Sunday, May 03, 2009

West Bend, WI Library Board Members Dismissed for Doing Their Job

Publisher's Weekly reported recently that "four members of a library board in West Bend, Wis., were dismissed last week for refusing to remove controversial books from the library’s young adult section..." (read the entire PW article at

I wish the PW writer had put it like this: "Four members of a library board in West Bend, Wis., were dismissed for doing their jobs responsibly and acting in accordance with constitutional principles and laws regarding free speech."

A number of organizations—the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers and PEN American Center—all criticized the dismissals, which is terrific, but perhaps the alternative phrasing I offered might have prompted a broader swath of people to protest. 

The language we use to talk about censorship issues must be accurate and specific.  Otherwise, we engage in conversations based on terms so vague as to be almost meaningless, making it nearly impossible for people with opposing points of view to understand each other.

Also from the PW article: "[Two library] patrons accused the library of promoting “the overt indoctrination of the gay agenda in our community” and demanded that the library add books “affirming traditional heterosexual perspectives.” After reading this, I found myself scratching my head. If Brent Hartinger's GEOGRAPHY CLUB, Stephan Chbosky’s THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and Esther Drill’s DEAL WITH IT! A WHOLE NEW APPROACH TO YOUR BODY, BRAIN, AND LIVE AS A gURL are pushing "a gay agenda," does that mean books addressing themes about heterosexual sexuality are promoting a hetero agenda? What exactly do the accusing patrons mean when they say "gay agenda"? My understanding of the term "gay agenda" is that it has to do with ensuring that all homosexual people have equal rights under the law. Do the two patrons think that's a bad thing? Or--as I suspect--do the two patrons see the gay agenda as something insidious and threatening—such as that books addressing homosexuality will make everyone who reads them gay? Or maybe those patrons fear a gay agenda promoting tolerance of homosexual people in all settings--in churches, schools, etc. I'm still speculating here; I have no idea exactly what "gay agenda" means to the folks who initiated the book removals. But I find myself wondering, if tolerating gay people and gay-themed books is the problem, just why is tolerating them so...intolerable? I don't understand. I thought tolerance of differences among people was a good and desirable and even honorable thing.

The two patrons who initially complained back in February about the West Bend library's YA collection including books about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues also demanded that the library add books "affirming traditional heterosexual perspectives." Considering that public library collections everywhere, including, I assume, West Bend's, already contain a majority of books in which the romantic and sexual interactions take place between people of opposite genders, I'm not sure what sorts of books these disgruntled patrons would like to add. It would be interesting to know. Specifically.

I wish everyone engaged in conversations about censorship and book removal would define their terms and points of view with great specificity. It's my hope--perhaps naïve, but still--that if we examine what we're really wanting and get specific about what we really object to—or fear—we might have a very different sort of conversation, a more productive sort. And we might have more people willing to stand up to improper librarian dismissals and book removals as well as violations of the First Amendment.

Which, from the point of view of those of us at As If!, would be a good thing.

Posted by Deborah Davis

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Monday, April 13, 2009

An Amazon "Glitch" Eliminates Most Gay Titles From its Search Engine

So by now, the whole world knows that Amazon decided to start listing a whole slew of gay-themed titles as "adult," virtually eliminating them from the website's search features.

The problem? Many of these titles were clearly not "adult"; gay-themed young adult books and even some picture book titles were included in the change. And even among the seemingly-"adult" titles, the company seemed to have a different standard for gay-themed works than for heterosexual-themed ones: gay romances were "adult" while A History of Playboy Centerfolds was not.

When first queried about the new policy change, Amazon initially defended it (in what was probably a form email to one of the affected authors).

A few authors have been sounding the clarion call on this policy change for weeks now, and this weekend, they were finally heard. All hell broke loose. By Sunday night, the blogosphere was furious, with emails and tweets flying back and forth.

By this morning, Amazon announced that it was all a misunderstanding -- the result of a "computer glitch." The policy was reversed. Score one for the Twitter Generation.

But pardon me if I'm a tad skeptical of Amazon's explanation.

Here's what I think happened:

Religious conservatives, probably in an orchestrated campaign, used the feature on the Amazon site that allows users to flag a book as "adult" to target as many gay-themed titles as they could manage. And a clueless worker at the company okayed these changes (or perhaps this is done automatically--the aforementioned "glitch").

When the error was pointed out, they did what most people do when they're criticized: they reflexively defended themselves without really considering that they were defending the virtual elimination of gay titles from their search engine.

But apart from Amazon, the greater issue is this: for too long, America has equated "gay" with "sex." Heterosexuals are three dimensional beings, and their relationships are above "love": marriage, commitment, and all the rest. Homosexuals are defined by sex acts, and their relationships are about getting off. (My partner wrote a terrific essay on the topic here.)

