Tuesday, January 19, 2016

No Text Is Sacred

by Megan Schliesman

Part I: Context Matters

Let me be perfectly clear from the outset: I think the principles of intellectual freedom we hold as rightfully essential in our work as librarians and teachers are sacred, but no individual book can be considered in light of those principles abstractly. Context matters.

I say all this as someone who spends a fair amount of her job thinking about intellectual freedom and censorship, speaking about them, and considering what it means when books are challenged.

And when books are challenged (and before that, when chosen for inclusion in a library or classroom), context is everything.

In a perfect world, every book challenge and potential censorship situation would have an outcome that sees the title in question remain on the shelf or in the classroom. But that would not only require every individual with decision-making authority to fully understand and embrace the principles of intellectual freedom, it would require that we, librarians and teachers, never make a mistake.

And sometimes we do.

We are human, and fallible, and regretful things happen for many and varied reasons. The solidly middle or high school novel ends up in an understaffed K-5 library with no library media specialist and a part-time aide. The outdated novel considered racist by many is still being taught in a fourth grade classroom by a teacher who is unaware of, or doesn’t care about, the criticism.

Are these typical of most book challenges? No. But let’s not ignore the fact that these kinds of situations happen.  And let’s not forget the fact that every book challenge, every attempt at censorship in a  school or public library or classroom, is about a specific book or books in a specific context. That is how they occur, and that is how they are, or should be, handled.

No book belongs in a library collection or classroom on principle, it belongs because of what it specifically has to offer, something hopefully guided by selection criteria and guidelines in policies and procedures that affirm intellectual freedom and the need to build collections responsive to the needs (not just assumptions about the needs) of the specific communities they serve.

Part II: In Defense of What?

I found the news that Scholastic has pulled the picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington,  having reconsidered the book in light of criticism and recent discussions about the depiction of African American enslavement in general, and the story it tells in particular, shocking. But not, perhaps, for the reasons one might think.  

I found it shocking because it was so unexpected. Not because I thought it was wrong.  I don’t know that I can label this decision right or wrong.   

But I do know this: Publishing is a business, and in that, it is, like it or not, different from the world of libraries and public education. The same rules do not apply when it comes to the principles of intellectual freedom.

I’ve read concern and dismay at the censorship implications of Scholastic pulling the book.

Do I think this sets a dangerous precedent? Will the next book to be recalled by a publisher be a picture book about a transgender child or a girl with two dads or a Muslim family coming to America?

I honestly don’t think so.  

This has happened to a specific book for a specific reason. Again, context matters. The specifics matter. Sure, there might be hue and cry about another book. And it might be hue and cry that is from cultural insiders who are critical of its portrayal of their experience. That’s important to listen to (and important to get insight into before a book is ever published). But I don’t think Scholastic or any publisher is going to pull a book based on general disagreement or disregard for its content.

And then there is this: There is and always has been censorship in publishing. It is part of the gatekeeping role, like it or not. Decisions about what does and does not get published are made every single day. And yes, I’m saying this with some judgment, because part of the reason RWW exists as an ally for diversity is that for far too long too many of those decisions have  minimized the need for greater and more authentic diversity in children’s and young adult literature.

Truthfully, I am far more concerned about the voices I’m not seeing at all than Scholastic’s decision to pull this specific book for the specific reasons cited.

But I also say that there is censorship in publishing with some understanding: they cannot publish everything (nor would we want them to).

So really, what is shocking to me about the decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book that I have no doubt was created with good intentions on the part of everyone involved, is that it seems so counter to the typical corporate, business-based decision in publishing. The book had already been printed. It was available for purchase. Being reviewed in journals and online, for better and for worse.  Why pull it? Because let’s face it, the book probably would continue to sell. Check out the screen shot below 1/18/2016--Martin Luther King , Jr. Day:

Instead, the decision felt like a human one. One that acknowledged the capacity we all have to be fallible. To say we have listened and learned.

I hope that is the case, but I'm aware that could be my wishful White thinking. It might have been a business decision, pure and simple, that calculated the financial cost and deemed it acceptable to avoid more negative publicity. It might have been a decision that wouldn't have been made were the creators well-established White people rather than people of color. 

In the meantime, we can ask questions about this and about other books and what went into creating them. I think we should. But let’s also acknowledge that change is a process, a journey. There is no perfect end, just the work of moving forward, which can be messy and murky and painful even as we try to keep hope for the direction we're heading high.


Anonymous said...

Megan, thank you so much for this.

I wonder if you can answer a question I've been wondering about for quite a while: What is ALA's history in regard to IF? I know that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech (except for "fire" in a crowded theater) and I know that ALA has an active and important Office of Intellectual Freedom (http://www.ala.org/offices/oif). As far as I can tell, the OIF was founded in the 1960s.

I'm murky on everything in between the Bill of Rights and the 60s. Who coined the term "intellectual freedom"? What structures (if any) existed, both within libraries and in the larger society, to protect IF pre-OIF? Who created those structures? I'm sure this answer is long and complicated, but if there are any sources you can point me to I appreciate it!

Julie said...

"In the meantime, we can ask questions about this and about other books and what went into creating them." My concern is that I will not have the opportunity to do so in an informed manner because I have not read the book and it appears unlikely that I will have the chance to do so. I would have also liked to give my undergraduate children's literature students the chance to read and discuss the book. As a student noted about the YA Literature class I taught in the fall, the theme of the course was the under-and-misrepresentation of minority groups, broadly defined, a theme that will be prominent again this semester. We will read and discuss "A Fine Dessert," and I will also share the responses of 9-and-10 year olds who want adults to respect them enough to allow them to read, think and talk about slavery.

