The Not-So-Subtle Censorship Affecting Our Schoolchildren
By not speaking to kids about painful and complicated issues, society continues to abandon those children suffering at the hands of them.
Last week, award-winning kids author Kate Messner was scheduled to visit a school in Burlington, Vermont, to do a presentation for fourth and fifth graders about her latest book, The Seventh Wish. However, the visit was cancelled with just 24 hours notice, despite having been booked months in advance.
The reason? One of the themes in The Seventh Wish is the impact of addiction on families. The main character, Charlie, is dealing with the affects of her older sister’s addiction to heroin.
Messner herself admits that the subject matter isn’t easy. The idea for the book came when Messner learned that her neighbor’s daughter was battling drug addiction. She realized that many kids were already dealing with addiction, and that there needed to be a book that these kids could relate to.
“So many kids are dealing with this in real life,” Messner says. “These aren’t just stories, this is their reality. There are kids who have parents in rehab, kids who have lost parents or siblings, who have had their families shattered by this.”
This is particularly true in Vermont, the state that had the highest illegal drug use in the nation in 2013, with 15% of the population having reported using illicit drugs within the past month. In fact, the rate of opiate addiction in Vermont is so high that in 2014, Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State address to the issue, saying:
“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state. It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers, and too many Vermont families.”
With statistics like that and the seeming ubiquity of the problem, it is clear that some of the fourth and fifth graders Messner was scheduled to speak to could have related to Charlie’s struggle. However, administrators blocked Messner’s visit, saying that they had not adequately prepared to talk about the theme of addiction with the students.
Messner, who was quick to point out that addiction is just one of many themes explored in The Seventh Wish, bristled at the school’s statement.
“Heroin is sort of the Voldemort of our world,” she says. “There’s a sense that we can’t even speak the word to kids. But this isn’t something that we can magically protect kids from by not talking about it.”
By not speaking to kids about painful and complicated issues — be it drug abuse or death — society continues to abandon those children suffering at the hands of it, ill-preparing those who might be forced to confront it. As Messner wrote on her blog, “We’re not protecting kids when we keep them from stories that shine a light in the darker corners of their lives. We’re just leaving them alone in the dark.”
Although Messner was frustrated by the cancellation, the decision also highlighted a broader issue: the censorship of children’s books. Each book that makes it into a school or public library is chosen, and too often librarians and administrators simply choose to stay away from books like The Seventh Wish that explore complex (and realistic) issues.
“I’m really hoping that this sparks a larger conversation about the selection of books in libraries,” Messner says. “When it comes to censorship, we think about big headline issues, but there is a lot of quiet censorship that happens.”
Messner and other children’s authors have seen this first hand. “I’ve heard from friends whose books were challenged because there’s an alcoholic father or two mothers. These stories are common, and it’s really important to talk about them.”
Messner hopes that the silver lining to this recent and ongoing censorship is a more deliberate public discourse about access to books for children, and who is in charge of determining that access.
We think of libraries as institutions dedicated to free thought and as providing a platform for public information without a socio-political agenda. However, all too often the politics of a school or a town prevent a host of issues from being welcomed into the library, particularly in the children’s room.
Messner mentioned Alex Gino’s book, George, about a transgender student. “That book I know has been silently not put in libraries,” she says. Many librarians and administrators play it safe when it comes to selecting children’s books, rather than dealing with the ire of parents who find a book’s content inappropriate.
On her blog, Messner engaged in a conversation with a librarian who felt that The Seventh Wish should not be in school libraries for fourth and fifth grade students for a series of reasons:
“Students are checking out books with mine being the only supervision, and I can’t possibly know every parent’s wishes and concerns. That’s why I try to have something that just about any child could pick up off the shelf and the content would be O.K. Every once in a while a second-grader will sneak by me with a book where I think the reading level is too difficult but luckily the content is still benign. It is my ultimate responsibility to balance student wishes and parent concerns.
One of the biggest concerns throughout our fourth and fifth grade population is extreme anxiety. Disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety and even depression are on the rise for our youngest students, and I feel like it’s only gotten worse as the years go on. These students represent a much greater population in my area than those affected by drug abuse. I don’t know if it’s more technology or more television or what, but so many of our students’ greatest problems revolve around constant worries . . . Who am I to say what will or won’t upset someone’s child? It’s a huge burden that I take very seriously. A fourth grader is very fragile and their minds are just starting to open to the scary things in the world. They don’t quite have the maturity to know how to process it and deal with it.”
In addition to feeling that many children at this age aren’t equipped for content of this nature, the librarian also feared for her job security.
“Let’s not forget that all it takes is one parent to get angry enough to get my job taken away,” the librarian wrote. “I don’t know that any book takes precedence over a career I love and a job I need. So that is one part of my fear here.”
Ideally, schools and libraries would have policies in place that would promote the inclusion of controversial and complex books and protect those providing them. In fact, the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics includes (among eight principles):
II. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources
VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and
do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the
aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information
In Columbia, South Carolina, the Richland Library System has a book selection policy that specifically states, “Different viewpoints on controversial issues will be acquired, including those that may have unpopular or unorthodox positions. The Library recognizes that those materials that offend, shock or bore one reader may be considered pleasing, meaningful or significant by another.”
“The Richland Library tries to provide access to all materials,” says Leah Bartys, collection development manager for the library. “That way, our customers have the choice to exercise their own personal discretion, concerning what they utilize and check out.”
Of course, using personal discretion becomes more complex when it comes to children’s books, especially in school libraries, where parents have less control over what books their kids check out.
“Not every book is okay for every child,” Messner says. “Parents have the right to choose [what books are suitable for their child], but when the administration comes and decides, that comes from a place of tremendous privilege.”
Addiction can affect any community (including Messner’s own upper middle class neighborhood in New York state), and the kids who need books like The Seventh Wish most may not have an adult advocating for them.
“I’d bet that even in your safe-feeling community, there are kids struggling and wondering and looking for a sign that they’re not alone,” Messner wrote on her blog in response to the librarian. “Those may very well not be the kids whose parents you were able to talk with on the baseball field or in the faculty room. They’re also the kids who can’t always get to a public library with a family member.”
The only way to find out if access to books is being restricted at your library is to ask, Messner said. You have to be as voluble, adamant, and demanding as those opposing urging censorship.
“If you want kids to have access to the books, not just your kids, but kids with more difficult lives, you have to ask. Ask about specific books. If they’re not in the library ask why not. You have to speak up because the parents who don’t want those books are speaking loud and clear.”