It's a grossly unfair double-standard, with obvious real-world implications, and it's absolutely has to change.

In our discussions here at AS IF, one of our members, Bennett Madison, made the trenchant point that this Amazon mess is absolutely the danger when independent bookstores go out of business, and they're replaced by one or two conglomerates: one or two companies -- often one person at these companies -- is making the decision about what titles are available to the rest of us. This brouhaha was high profile enough that it was eventually reversed, but what about all the decisions that are too small scale to reach this level of outrage?

We here at AS IF! think this is very much worth considering.

Brent Hartinger

Friday, April 10, 2009

GEOGRAPHY CLUB Under Fire Again: My Reponse

So my book Geography Club is under fire by book banners yet again, this time in West Bend, Wisconsin. I wrote an essay response for the Milwaukee paper (the nearby daily), but they chose not to print it. But -- you luck folks -- here it is!

It's hard not to take it personally when someone wants to ban your book.

A group of folks in West Bend have made a varying list of demands regarding
my 2003 teen novel, Geography Club: ban it, put a warning label on it, put it somewhere where teenagers can't get it without permission from their parents, or buy books to "balance" it that show what a horrible, immoral "lifestyle" being gay is.

My book has been out for more than six years, sold tens of thousands of copies, received almost unanimously good reviews, won many honors, and is currently being adapted for the movies.

But truthfully, this is not the first time that some people, often with the backing of national conservative Christian activist groups, have tried to ban the book. Libraries are, of course, about open access to information, and there's really not much more fundamental in America than the right to decide for ourselves what we want to read, and what we want our kids to read.

These activists, on the other hand, want to make the decision for the rest of us. So
they make ridiculous assertions, based on the inclusion of a few swear words in
my book, that it's "pornographic."

Oftentimes their demands sound reasonable. Why not put a sticker on a book that some find offensive? But who decides what's "offensive"? Trust me: there is something in every book that someone somewhere doesn't like. Should a twelve-year-old go into the woods alone with a loaded gun? One does in Where the Red Fern Grows. Should kids always show respect to their parents? They don't in Roald Dahl's Matilda.

Why not put "controversial" books in a special section where the books require parental approval to be checked out? Again, who decides what's "controversial"? And for the record, the real point of this strategy isn't to give parents "choice"; it's to drive down circulations, which is what libraries use to determine their collections, making it so they can't justify buying similar books.

Why not buy "anti-gay" books to satisfy people who feel that homosexuality is a horrible, immoral lifestyle? Every librarian I've ever met tries hard to satisfy the needs of their own community and to have a broad, diverse collection. But while I know it's an article of faith among some that homosexuality is a "choice" and that the "media" are burying the "truth" about how horrible the "gay lifestyle" is, these are not the books that respected authors and educators are writing; few of these books exist and even fewer are published and reviewed by respected sources because they're mostly based on falsehoods and misrepresentations, like books about how the Holocaust never happened.

Once you are the subject of these book debates a number of times, as I have been, you quickly realize something: some people really dislike, and even fear, gay people and their inclusion in our communities.

Ironically, anti-gay prejudice is part of the reason why I wrote my book in the first place.

I wish everyone who thinks my books are not "appropriate" for teenagers could read my mail for one single week -- the avalanche of touching emails I receive from lonely or harassed gay and lesbian teens and their friends, so grateful to see gay characters portrayed accurately and with dignity, not merely stereotypes or the punchline of jokes.

And let it be noted: plenty of parents want their kids reading my books. I frequently hear from parents who've read my books with their teens. In one of the most flattering emails I've ever received, one teenager said, "I gave my parents your book and said, 'Please read this. This is how I feel.'"

So I think my critics really miss the point.

In every teen book I've ever written, gay-themed or not, there is a moment when the main character has to choose between moving beyond his or her own little bubble -- doing what would make him or her momentarily happy or comfortable -- and putting those selfish prejudices and concerns aside, and committing to a larger cause, a greater good. In my mind, that's the choice every teen confronts, again and again, because it's the difference between a child and an adult.

Do books with that message have a place in libraries and in the hands of teenagers and their parents?

Absolutely. In fact, there might be a few adults in West Bend who could benefit from reading books like that too.

Brent Hartinger

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Protecting Students from "Those People"

By John Coy

Recently, I had a disheartening and eye-opening experience. I appeared at a suburban Minneapolis bookstore for the last half of a discussion of my young adult novel BOX OUT. The teachers and librarians assembled spoke positively about the book and liked Liam Bergstrom, the main character, who’s brought up to the high school varsity and encounters a coach who is leading team prayer.

