Banned Books Compromise: “I’m not touching him!”

If you have a sibling, you know what I’m talking about.

You’re crammed into the backseat of the car, or maybe stuck side-by-side at the table at Applebee’s, and you exercise your natural right to torment your younger brother. Within seconds, he’s screaming. “Mom! Sarah’s touching me!”

“Stop touching your brother,” Mom says.

“Fine,” you say, raising a threatening eyebrow. Then you wave your hands directly in front of his face, blow in his ear, give him creepy looks, and otherwise annoy him to the greatest extent possible while still following Mom’s directive, proudly proclaiming, “I’m not touching him! I’m not touching him!”

Still with me on the tangent-coaster? Good. Because the whole I’m not touching him thing? That’s how I view the Republic school board’s “compromise” on recently-banned Twenty Boy Summer and Slaughterhouse Five. Last night, the board voted to put the two books back in the school library… in a “secure area” where only parents will be able to check them out.

(Remember those old school video stores—you know, pre-Netflix—where they had all the “adult” stuff in a separate back room behind a curtain? I really hope there’s a curtain at the library. Just saying.)

From the article in today’s Springfield News-Leader:

“It does keep the books there in the library, and if parents want their kids to read the book, by all means come and check it out,” said Superintendent Vern Minor. “…It still puts the decision in parents’ hands.”

With no discussion — and only board president Ken Knierim commenting on the change — the board voted 6-0 to adopt a revised draft of the book standards originally approved earlier this year.

It merely changed the way “challenged” books — the two in question and any others removed in the future — would be accessible in the district.

“…That’s what has come under scrutiny, that if parents want their children to read a book that has not met the district standards, they have to get the book from somewhere else,” Minor said. “It’s not in our library. That’s the issue that seems to have surfaced.”

In other words, we’re still censoring books by limiting access, but since everyone complained about the books being removed from the library, we’ve addressed that by putting them back in the library. You can’t get to them unless you’re a parent, but they’re technically in the library. Problem solved.

While I’m glad that the school board was willing to reconsider the original ban, I don’t believe this compromise is the answer. I’ve stated before that my biggest issue with Mr. Scroggins’ complaint is that he took the decision and discussion away from other parents. So I totally support parents who want to be involved with their kids’ reading and want to make decisions on appropriateness for their own families. The thing is, I’m not sure this should be happening at the library, before the book is even checked out. Do all parents have time or inclination to go to the school and request the books from the secure area (ahh, visions of secret parental cabals whispering together behind that curtain!)? Is the school library staying open beyond school hours to accommodate parents’ work schedules? What about the parents who’ve already made the decision to let their teens read whatever they’d like? Now those parents have to go down to the school just to check out a book? And what about the parents who just aren’t involved, one way or the other? The books are not accessible to those teens. And even if one teen has parents who can’t or won’t make the trek? She might be the one who most needs to read those books. And that’s what kills me.

Parents, what do you think? Should teens need you to check out their books from a public school library? If not, how do you get involved in your child’s reading (if you do), and what do you do if you feel something might be inappropriate for him?

Teens, what are your thoughts on this?

I’d love to hear your opinions. Because while I don’t pretend to have the answers on this, for me, the issue still stands: Limiting reading options for all teens on a broad institutional level is not the way to go.

31 thoughts on “Banned Books Compromise: “I’m not touching him!”

  1. This opinion isn’t gonna be popular, and I’ve not read the two books in question, but I’ve read some YA novels that it would make me absolutely livid if a school allowed my child to access without me knowing about it. And it’s not because I don’t trust my kid or because I’m trying to control him. It’s because I have and will continue to do a very good job of protecting my children from knowing that we live in a world where some men force little boys to give them fellatio and other men rape their daughters and then drug them into having abortions. When my kids DO find out about those things, I don’t want it to be because some editor or librarian thought that the fact that the main character who is being raped is thirteen means that the book is suitable for YA audiences.

    I may not have the right to control my child, but I do have the right to protect him. When a library allowes him unfettered access to those types of damaging materials, they undermine that right.

