|Reproduced, with permission from School Library
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Hello! I have read Scales on Censorship for quite a while, and like many others, I have trusted Pat Scales over the years to give well-reasoned responses to challenging questions.
However, I was taken aback by one of the responses in the March issue (see photo). In it, Pat Scales answers a question on how to handle “books containing any amount of cultural misrepresentation”; namely, “Where do we librarians draw the line between sensitivity and censorship?”
I agree that this is a tough question, one I grapple with on a daily basis. I also agree with Scales’s statement that it’s “our duty to purchase books that accurately portray the ethnicity of the main characters”; to that I’d add any number of intersecting identities (gender, sexuality, etc.). But I take issue with Scales’s qualifier that “to remove or refuse to purchase a book because someone sees a small inaccuracy is censorship.”
First of all, let’s talk about the choices book buyers make when deciding how to use their budgets. In terms of deciding not to purchase a book based on cultural inaccuracies, well, I feel like we’ve had this talk before… many, many times before. Librarians make purchasing choices based on a book’s quality every day. Is it censorship to not purchase a book because it gets poor reviews? I’d say no–that’s simply an informed purchasing choice. And how could cultural inaccuracies *not* affect a book’s quality? (Also, if I may go back to Scales’s “small inaccuracy” comment? That inaccuracy may not seem so “small” to someone else. I also encourage Scales to examine the White privilege that allows her to minimize that which could cause pain to someone from a marginalized group by dubbing it “small”. Not to mention that Scales’s phrasing–“someone sees” an issue–subtly deemphasizes that problematic content in books really does exist, it’s not just people “seeing things.”)
Now on to the issue of librarians who “remove” books with problematic content. I see this referenced a lot in articles from mainstream press, and as an argument it lacks nuance. I certainly cannot say for sure that no single librarian has pulled a book from the shelves because they found it problematic, but in my experience this isn’t a recurring issue sweeping through libraries nationwide. In my large library system, we have hundreds of copies of Little House on the Prairie and its sequels; we also still have 20 live copies of a book that a publisher actually pulled from publication three years ago! And if you walk into a children’s room anywhere in the country, I wager you will find at least one copy of Ghosts in the collection.
Referring librarians to the WNDB resources page is a great call. I want to point out, however, that several of the sites listed by WNDB are curated by the very same “bloggers and library professionals” whose “strong opinions” regarding cultural representation in books leads them to “sometimes use their online space to aggressively influence book-purchasing decisions.” So I guess Scales recommends people read these bloggers *unless* they are critiquing a book, and as long as they conform to her idea of what meets the criteria for “non-aggressive”? I don't think it's fair or constructive to those of us serving youth to reject the work of these individuals when they are critiquing representation while holding up their work when they are recommending books; both aspects of these bloggers’ work are critical to all of us serving children and teens. Scales’s whole framing of the power dynamics–bloggers are people who “aggressively influence” decision-makers by making problematic books their “target”–stems from a place of White privilege and fragility and fails to acknowledge that some books, and some content within books, in fact constitute acts of aggression against young readers.
Furthermore, I am also concerned with the way Scales framed A Fine Dessert within her response. Yes, it received some “excellent reviews,” but as Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey has shown, the overwhelmingly White/female/cishet world of reviews shouldn’t always be taken at face value. Not to mention that in March 2015, before any internet activity had gained steam in relation to A Fine Dessert, John Lithgow wrote this in his New York Times review: “In a bold and somewhat unsettling choice, they portray a smiling slave woman and her daughter….” Critique of this book was not limited to social media; and the fact that some critique does originate online does not lessen its validity. It is far past time for us to acknowledge and embrace the fact that some of the critical perspectives on books are coming not from review journals but from professionals in our field writing on blogs and elsewhere on social media. Again, let’s recognize our privilege as White people in the profession when we start picking and choosing when and if we are willing to listen to critical voices on social media. I believe we can fold these critical perspectives into our consideration and understanding of specific titles.
Here’s what Scales wrote next: “Instead of removing the title because bloggers thought a few pages were problematic, librarians should engage young readers in conversation about the controversy.” This remark feels flippant and dismissive of some scholarly and expert opinions, but I would also caution adults (especially White adults) that this is a conversation that would take a great deal of preparation and education for the adults in question. A poorly handled conversation with young children about slavery could very well reinforce stereotypes.
Finally, regarding Vamos a Cuba, Scales wrote that “other Cuban Americans” disagreed with the Cuban American school board member who first recommended the book be pulled from the shelves. Scales then asked, “Whom do you believe?” A shared heritage for any of us does not mean identical experiences or perspectives and so the fact that there was and is disagreement is not and should never be surprising. But this makes it all the more critical to be as informed as possible when making selection decisions when it comes to accuracy and authenticity, and today we are fortunate to have informed critical perspectives from professional sources outside those we have traditionally relied on. “Whom do you believe” is a starting point, not the end point, and there isn't necessarily a “right” or “wrong” answer for any book, but there are “informed” and “uninformed” choices, and it is our responsibility to be as informed as possible in selecting materials according to our local policies and procedures.
I don’t believe the two things in Scales’s last sentence should cancel each other out. I am working and listening and opening myself to ways of learning how to be culturally sensitive, *and* I am using my skills from library school (though not every librarian has been to library school, nor do I believe one has to go to library school to be an effective librarian) to understand the importance of reading reviews from journals such as School Library Journal *and* from blogs on our Kindred Spirits list. Which brings me to Scales’s closing thought, about the need to parse “which reviews and online tools to trust.” Questions about cultural authenticity and censorship do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they free of power imbalances and racist, oppressive legacies. I do not accept the binary thinking that says criticism = attack = censorship, and I encourage all White members of the children’s literature community–including myself, my fellow members of Reading While White, and Scales–to examine and question the White privilege we necessarily bring to these discussions. Until that happens, I no longer trust Pat Scales to give advice where censorship intersects with cultural representation.