I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a group of library workers in Grand Rapids, MI. We talked about the problems with monkey books, the anti-Blackness that too many of them bring into children’s picture books and the topic that is very much on most librarian’s minds: censorship. Some of the questions we discussed are still lingering with me. And yes, we discussed the questions because the answers are so difficult, either to find or to accept; I’m not sure which.
For quite a while, I’d say that even though I didn’t believe in censoring books, I would pull every anthorpomorphic monkey book from library shelves. But, there was a question asked in Grand Rapids that day that made me realize a few things. Someone mentioned the Suess family’s decision to stop publishing 6 of their books because they believed them to “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” So, why can’t library’s remove these books from their shelves because they are admittedly hurtful? Isn’t that why some have problems with LGBTQIA+ books (that they’re harmful to children)? And we’ll tell parents who complain about these books that their children don’t have to read them. Same with the Seuss books, right? And, the monkey books?
It is so hard to do this and maintain a sense of equity, but we must. Sure, there are games librarians play in attempts to work around censorship. I;ve recently learned they’re called “soft censorship”. This is when librarians claim they don’t need books about “those people” because “those people” don’t live in this community; that there’s just not enough money in the budget for “those books”; that “those books” don’t circulate so they need to be weeded [discarded]; or ‘those books’ didn’t get enough reviews by professional reviewers or ‘those books’ haven’t won enough awards to be acquired. These tactics are inequitable practices that we use to silence stories that don’t align with our own truths.
There’s also the tactic of focusing on diversity in the books, with the thought that if I can have enough BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and people with disabilities on my shelves and if I can incorporate the current phrases into my lexicon, then we’ve made progress. I think in our work to be inclusive and equitable institutions we have to consider our policies and practices. As just one example, what are we doing to diversify our staff in ways that are meaningful and sustainable?
No doubt, I do think librarians get the short end when it comes to censorship. Publishers, for decades, have censored the Black child from youth literature. Librarians at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have documented this for years but, only recently has there been a decrease in this censorship. There was soft censorship here, too; sayings like “we already have another book like that” or “Black people don’t/can’t read/and can’t/don’t write and don’t buy books”… so many reasons to ban Blackness. Books that aren’t published are really considered banned, though. Only the ones that actually end up in libraries. Not the ones that aren’t acquired, only the select ones that are publish and purchased.
Did any library actually ban or censor Little House on the Prairie? Worldcat shows there are 3590 copies for all 297 editions currently in libraries. Curious George? 2646 copies for all 107 editions of the first book in the series. Both of these books are part of a series that has evolved into movies and merchandise. I couldn’t imagine how much it would take to ban these books.
There’s so much afoot in the world of children’s books. So much that diverts and corrupts the message. Or the child.
But, this censorship thing. What can librarians do with Curious George, Spunky Monkey or Grumpy Monkey? Friends, I think we have to realize that diversity isn’t just about race and ethnicity. It’s also about diverse thoughts and opinions and libraries house stories that nurture all the diversities in our communities, all it’s stories, ways of being, expressing, hoping and thinking. I don’t know who the source is for this thought, but essentially they propose that any good library should have enough books to upset everyone.
Another way we commit soft censorship is when we can choose which books to promote, which to booktalk and which to place in displays.
I think an essential way to resist censorship is for librarians to teach critical literacy skills that help readers from any political persuasion to uncover how power is embedded in language and text. We can teach media literacy to help consumers understand how information is mediated to infiltrate our consciousness. These frameworks don’t teach a particular agenda but they are tools to uncover them in texts. Both sides of the political aisle need to be more concerned with how our power, attention and resources are disrupted by the 1% than by each other.
The support that most librarians need right now should be coming from professional organizations at both the state and national levels. These organizations should proactively be reaching out to schools where they know people are working who don’t know how to handle a challenge. These dues collecting organizations should be collecting all the canned verbiage to create defense strategies, listing all the challenged books and organizing to support freedom from censorship. Perhaps they could develop a campaign with advertisements through mass media about censorship and the freedom to read and mail letters to member and non-member public librarians, and both school librarians and administrators.
Honestly, there’s no cure for what’s going on right now, nothing other than time or something new to divert short attention spans. Some of this is certainly pushback for the bit of progress we’ve made; progress isn’t linear. It will always be one step forward and two steps back. In reading Mikkelsen’s article linked above, we’re made aware of a pattern that’s repeating itself. “Whereas before the ’70’s, censorship for the black (sic) child often meant his exclusion from or misrepresentation in books, in the ’70’ s it has increasingly meant the citizen’s clamor for the banning of books or the educator’s recommendation for the revision of classics.” (p. 122) And, here we are repeating that 50 years later. In the meantime, school and public librarians can’t be expected to just hang in these. They aren’t paid enough! I can’t speak to what authors experience when having their creative work challenged, but as a librarian I know it is unnerving to have books we’ve reviewed, acquired and shelved put under attack. It’s not our work but, it feels personal. I know sometimes parents just want to be heard but, I also know that now, parents and community members have organized groups behind them to remove books from libraries and they’re working tediously as if this will disempower marginalized people. Malinda Lo, a lesbian Asian American author, was on point when she urged, “don’t let them erase us” as she accepted her National Book Award.
I don’t know that I provided any hope for the librarians in Grand Rapids. I think we all learned that there are some answers that not even librarians can find. We have work to do!