On The School Library Shelves

No one serious believes parents should have no say over what their children read. As with films and television, there are certainly books that are inappropriate for children. The public policy problem that perpetually challenges us are parental-preference-grounded demands as to why no children should be allowed access to a particular book especially in school.

This is not just about films, television, or books. It reaches into other areas, such as art. For example, does a parent have a “right” to prevent their 11/12 year old child, and therefore also other children in the same class as well, from seeing in an art lesson a picture of a world famous hundreds-of-years-old statue that stands in a well-known museum that is visited by thousands of other children who walk by it daily, by unilaterally – and without any formal educational training on the subject – simply declaring it is “p*rnography?”

It appears most of what we see some parents/“activists” claim should not be on a school library shelf for under-18s to choose to read is not about profanity (like the “F” word) or gratuitous descriptions of sexual intercourse (no serious educator/librarian would assert Fifty Shades belongs in an ages 5-17 school library). The desire to remove certain books from school library shelves seems rooted in discomfort with ideas presented in those book(s) and the parent/“activist” not agreeing with them.

This current school library book carrying on in particular in Florida is now reaching well beyond Black history and LGBT+ books. As with Michelangelo’s “David,” parents/“activists” routinely labeling whatever they do not like as “p*rnography,” or as “adult,” has become an increasingly common tactic used to remove books from school shelves too. Said one Texas man: “I am willing to close the whole library to keep them out of my children’s hands.”

That latter approach has even targeted huge-selling romance writer Nora Roberts, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote the other day:

[From Twitter.]
[From Twitter.]

“Absolutely no reason?” To her mind maybe. I suspect lots of other people can think of why they are perfectly reasonable for school libraries.

Nearly all books in school libraries are written by adults for adults. While adults do write children-intended literature, to demand that under-18s only have access to what is written expressly for them (and, remember, often those sorts of books, too, are now targeted by “activists” because a parent simply does not like the content; LGBT+ in particular+) would mean education would largely grind to a halt. Schoolchildren, especially over-14s, would never discover literature not found at home from which they might learn from as they themselves increasingly mature.

As an author myself now, this “controversy” over books and teens has led me to remember my own teenage reading years. I read my first adult novel on my own – it was not assigned – at age 14. I borrowed The Last of the Mohicans from my school’s library and that is certainly NOT a book that was written for a “14 year old”:

[From James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). On Kindle for iPad/iPhone. Click to expand.]

I remember initially finding the writing tough going; Cooper is wordy and naturally also wrote in an “older” English. (It is still not an easy read even now as an adult.) At times, it also unnerved me… but I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen. Worst of all, the ending – which I did not see coming; but my mother (having seen me with the book and knowing the story generally) had forewarned me it might not be what I would expect – even kinda upset me.

And I loved it. Like so many in every American generation of kids since its 1826 publication, I wanted to be “Hawkeye.” I also thought “Cora” was the coolest girl ever. (I rushed to the cinema years later as an adult to see the 1992 big, Hollywood film version, and for once a film adaptation did NOT disappoint.) Indeed, that novel helped also unleash an interest in American history and British colonial times that remains with me to this day.

Should that now classic book – considered by many historians to be the first truly “great” American novel – have not been on that middle school library shelf for me (or any other child) to discover just because some bigoted parent somewhere did not like that, say, Cora was partly Black but of white appearance?

[From Tomorrow The Grace. On Kindle for iPad/iPhone. Click to expand.]

I would also be less than honest if I did not admit (as you may have already guessed) that Mohicans, especially “Alice” and “Cora” as two no-nonsense 18th century young women, certainly influenced my writing in my novel Conventions: The Garden At Paris and its two sequels. I wanted somehow to say SOMETHING in the writing about that “debt” I owed to it, but I did not want to be too overt. Finally, I figured out how to in that second volume above.

One of great joys in writing, is being able to “slip in” little things like that.

Much like many other Americans, Nora Roberts books are in our house. I have not read her myself; but my wife has. She writes romantic books, NOT “p*rn.” The most “explicit” stuff in her books, I suspect, is akin to what is by now pretty much routine fare on U.S. free-to-air network television:

Based on what I do know of her stories, they fall into probably three groupings regarding possible readers under age 18: 1) under-12s probably would not be interested in them enough or understand them enough even to want to try to read them – they are well over their heads; 2) 12-15 year olds might be kinda curious, but most might find them boring and tough to identify with; 3) my gut tells me that only 16 and 17 year olds would really begin to grasp them and might actually want to read them.

I am just offering my own observations there. I am not an expert in elementary or secondary education. (I taught university.) However, K-12 U.S. schools have long had trained educators and degreed librarians who are best-equipped to decide what books are best suited to the children and they take that role quite seriously.

However, what we are witnessing in Florida and elsewhere is an attempt to sideline professional educators as some politicians in league with certain parents/“activists” attempt in law to narrow down what titles children have access to in school. Governor Ron DeSantis (who it is said in U.S. media may be planning to seek the Republican 2024 presidential nomination) jumping in demonstrates that this is not actually about inappropriate material in books kids might read, but is fundamentally about politics. It is plainly a cynical electoral tactic aiming to position those who disagree with removing “offensive” books from school library shelves as somehow morally lacking:

[From Twitter.]

Interestingly, here’s one the “activists” may have missed:

[Photo by me, Dartmouth, Devon, April 29, 2023.]

This is in Agatha Christie’s Autobiography:

Although she left this world in 1976, she still outsells even a Nora Roberts. Christie is believed to be the second biggest-selling single author of all time, behind only William Shakespeare. Perhaps given a passage like that, though, her autobiography ought to be removed from any Florida school library it may be in?

Asserting that is not to attempt to make light of this issue. It is merely a means to note again that is why we have professionally trained educators and librarians to make reasoned judgments about what are appropriate/inappropriate books for kids. They will not always get it “100 percent” right, but I would much rather they make such decisions than a politician or some “activist.”

Interestingly, a few chapters on Christie writes of this happening during her early education (at around age 8, so 1898-ish), which was by what we might today call “homeschooling”:

Such an anecdote from her reminds us that this has been going on with children forever.

Just worth bearing in mind, too.

Have a good reading day, wherever you are. 🙂

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