    • Hi Heidi,

      Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts. I definitely respect your right as a parent to make those kinds of decisions for your children. But if you’re concerned about the library allowing unfettered access to materials you don’t want your kids exposed to, how do you handle other areas where they’re likely to find these issues (watching the news, television, movies, games, going online, chatting with friends, other libraries and bookstores, a friend’s home, etc.)? I’m asking not as a point of contention, but as a curiosity. I’m really interested to hear how parents deal with things like this. You can’t be with your kids every moment of every day, so I feel like the best defense is open dialogue and exploration of issues (especially with high school kids who often have more freedoms than younger ones). Would love to hear more of your thoughts.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      • Well, thus far my child is still young, but I make and will continue to make enthusiastic attempts to protect him. We don’t have television (not as a protective action on my part, but because I think the programming delivers a poor value), so there is little unfiltered viewing in our home. Our computers are all in a public space (more to control time than anything), so there’s little chance of my children stumbling across inappropriate material. Right now, my children don’t visit in other children’s homes much just because of our family’s busyness, but when they do, it’s only after I know a family quite well. Most of the time, children come to our home. The doors are always open, and I move in and out of the rooms in which they’re playing frequently. In short, I’m vigilant about keeping them safe. Some would say I’m overprotective; I think I’m precisely as protective as children need their parents to be in this world.

        Another difference is that the things my child may be exposed to on the Internet and at school are dirty jokes, sex, violence, etc. That’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about when I refer to damaging ideas, though I’m certainly not eager for him to encounter those ideas either. I’m talking about man’s inhumanity to man. I’m talking about cannibalism, rape, molestation, forced abortion, etc. Based on my experience as a reader and an Internet user, he is much more likely to “stumble” across those things in books than he is on the Internet, so in many ways, some YA books pose dangers that the Internet, its oft-cited comparison, does not. I don’t care that those frightening ideas are part of the “real world.” So is sub-zero weather and photos of the Holocaust. I very appropriately shield him from those things, too.

        I realize that I will not always be able to stop my kids from being exposed to damaging ideas. I also cannot completely ensure that they never come into contact with lead paint, but it’s still appropriate of me to do whatever I can to limit it.

  2. I have not been following this book ban much, just have read some on it, and I am not really sure what the books contain, but if they contain like you said Heidi, men forcing little boys to give them fellatio and other men raping their daughters and drugging them into havig abortions, etc. then I look at it like this. What if your little boy had been being forced to do these acts by someone he knows, maybe reading these books would help him understand that it is not his fault, maybe it would help him understand that he can tell and someone won’t punish him or blame him, maybe it would help him understand something isn’t wrong with him, but it is with the person forcing him into doing these things. What if these books were available to your children to help them understand these horrible and sad things that do happen in life are not their fault and so that your child would be able to come to you and tell you what is happening to them without being afraid. I feel making the books available to children would be protecting them. When children go through these types of things, they are afraid and ashamed and sometimes a book just may make all the difference in that childs life. I am saying these things because I am a mother, and a very good mother and I have always protected my children and taken all the steps to protect them of all of these horrible things that happen to children, or so I thought!!!!! My oldest son is now 23 years old, and I JUST found out that while he was little from age 8 til 13 that these horrible things have happened to him while he was away at his fathers for the weekend by an older step brother. I am now dealing with all of this with him. What if he had read one of those books years ago and was assured that there is help out there, and that he is not to blame, and he should not be ashamed and afraid of being scolded. What if?

    • Thanks, Saundra. I agree with your points. Books save lives, and even if it’s just one kid out of 100 who finds that book at the right time in his life, that can make all the difference. I see what Heidi is saying, too, but I don’t think preventing access to the information — or to the idea that these kinds of things do exist in the world, no matter how much we wish they didn’t — protects them.

      • Sarah,

        I would have been a happier child and probably a healthier adult had I not read certain texts. By any definition of what protection is, my parents would have been protecting me by stopping me from reading those books.

        Surely you agree that there are certain texts a child of a certain age should not see. Since we acknowledge that there are materials that are inappropriate for children to experience, Is it possible that some of the material in the YA section crosses that line? If the material crosses that line, should it still be available to children in the name of “non-censorship?”

        • Heidi, I completely understand what you’re saying, and I do think it depends on the individual parent and child. You know your children better than anyone else does and what they can and cannot handle, and it is your job to protect them from the things they can’t handle.

          However, I think we also have to acknowledge that these are books for TEENS, not for children. And also that, while rape and molestation does come up in some YA novels, they are not portrayed in brutal, explicit, traumatic ways. And the YA novels that ARE more mature are marketed by the publishers as 16+, and libraries will have that information.

          It should also be stated that 20 BOY SUMMER has none of this traumatizing, explicit material in it. The scene being objected to, if I am assuming correctly, is one where the main character loses her virginity. It is not explicit and it is a very realistic part of the main character’s natural development as a young adult.

