $10,000-a-Day Penalty.” The Hill, 29 Dec. 2021

“Youth Censorship Database.” National Coalition Against Censorship, 28 Jan. 2022

Sandy Parks is a retired teacher librarian with 30 years of experience in school libraries.

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