By Remi Kalir
Today we’re honored to welcome a school librarian, who requested anonymity, to the WNDB blog to talk about her students reading the middle grade book Melissa by Alex Gino, their participation in #SharpieActivism, and a subsequent attempt to remove the book from the school’s library.
You’re a school librarian. What is your professional background?
I’m in my seventeenth year as an educator and my first as a school librarian. Before this year, I was a learning specialist. I made the transition to librarianship because growing up I loved the library, which says a lot for a kid who was an undiagnosed dyslexic with ADHD. When I started the new role, I couldn’t wait to create a welcoming, brave space for all my students. Early on, I found renewed energy and excitement. However, I didn’t anticipate the surveillance, pushback, and attempts to censor content. After more than a decade at the school, I’ve decided to leave and join another school next year.
Your new school is fortunate. We connected because you read my WNDB post about #SharpieActivism. What happened after you read it?
As a white cis woman, I want to be a co-liberator who supports marginalized groups. My former school’s culture relied heavily on perfectionism and I worried about doing the wrong thing. I appreciated author Alex Gino’s vulnerability in saying they got the previous title of their book wrong. They modeled acknowledgment and apology. And I loved the idea of #SharpieActivism as a way to empower students.
During weekly middle school assemblies, I would make a library announcement to highlight books or upcoming activities. Prior to an announcement about Melissa, I asked students in our Gay-Straight Alliance Affinity Group to correct the cover of Melissa. They created a beautiful and thoughtful cover that validated names, pronouns, and representation. They also wrote about their rationale for correcting the cover to paste in the book. The school had received pushback about LGBTQ+ content in the past. I was nervous about the announcement and wondered if I would hear from caretakers. Nonetheless, I needed to show transgender students and faculty I was an ally.
Students at the school were receptive to Melissa, but that wasn’t the case with some parents, correct?
Yes, I received an email from a caretaker demanding to meet with me and the middle school leader. The caretaker expressed concerns I had promoted a banned book. They took issue with Melissa’s trans identity because they wanted to talk with their child about “sensitive content.” At the time, four students and one faculty member publicly identified as trans. Claiming Melissa featured sensitive content, and therefore should be removed, was dangerous and hurtful. The complexities of this incident are at the crux of educators’ exhaustion and fear. How do we acknowledge concern while also fiercely advocating for LGBTQ+ students and faculty?
How did school leadership help you to resolve this book challenge?
Two school leaders met with the caretaker. They defended my announcement as aligned with the school’s mission and noted Common Sense Media indicates the book is appropriate for children ages ten and up. While I felt supported, to prevent future calls for censorship I hope the school drafts a statement identifying best practices, shares research and lessons about cultural competence, and advocates for LGBTQ+ representation. Without this, librarians and educators are at risk.
How has this book challenge changed your relationship to students’ parents?
Some caretakers within that school’s community who expressed concerns about “sensitive content” didn’t work outside the home. This vocal minority had the opportunity to strategize. I was also frustrated by silence from caretakers whom I knew supported inclusion efforts. Why weren’t they showing up? It wasn’t until I implemented a Reconsideration Policy and published it in the school’s newsletter that I heard from more caretakers. Many were surprised about censorship attempts. It was important for me to understand that working caretakers might not know about pushback because they’re busy. At my new school, I hope to better communicate with all caregivers while supporting diverse and representative libraries.
As an educator and librarian, what is lost for students when books are banned?
Students lose access to various perspectives, the opportunity to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the thoughts of people with whom they do or do not share affinity. Students need to think critically, form opinions, and validate their lived experience. Books provide invaluable historical perspectives and encourage rich conversations among peers, teachers, and caretakers. Bans can erode students’ trust in libraries, and librarians may become scared to provide diverse books. Can we really measure all that is lost when students lose their right to access books?
Book challenges will continue. What recommendations do you have for other librarians if this occurs in their school?
First, have a policy so you’re not scrambling when a challenge occurs. A policy may not be the perfect solution, but a review committee can bring school leadership, teachers, and librarians together to discuss why a book will not be removed and the reason why. Second, have conversations with caretakers, particularly those who are unsure about issues of censorship. There’s a balance between validating concerns and providing perspective. Third, and most importantly, listen to your students. They must have agency and voice in these discussions because they are the ones with so much to lose–and gain.
- How to Support Diverse Books During a Book Ban
- How LGBTQIA+ Book Bans Impact Kids and Teens
- Resources for When LGBTQ+ Books Are Banned
- Resources for Banned Books Week and Beyond
Remi Kalir is an Associate Professor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver. He studies how social annotation enables collaborative, open, and equitable learning. Remi was a New York City public school teacher before completing this Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Connect with Remi on Twitter at @remikalir.