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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a teenager myself, and I don't know if it's all that different over here in Australia but I know a great deal of kids my age who are gay and I've heard a lot of stories about books that school libraries didn't stock because of 'themes'. Maybe librarians and teachers are validated in the fact that parents do complain (I'm sure these parents are a tiny minority) but not stocking a book of this kind is like not validating the existence of these teenagers - if anything, teenagers should be encouraged to be themselves.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa Yee said...

Ironic that "someone might object." Have they ever considered that "someone might appreciate" an honest portrayal of high school life?

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard for me to say that someone else should do the right thing if it means putting their livelihood on the line. Everybody has responsibilities that conflict--on the one hand, their commitment to freedom of the press, on the other their children's monthly food bill.

I wish there were a better way to support the people who fight the good fight for all of us. We can write letters in support of librarians, and some do. Authors send their books, and so on. But is there money to indemnify a person who loses his or her job because they stood up for a book? Is their a librarian defense fund somewhere?

6:30 AM  
Blogger Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I like the idea of a librarian defense fund. And I also had a really hard experience with trying to DONATE books with GLBTQ characters and themes to a middle school library here in California in the months after there had been a murder of one of their students by another student for his being effeminate and gay. I blogged about it here

It was and is really frustrating. Until we can get books with GLBTQ characters in the school libraries, we need to empower Teens to know about these books and find them elsewhere (and often that would be at their local public libraries.)

And Lisa makes a great point that "someone might object" is not nearly the equivalent as "someone might appreciate" or maybe even - "this book might save some Teenager's life (seeing positive portrayals of Gay Teens in books does have a powerful effect on self-image for GLBTQ Teens! And the attempted suicide rate being 3 times higher for GLBTQ Teens than other Teens is a tragedy. A preventable tragedy.)

Most important, we have to keep writing these books - it's so important. When I was a kid there were NO books for Teens with GLBTQ characters. Now there are over 200. That's progress - but we need so much more!

Thanks for writing, and fighting the fight!


8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even at public libraries stuff like that happens. When I still lived at home I would go to the public library all the time. But if you plan on going to Florence, AL and look at say or some other obviously gay site it won't let you go. You can't look at them even using your own computer with their internet connection. A little warning sign pops up on your screen that says you aren't allowed to go to that sight because of Lesbian/Gay content. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't look at what I wanted to even on my own computer. It's so ridiculous.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

As a YA librarian-in-training, I've been extremely fortunate to work at both a high school and a public library that protected intellectual freedom, especially concerning GLBTQ literature. My public library actually lost quite a bit of funding for refusing to filter the internet. We had some books challenged at both places, but none of them had homosexual themes.

However, I know the middle school library was much more "careful" than we were at the high school; they often sent us books that were deemed age-inappropriate, even though we could see nothing objectionable in them at all. Maybe it's an age thing--people are less concerned with molding children's minds after they hit 14.

I love the idea of a librarians' defense fund (can we get that set up before I'm officially a librarian?). My husband teaches high school, and we both strongly advocate intellectual freedom. If it ever looks like we might lose our jobs for supporting legal free speech (or writing/reading), we're calling the ALA and the ACLU. They might not support us when we get fired, but I think they'll pay for the lawsuit. :)

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that as long as you are not forcing the book upon middle school kids the parents have no reason to ban the book, so why censore before it gets to library shelves. Also I don't get censorship because where does it all end??? Personally the libraries at the schools around here are very open to any books and parents don't object to a lot but to tell kids that 'these people' do not exsit is wrong. Censoring is another word for naive and soon the naive little kids wake to harsh reality. Sadly, I wish I could say the first amendment covers everything, but it doesn't...

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should think so.. =)

8:24 PM  
Blogger Angela said...

I am a K-8 Librarian at two schools (2.5 days at each school). My school district has an approval process for all fiction books. A librarian or teacher must read the book and write a very short review. The review should list all concerns you may have regarding a book (language, violence, mature content, etc.) Then we get together and read the reviews and talk about anything we think should be discussed. The book is then approved for Elementary, Middle, and/or High school. Two other librarians must sign off and then it can be included in your collection. When I reviewed M+O 4Evr, I mentioned in the review that the characters experimented with lesbianism. Our guide to approval for material is exactly the same for heterosexual relationships. If you would not object to the scene had the characters been different genders, then you can not object to it with same sex characters. I believe we are a forward thinking district and am proud of the librarians there.

5:53 PM  
Blogger hharper said...

There is a defense fund for librarians who lose their jobs or incur fees over intellectual freedom issues-- Freedom to Read Foundation.

Public school libraries are often not bound by the same rules as public libraries-- unfortunately for the kids who use them.

1:13 AM  
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7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"those people" wow. wow. I happen to know some of "those people" and there actually normal people. This is ridicous, but it happens even at my school. My teacher is about to let me borrow the book "The perks of being wallflower," but if I wanted to check this out from the libary I would need a slip signed by a parent because it talks about gay/lesbian couples. Kids at my school use the word "gay" for stupid. Teens should not feel they need to hold themselves out- they should be themselves

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7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, i don't get it, censoring things...after people fought hard for getting rid of censoring.
Ok here in germany (yes i am from evil germany ^^) there is almost no censoring in literature, but computer games and films (less with films but strickt with games, going as far as banning them from the whole country...well i will not let myself be censored, EVER. i will order online (from a foreign company) if i have to, or get the stuff myself and smuggling it over the border.)

i mean: Censoring? what are we? Stupid peasants in a dictatorship? or people in a democratig state (germany has written in our "constitution" (it is not known under that name to us) that censoring is forbidden (and the government still does it) so i see no reason to adhere to their laws an banned things (except weapons, drugs and such)

as for you americans: You see yourself as the finest democracy in the world and yet your freedome is shallow as it is not protected by the government and a tiny minority of conservativ people (or so they call themselfs....narrow minded fools) control you (tell you what is righ/wrong and what you should read an such....bah (i am sorry if someone feels offended but with some of your laws and happenings it is hard for someone observing you to think otherwise)

greetings Tom
ps: fight for freedome of publishing things (books, films and pc-games (and even music)) because it is worth it (i myself will go to court if they continue to censor my beloved computer games....or if my lawer says i got no chance: I will leave the country (europe is big and with the EU i can live wherever i want in it :)

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12:25 AM  
Blogger Amira said...

I am a middle schooler in a community that is totally pro-free speech. When I was in kindergarten my teacher was lesbian. I would say about 20% of people here are either LGBT themselves, or have friends or relatives that are LGBT. I know for a fact that if there was a ban on books with lesbian and gay characters in middle school libraries, or in elementary libraries, or high school libraries, or in any libraries, there would be outrage from nearly everyone in the community. Where I live, at least, this would be unacceptable.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Lisa Yee said...


How lucky you are to live in a such a community. Kudos to all who champion intellectual freedom like you and those around you.

7:16 PM  
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10:54 PM  
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6:37 PM  

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