Days later, however, I received an email from someone who had been there for the whole discussion. She said that although she didn’t enjoy sports, she really liked BOX OUT. She thought it would be a great book for eighth and ninth graders and was sad to hear media specialists say that they could not put it on their middle school library shelves because of the mention of lesbianism.


Nobody had hinted at this to me, so I emailed some of the other participants to find out what had happened. In true “Minnesota Nice” fashion, the teachers and librarians had decided not to say anything negative while I was present in order to avoid confrontation. And yes, a number of public school media specialists said they would not¬–and COULD NOT–put the book on their middle school libraries because of the presence of a lesbian character in a story about contemporary high school students. The consensus among them was that, “Someone might object and it’s not worth it to fight with parents.”

In talking with more people in the field, I’ve discovered that for many middle school media specialists the inclusion of a gay or lesbian character is enough to keep a book out of their library. “Those are the books the public library can put on their shelves,” one librarian said. Vicki Palmquist of Children’s Literature Network said, “Media specialists are losing their jobs right and left and in between. They aren’t going to rock their own boat.”

So here are three questions for you:

Have you encountered this ban on books with lesbian and gay characters in middle school libraries?
What message do we send students when one group’s existence is not allowed in the books in these libraries?
And what should we do about it?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Does Sarah Palin Believe in the First Amendment?

Does Sarah Palin believe in the First Amendment?

From The New York Times:

"Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Anne Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. 'They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,' Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to 'resist all efforts at censorship,' Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were 'rhetorical.'"

(Full article at

And from The Boston Herald:

"Palin told the Daily News back then the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job, which she’d won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election."


The reports surfacing online and in print media about Governor Sarah Palin’s actions while acting as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, 12 years ago led me to consider other, possibly pertinent revelations about the new Republican Party vice presidential candidate. For instance, she is a strong supporter of abstinence-only education and is opposed to comprehensive sex education in schools, despite numerous studies proving the ineffectiveness of the former compared with the latter. As Vice President of the U.S., would Ms. Palin work not only to continue to block funding for comprehensive sex education programs, as our current administration does, but also attempt to remove sex education literature from public schools and libraries?

We don’t know which books Ms. Palin had in mind when she asked Ms. Emmons to consider removing some from Wasilla’s library. We do know, however, that Ms. Palin doesn’t believe global warming is the result of human activity. Would she try to have books on global warming purged from our nation’s libraries?

In her speech on September 3rd at the Republican National Convention, Ms. Palin belittled Senator Obama’s work as a community organizer in South Chicago. Would she then, if she becomes our nation’s V.P., attempt to remove from all libraries any tomes that describe the historic movements that have changed our world—for the better, I think she’d agree—movements that owe their roots, their momentum, and much of their ultimate success to community organizing efforts? I’m talking about the labor movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, and the one that allows Ms. Palin to be where she is today, the women’s movement, with suffrage at the top of its agenda.

Ms. Palin said she attempted to fire Ms. Emmons to test the librarian’s loyalty—to Ms. Palin, I presume. If Ms. Palin becomes our next presidential Vice President, I hope that in the realm of public libraries and their collections, she remembers where her own loyalties should lie: with our Constitution’s First Amendment, and with the policies and guidelines of the American Library Association.

—Deborah Davis

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why can't kids get the books they need the MOST?

I just got an email from a blogger and YA novelist named Lee Wind, which illustrates a lot of the challenges we face in the intellectual-freedom fight. In response to the tragic shooting murder of an eighth-grade student at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California (see,1,1414535.story for details), Lee decided to donate a collection of GLBTQ-themed young adult novels to the school's library.

Here's Lee's blog entry detailing his attempts to donate the books:

I have nothing to add to Lee's detailed and thoughtful post, other than my support.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Scary Stuff in Indiana

A new Indiana law meant to target "adult" stores has booksellers up in arms -- and rightly so. The law, according to, "requires businesses that sell sexually explicit material to pay a $250 fee and register with the secretary of state, which would then pass the information to municipal or county officials so they can monitor the businesses for potential violations of local ordinances."

Here are links to two articles that explain the issue way better than I could:

The whole thing is just so . . . Orwellian. Here at AS IF!, we are accustomed to individuals taking potshots at free expression, but usually the laws are on the side of free speech. When the government itself is the censoring agent, I get scared.

Really scared.

Aside from the blatant constitutional problem in this case, there's another angle. Independent bookstores are hugely important to the health of America's intellectual and literary life, and existing booksellers are already closing faster than new ones open. A $250 licensing fee for new stores (not to mention the ominous spectre of Big Brother) might just be enough to stop potential entrepreneurs from opening bookstores in Indiana.