Monday, February 24, 2014

Freedom to Read Week Day 2

Naked Girls For Everyone!
(Context And Why It Matters)

In my seven years as a YA librarian I’ve only had to deal with one book challenge. As far as statistics go, I think I’m doing pretty well. After all, across our three-branch library system I have over 11,000 YA, graphic novel, and manga books filled with all the cursing, drinking, drug use, and sex that turns small town parents’ hair white. I knew when I took the job I would eventually do battle with a book challenge, and I was ready for it. I was fully armed in the Right to Read and Intellectual Freedom, and even had a sword of self-righteousness grasped firmly in my hand.

And then the dragon came gliding across my desk, and I realized there was something I hadn’t prepared for: Guilt and a desire to just give in.*

Maybe it would have been different if the challenge was against a book I knew and loved, but as I read what a mother had written about why she didn’t think her son should be able to pick up this particular issue of Teen Titans off the library shelf, I felt like I had done something wrong. I felt like a bad librarian and person because there was indeed a naked girl** in that book and it was sitting in the YA area of the library. What had I done? How many children had I scarred for life?

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. (It would be a fairly tragic Freedom to Read Week story if it did.)

After reading the reconsideration form, I went to work. I checked out the book and the three issues leading up to it and read them all that night. I looked up reviews and reached out to other librarians who were familiar with the material. I spoke with people in the Teen Titan fandom to understand the storyline and character’s background. And by the time I was done, all my guilt was gone. I felt confident as I typed up my recommendation to keep the material. Not only did I think it was okay for the book to remain, I felt like it needed to be there.

The difference between the day the form was turned in and the day I responded was context. A naked girl on her own is a little shocking, but a naked girl in the context of a story focusing on grief and some of the not-so-healthy ways people might cope with it? Not only does it make sense, it becomes important, not only for the story, but for the reader’s personal journey as well.

A lot of times when you see people up in arms about a book they’ve deemed “inappropriate” you’ll notice they only talk about a few pages, paragraphs, or even one or two lines. They gasp in horror at an oral sex scene,*** not seeing how it’s an observation on how sex acts without emotion are empty and meaningless because they haven’t taken the time to read the book and learn the context.

As readers and literary advocates, we often look down our noses at the book banners**** who call for the removal of books from our libraries and classrooms. We scoff at their ignorance and paint them as the most villainous of bad guys, and I think that is the wrong way for us to look at the situation. I believe if you were to take a step back, to examine the context of the situation, you wouldn’t find a person whose heart is filled with evil, but someone who genuinely thinks they’re doing the right thing. These are simply people who haven’t learned the importance of context. They don’t see how literature can use situations we might find uncomfortable to read to teach us about ourselves and the world we live in. And that’s why events like the Freedom to Read Week in Canada and Banned Books Week in the United States are so important. They’re an opportunity to educate those well-meaning book banners about the importance of context.

This week, I encourage you to not only talk about the banned books you’ve read and loved, but also about why you love them. Talk about why the story is important to you. Give the world a little context. It can go a long way.

* I’m not saying that there aren’t times when you read a reconsideration form and decide to move the book to another section or whatever it is the patron is asking. I’m saying that I was ready to give in without fully examining the situation, which was not cool. Not cool at all.

** For the record, all the naughty bits were covered.

*** Yes, I’m talking about an actual YA book. It’s a very well done and important oral sex scene. Trust me.

**** By the way, book banners would never categorize themselves as such. “Concerned citizen” is their preferred moniker.

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