Nina Lindsay said...

Julie, my hope is that some of the many copies that have been purchased will make their way into academic collections so that your students can indeed study them.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Thank you for this blog, this space, and your thoughtful considerations about this specific book. I was with the many sending notes to Scholastic's to ask for this book to be pulled. I also had a long pause on the censoring of any book - and where and why it should occur, if at all. So thank you for your thoughts on context. And perhaps there will be another book about Hercules, as I am sure there is a great story about him and his life that we could all hear.

Vicky Smith said...

Hercules is a secondary character in THE ESCAPE OF ONEY JUDGE, by Emily Arnold McCully. As best as I can recall, he tells the title character of the Washingtons' practice of sending their enslaved houseservants from Philadelphia back to Mount Vernon periodically to keep them in bondage, and he provides information critical to her escape. Martha Washington is portrayed as cruel and vain. It's as stark a contradiction to this part of our national mythology as I have seen in a picture book.

Megan Schliesman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Megan Schliesman said...

Ok...trying again without typos! I understand the desire to share this book with undergraduate students, Julie, and it could lead to rich conversations, as could many other books when it comes to looking at how race and culture and history are represented. However, undergraduates and adults in general, are not the intended audience and I think we need to keep that at the forefront (and, as Nina noted, it's still possible to get a copy). As for 9- and 10-year olds who want adults to respect them to be able read, think and talk about slavery--yes. That's essential. But they aren't going to necessarily do that on their own. Most 9- or 10- year olds, let alone 6-, 7-, or 8- year olds, will not think to question how slavery is represented unless they are taught to question how slavery is represented. So, many of the children who encounter a book like this on their own are going to see a stereotype reinforced without thinking to question it, unless they have already been grounded in knowledge and experience that has taught them to challenge it.

Megan Schliesman said...

Those are great questions, Allie. I'm afraid I can't answer them in any detail. A good starting point, however, is the ALA "Intellectual Freedom Manual," which is put out by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (the 8th edition is, I believe, the most recent, published in 2010). The first opening chapters provide a brief overview of the history of intellectual freedom with regard to libraries (connecting it back to principles discussed in our nation's founding), ALA's involvement in IF, and a history of the Library Bill of Rights (which was initially written by a librarian at the Des Moines, Public Library and adopted by that library in 1938).

All of the chapters I mention above have source notes that may direct you to further resources. And I'm sure a literature search will lead to more.

Julie said...

If I made you feel defensive or under attack by quoting you, Megan, I apologize. As I initially said, I have not read the book so it is difficult for me to comment about the specifics of it. My husband managed to find parts of it online and thought that it lacked context (he's a cultural anthropologist). However, we both agree that pulling a book that has already been published due to societal pressure is problematic. As Roger Sutton wrote today, Scholastic needed to take it lumps and let the rest of us wrestle with (and actually read) the book. As far as the need to protect children from a particular book goes, I suspect that most kids find books on their own and some of what they read is bound to be problematic for any number of reasons. So, I don't think the lack of adult guidance can be justification for book banning; if it were, we would lack books on any number of topics deemed difficult, inappropriate, etc. by adults, who would probably not agree on what constitutes such designations anyway.

Nina Lindsay said...

Julie, thanks for your carefully considered remarks. I don't see this as book banning...since this is the publisher themselves recalling the book, and is pretty much unprecedented. This is more akin to someone saying "whoops, I take it back" than someone saying "shut up." There's a difference.

Megan Schliesman said...

No, Julie, I didn't feel attacked at all. I apologize if I sounded defensive. As Nina said, I think this is far different from banning, and that was what part of the point I was hoping to lay out in my initial post.

Anonymous said...

I read with great interest the new statement from Scholastic (http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/press-release/statement-scholastic-claim-self-censorship-advocacy-groups) in response to the PEN/NCAC statement.

Scholastic is strongly asserting that this was not self-censorship. The statement also goes into a little more detail than we've seen thus far about what exactly didn't meet their standards: "In their statement, PEN and NCAC say that they offer no opinions as to the merits of the book, but only that the book should not have been withdrawn. Scholastic, on the other hand, knowing that generations of parents, children, teachers and schools have relied on us to provide responsible and accurate information for children, decided that this picture book did not appropriately convey the evils of slavery. We acted, not in response to criticism, but entirely and purposefully because this title did not meet our publishing standards for young children in support of our 95-year mission to provide children, at each age level, the appropriate context for them to understand what they were reading. We do not accept the assertion of PEN and NCAC that we should leave a book in circulation which falls short of this mission and could adversely affect children’s understanding of the evils of slavery." I appreciate this clarity.

I've been accused of censorship, and of advocating for censorship, before. I've found it gut-wrenching and scary. Anyone else care to speak to that experience?

Sam Bloom said...

First of all, in reference to Scholastic's new statement: although they throw in a line that they "owe an apology to the author, illustrator and editor for not having taken action before the book was published," it still feels like most of this is an attempt to redirect some of the negativity being blown Scholastic's way toward PEN/NCAC. I still don't feel totally satisfied with the way Scholastic has handled it... but that's just me.

As for your last question, Allie, no: I've never had that experience. I can't imagine how I would react to something like that... gut-wrenching and scary indeed.