          Personally, I think rather than make parents check out these books FOR their children, they should have parents fill out a permission slip giving their kids permission to check out whatever books they want or not, perhaps with a few degrees in between “ok to check books out if parent signs off on specific title”, etc. While I don’t like the idea of keeping books out of kids hands, I don’t think there is any way to circumvent the overprotection of a parent who is hellbent on keeping their kids in the dark. And hopefully in those cases, those kids will find other resources (like the internet or reading those books through a friend) rather than through their school library.

        • Heidi, I also want to touch on your point about protecting your children. I do understand that drive to protect your little ones. I’m not a parent but I think about having kids some day and I know I’ll be “overprotective” too. However, as someone who was also “overprotected” by my own mother, I know there is a line where overprotecting your kids can harm them. While you can cite that you would’ve been a happier and healthier adult if your parents had protected you from certain texts, I can say that I would’ve been a happier and healthier adult if my mother hadn’t kept as tight a leash on me. Of course, I’m talking about when I was a teen, not when I was a young child.

          I was the kid who thought Savage Garden was a heavy metal band because I had never really listened to the radio. I couldn’t rent a movie that was PG-13 if it had the word “sexy” written on the description in any way. I wasn’t allowed out of the house on weekdays once I was home from school and when I went out on the weekends, I had to give an agenda and schedule about where I’d be and where I was going and would have to call and ask permission if I went to a new, unplanned location. I went to a private Catholic high school because my parents didn’t trust the public school system.

          Despite this, I still knew drug users (pot, ecstacy, coke, LSD), had friends who had been molested, who were having sex, who got pregnant while still in school. I knew someone who was killed in a car accident, knew two kids who were in or affected by a deadly airplane crash (that one was actually in 2nd grade, not high school) and even knew someone who murdered her own father in cold blood. Despite all of these things, the factor that affects me the most as an adult is the fact that I was so sheltered by my parents, and to an extent, my social development was delayed.
          Ultimately, like I said in my first comment, everyone is different and you know your kids better than anyone else does (except maybe themselves). But I do hope that by the time they are teens, you don’t feel the need to restrict them so much that you are in essence holding them back. There’s a fine line between protecting a teen and undermining or weakening their ability to protect themselves and I hope you (and myself, when I finally have kids) are able to find that line. And I hope this response came off respectful and not too confrontational. That wasn’t my intention…I was more driven, as a child who was overprotected, to speak from that vantage-point.

  3. Those are certainly valid points, and I absolutely want children to have access to material that can help them. But they’re all based on a “what if,” and it’s a what if that, I believe, statistically most children haven’t experienced. And for those children, most children, reading those books wouldn’t help them, it would scar them. Scare them. Traumatize them. Damage them. I know because it happened to me. Some of the worst things I’ve ever experienced, I experienced through books. I think that parents have the right to know what might be happening to their kids.

  4. I’m not a teen OR a parent, but when I was a teen my parents were very involved in what I read. My mom always went asked me what I was reading (in a conversational, non accusatory way) and looked through my books. If she didn’t like it she wouldn’t let me check it out. It makes sense to me that libraries should stock books and leave the parenting up to the parents.

    Great questions! Also, your blog is awesome.

    • Thanks, Hannah. I agree — the library should make the books available, and if a parent has an issue or feels the book isn’t appropriate for their own child, that’s their decision. In this case, the school board has made that decision for every parent.

      Thanks for visiting the blog! 🙂

  5. Well, I’m not a parent and I’m not a teen. But, I do think that parents should be more involved in what their children are reading. They should be aware of the subject matter and the content, and they should be having discussions with their teens about those things.

    Is the compromise a good one? I mean, at least it lets the kids whose parents are involved read it. It’s better than nothing, but it’s still not 100% right. Frankly, it’s unAmerican.

    • Yes! I totally wish more parents *would* get involved. I’d actually be happy if I got an email from a parent saying “My kid wanted to read your book, but I read it and I think she’s a little too young” or whatever.

      I have had some parents at book signings ask me if the book would be appropriate for their kids (usually they only ask if the kid is younger than 14), and I always say the same thing — I tell them the brief summary of the book, mention the mature content in context, and encourage them to read it for themselves if they’re unsure or if the kid is sort of on the cusp of handling that type of mature content.

      Thanks for visiting, Shesten.

  6. In principle, I agree that parents should parent and libraries should stock books, but in reality, the overlap can be sticky. For instance, on the oft-cited blog post, “Think of the Parents,” one commenter shared a much less-often cited experience in which a school official gave her a book which she read before she even got home (in other words, before her parents had a chance to know a thing about it) and which contained extremely traumatizing content that damaged her psyche. In that instance, the school’s job of “stocking books” infringed upon her parents’ ability to raise their child as they saw fit, and they had absolutely no chance to do anything about it. I think that’s a problem that is worth considering.

