The ALA reported in their 2021 State of America’s Libraries Special Report that 44% of the 729 challenges (affecting over 1,000 individual titles) were reported from school libraries (American Library Association, p9). At least a few of those challenges were against books housed in elementary school collections, such as Drama by Raina Telgemeier or Melissa by Alex Gino (Friedman, 2023). While Massachusetts has not seen the kind of widespread bans that other states have enacted, it is important that elementary librarians across our state be aware of what is at stake— and, more importantly, what can be done.
This selection policy can also be helpful when administrators are questioned by parents about particular books in a school library’s collection. Librarians are familiar with the process by which we choose books but administrators often aren’t. Reading through the professional reviews, consulting with public librarians, and managing student requests is a process far beyond just cobbling together an Amazon wish list, but it is an invisible process. Having a policy means you have back up in writing. In the past, when a parent has had questions about a book that was purchased for my library, I was able to provide the written policy and evidence of the process, like book reviews or student survey data to support the purchase, and it was invaluable.
Part of a robust selection policy for an elementary school library should also include a well-thought-out reconsideration process. It seems to me that many individuals who challenge books are under the impression that a simple complaint submitted to the librarian or the school administration is all that is required to get a book taken off the shelves. The reconsideration process is important: include steps that involve a formal written challenge, that convene a committee, and require research regarding the challenged materials. And be vocal about what it is and how people can get involved. Such transparency works— see Jean Costello’s opinion piece in the Newburyport Daily News from last month, where they write: “Conversations with our public library’s head librarian and teen service librarian have enriched my understanding of topics such as curation and access to our public collections” (2023). Later in the piece, she even reviews the titles herself. This level of community engagement that sides with libraries stands in strong opposition to the negative engagement of challenges.
In my experience, I have had a few instances where parents or other adults in the community expressed concern over a book. Usually, that concern arises from the feeling that the title in question would be “inappropriate” for their own child or student, expressed either in person or via email to library media specialists. And that’s perfectly valid. In fact, often it may be true— kids are interested in books for all sorts of reasons, and a particular title might not meet them where they are. I have lost count of the times I’ve been asked where our Pennywise or Stranger Things books are! However, just because a book is inappropriate for one student, or even one grade level, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in an elementary school library. Sometimes it’s easy for the community to lump all elementary school students into one category, but there is a vast difference between a student entering first grade and one who’s looking ahead to middle school. Our collections need to be able to have books that reach our students at every developmental level.
We are living in a very interesting era when it comes to books and school library spaces. The current situation in Florida, where teachers are being asked to catalog every single book in their classroom libraries and could potentially face felony charges if an “inappropriate” title makes it into a child’s hands, is an extreme that many of us probably assumed we would not see in our lifetime (Santiago). It’s also easy to assume that because of Massachusetts’s reputation as a bastion of quality education and a blue state, school librarians here would need to worry about it. There are book challenges and inquiries happening all over the country, and several in the Commonwealth. Having a robust, clear, and publicly-available policy regarding book acquisitions and reconsiderations can be one way in which school librarians can ensure continued access to quality literature for their students, and their communities.