Although the debate is not new to the world of librarianship, the controversy over which books should be allowed to grace the shelves of a school library has become a common topic of conversation on news channels, talk- shows and school board meetings.
At its heart, the dialogue explores the books that school librarians should make available to their students. Parents argue on both sides: those who want the library to contain only materials they deem appropriate, and those who understand that the relevance of those materials lies in the eye of the beholder.
As school librarians, we know that the books on our shelves, the books our children borrow, the books that bring value to our communities are as vast and varied as the populations we serve.
Certified School Librarians are trained to curate collections that anticipate our students’ information needs, interests and curiosities, and a love of a good story. We do this for every student, those who live in the majority and those who live on the margins.
We are intentional and thoughtful when making decisions about which books will occupy valuable real estate on our library shelves.
We select materials for students whose families have lived on this land since prehistoric times, students whose parents arrived on exploratory voyages from Europe or via forced resettlement on slave ships, students whose families have arrived on this continent at some point in the last 100 years or those who moved in the last week.
We choose books for students who have a mom and a dad, those who have two of each and those who have only one. We choose books for children who have extensive networks of parents, in-laws, grandparents, aunts and uncles, parenting partners, and every conceivable combination of supporting adults. We choose books for children who don’t know who their family is because they’ve been in five foster homes since the start of the school year.
We choose books for students who know who they are and those who question themselves. We choose books for students of deep faith and those whose spiritual life leans toward agnosticism, atheism, or paganism. We have books with characters whose experiences reflect those of a Christian tradition, but also those who follow Islam, those who read the Torah and more.
We choose books to show them they belong and to help them see that others belong too.
Our collections are rich with inspiration – the vast potential of STEAM careers, the rich history of art, the poetry with rich images and words that evoke emotion. We’re looking for stories that reveal empathy, show what it’s really like to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and stories that show how we’re better off together.
We seek balance on our shelves. I have biographies of all modern presidents and first ladies, as well as world leaders. Across the aisle from the library, from the art books, are non-fiction books highlighting advances in science. I strive to include animal books that feature everything from an axolotl to a zebra. Mixed in with the decadent dessert cookbooks, you’ll even find one that hints that veggies are delicious!
My fiction shelves are full of ghost stories, scary stories and thrillers. But there are also epic tales of dragon quests, princesses who don’t need rescuing, and ruthless kings. We have WWII dramas, Civil War adventures, and survival stories from around the world. There are even books with “naughty” words to make you laugh uncontrollably – you know, the ones with “fart” and “poop” and “ass.” And others that tell a story without any words.
We choose books to open the world to them.
I buy Pokemon books even though sometimes I can’t believe there is still interest after decades (but there is) and readers of Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig stories. None of these would likely be considered high-quality literature, but they draw kids in and keep them coming back for more.
I have students who crave more Greek mythology and others who want hip-hop poetry. I’ve asked kids which sports icons they’d most like to read about, and I’m looking for biographies of those players. I have books on cats and dogs, snakes and fish. I have books on how to build with Legos, what dinosaur scientists do, and those that expose what people claim to know about Bigfoot.
We choose books that make them want to read and read and read.
Our collections should inspire, entertain, help children grow. They should ground us, pull us apart, and open our hearts. They should help us examine our world, laugh, and engage our minds. They should turn the words into beautiful sentences. They must present reliable facts.
Ultimately, in my opinion, the conversation about the relevance of books belongs in the family. In 15 years of librarianship, I have never insisted that a child consult a particular book, never refused to let him choose another. I won’t start now.
I cannot know every family’s values in my community, but I will always respect their desire to choose what is best for their own children. I draw the line at their choice for others.