Tuesday, April 2, 2019

An Open Letter to Scales on Censorship and School Library Journal

Reproduced, with permission from School Library
Journal © Copyright Library Journals, LLC
a wholly owned subsidiary of MSI Information Services
Each issue of School Library Journal contains a full-page segment entitled Scales on Censorship, where Pat Scales, former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, answers questions on censorship. Today Sam Bloom responds to one question from the March 2019 piece, which is pictured here but can also be found here or on page 28 of the print copy.

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 beforemany, 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.


Sam Bloom


K T Horning said...

Thanks, Sam, for this thoughtful and provocative post. I raised my eyebrows at that concluding line in Pat's essay: “Yes, we must be culturally sensitive, but we must also use skills from library school to determine which reviews and online tools to trust.”

When a book is reviewed in professional journals by an all-white staff of reviewers who praise the book and give it a star, and when the same book is then reviewed online by indigenous people and people of color who cite problems with authenticity and accuracy, and who point to tired tropes and stereotyping, I have come to trust the latter. Not because of skills I learned in library school 35 years ago, but because of years of professional development and life experiences I have had since then.

I was at a library conference last week where I heard Sarah Park Dahlen give a powerful closing keynote about children's books and diversity. In it, she quoted Laura Jiménez, speaking about critiques of children's books by indigenous people and people of color: "Just BELIEVE US!"

Sam Bloom said...

KT, thanks for your comment. I'm especially struck by the reminder in your last paragraph. I see Laura saying this a lot on social media; it's a shame she has to remind White people of this so often.

Erika said...

Yikes. I just looked on the shelf of the juvenile collection I recently took charge of, and there's Ghosts. And it circulates like crazy. I'm fortunate that my predecessor didn't buy a ton of those sorts of things, but there are a handful that make me want to tear my hair out. I'm in a little bitty library where I basically *am* the children's department (and I haven't been to library school), and it's mostly fantastic to have so much autonomy, but what to do with a new-ish, very popular, but deeply problematic item is one of those situations where I definitely find myself wishing for a bossier boss, or a professor, or some kind of algorithm.

Sam Bloom said...

Erika, like I hinted in the post, I work for a HUGE library system where I have very little say on purchasing. The one thing I can do, though, is hand-sell the heck out of other possibilities. "Oh, I see you like Raina T.'s books - have you tried NEW KID by Jerry Craft, it is SUPER funny and reminds me so much of SMILE and SISTERS!" And one other thing I do - if I see someone walking around with GHOSTS, I will actually let the adult know about the problematic content: "Excuse me, I noticed you have GHOSTS - I love SMILE and SISTERS, but did you know..." and then I'll give a BRIEF description of the problematic elements. I had to practice in a mirror and sometimes I still have a hard time finding the guts to say something, but if I was a parent and my kid had a book in their hand with some less-than-stellar representation I would definitely want the librarian to say something to me!

Sam Bloom said...

p.s. - You may want to run that by your supervisor first, I'd hate to have you get hung out to dry in a situation like that... I've been lucky enough to have managers who will back me up if a patron complains, but I know not everyone is down with that kind of reader's advisory. Good luck, Erika!

Erika said...

Those are really helpful ideas, thank you! I'm also very fortunate in the supervisor department, so it'll just be a matter of my own gumption to put those into practice.

Julie said...

I’ve learned a lot from Pat Scales over the years about protecting the right to read. As a former middle school librarian like Pat, her groundbreaking Communicate through Literature program promoted by Judy Blume inspired me to use contemporary books to help young adults discuss issues of concern to them, even when the titles were controversial. (I was fortunate when one parent of a progressive tilt and I amicably parted ways over a book. Having a hard time discerning the author’s intent from one of the characters regarding race and gender, the parent removed her student from the group for the duration of the discussion but did not try to keep others from reading it. Her student returned to the group without further incident after we finished the book).

When I later had four challenges in my first four weeks as a public youth services librarian in a community that tilted conservative, I again found guidance and solace in Pat Scale’s writings and work through the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. (While one title with a witch protagonist got moved from the picture book to the fiction section by my library director, the rest – despite expressed concerns about the occult, “foul” language and “a dysfunctional family” (i.e., homosexuality] – stayed put).

When I returned to a school setting where we had challenges that I never would have anticipated (yes, sharks do tear up and devour their prey), I worked closely with my colleagues to develop a collection development policy based, in part, on the intellectual freedom principles I learned from Pat Scales. (As a result, we never had to remove a book or any other material from library circulation due to a challenge).

Pat Scales has worked with and rightly been honored by the Freedom to Read Foundation and the National Coalition Against Censorship. I’m sticking with her. I not only want young people to have the freedom to read. I want to be able to stop by my local public library knowing that I can always check out whatever book I want without judgment.

Nina Lindsay said...

Thank you, Julie, for attesting to Pat Scales' truly unique, lasting, and important contributions to our profession, and to the freedom to read. I stand by her achievements too, but was as disappointed as Sam was in her take in this column. The word "censorship" is being used these days to shut down conversations that are not censoring, and I wish Scales' had done a better job in this column of grappling with that. We must be open to unique expertise that challenges the status quo.

I, as you, "want to be able to stop by my local public library knowing that I can always check out whatever book I want without judgment.." but I know that doesn't extend to all we serve, because there is still firmly entrenched bias in our publishing, reviewing, and--yes--selection practices. When children from BIPOC communities feel mocked or erased when they browse for books in their public library, how can we say we’re allowing them to check out what they want “without judgement?” This is the disconnect that I’ve always struggled with in my career from the start, serving kids in Oakland CA. And as firmly as I depend on the groundwork Scales has laid in Intellectual Freedom, I depend on voices that our industry has consistently and persistently marginalized, in order to do my work well. I stand by them too.

FAITHFUL'licious! said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reading While White said...

FAITHFUL'licious, your comment makes it seem like when you think of the LGBTQIA+ community you are not also thinking about the members who are BIPOC. We at RWW stand against all systems of oppression, including heterosexism, which is showing up in your comment. While we might disagree on approach with Scales, we at RWW share her commitment to intellectual freedom.