    • Interesting perspective and yes, one we don’t hear about often. But… does this also apply to bookstores? Like, if the child had her own money and went to the store, asked for a recommendation from the YA section, and the book seller sent her home with something that ended up damaging her psyche? What about reading something upsetting in a newspaper or online? The line is unclear for sure.

      • Yes. It’s definitely an unclear line, and I think that’s part of why these types of debates are so important. I think that tug of war keeps us as a society from going too far to one side or the other.

        Your question about a bookstore is interesting. First, I’d mention that a bookstore, a private, commercial entity, has different responsibilities an obligations than a school, a public entity to which parents are required to send their kids or provide a comparable alternative. What may be okay for a bookstore employee to do may not be okay for a school official, who is in a position that is inherently trusted and privileged, to do.

        As long we’re discussing the commercial model, though, I think it’s relevant that there are certain texts (movies) that are subject to commercial regulation specifically because we understand that the content in them is not appropriate for viewers of a certain age. In that case, it is actually NOT okay for a private entity to sell a text with troubling content to a young viewer. There’s clearly an established precedent for the idea that distributors of entertainment have a responsibility to “protect” young people from material that could harm them. I would be interested in seeing a similar system considered for books. I’m not necessarily advocating a rating system for books, but I would be interested in seeing it considered.

  7. I feel that sheltering children though is more dangerous than exposing them to real life. With books available maybe they would urge your child to either be more cautious when put in these situations and be aware of what could happen or to read them and have the courage then to ask for help. I don’t understand really why these books would be banned in the first place. I would certainly think that your child or any child now days has access to a computer and all of what is in those books plus more is available on the internet, so who are they kidding when they ban books, kids will just go elsewhere to find the information they want. I find it just sad that at school where our children are supposed to be educated and informed, that they are depriving those children of this information.

  8. As a parent I do want to be involved with what my children are reading and exposed to, but my point is if a child has to have reading material approved by a parent, that he or she may be too embarrassed or ashamed to ask permission of that parent and what if the book they were wanting to read was similar to their experience and reading this book helped them understand what was happening to them, if they were too ashamed or embarrassed then they wouldn’t ask. When I say what if? What if my son had reading material available to him many years ago, what if it would have given him courage to stand up to this person and put a stop to it or what if he would have read about this happening to others and learning that his story was like theirs and he wasn’t alone and he shouldn’t be ashamed, what if it would have gave him the courage to talk to me about it then, instead of waiting 15 years to come forward, what if reading that book would have prevented the pain and suffering he has silently been going through all these years. As a parent, I do understand wanting to shelter your children from certain issues, but sadly these things are a fact of life and if our children are well informed on these issues, it may help prevent them from getting into certain situations or how to deal with certain situations.

  9. Sarah, respectfully speaking, your book was not banned. It may have been “banned,” but it was not banned. No book has been banned in the USA for about half a century. Fanny Hill got that honor a long time ago. Challenged books in schools that are removed is different from banning.

    Even the creator of BBW said:

    “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

    See: “Banned Books Week Propaganda Exposed by Progressive Librarian Rory Litwin; ALA Censors Out Criticism of Its Own Actions in a Manner Dishonest to the Core.”

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the links – I will definitely check them out.

      Setting aside the disagreement for a moment on what makes a book “banned” vs. banned, do you have any thoughts on whether the school board in this situation has made a good decision?

      As I said in the post, I don’t have the answers, but I’m very interested in hearing opinions on how parents deal with this in their own homes. Through your Safe Libraries campaign and personally, how do you advise parents on being involved with their teens’ reading? Do you think forcing parents to check out books at the school library is appropriate, or is it limiting? If you’re a parent yourself, how do / would you handle this if it came up at home?

      • The school board in this situation made a good decision.

        The real question is whether the school board’s book selection policy is a good one. There are arguments, obviously, both ways. This school board decided that school policy should be reflected in school book selection policy. That is a legitimate view, and a school board should be free to exercise such a view free from harassment from external organizations. I know I have heard people complain that school children are allowed to read what they may not speak or do. Interesting point. It is also legitimate to say students should not speak or act certain ways in school, but school reading material should not be similarly constrained. I do not know at this time where I stand.

        I advise people to get involved in their children’s reading. The key thing I advise is that if any issue arises, they need to read the book 100% through before making any complaints.

        If they do complain, I advise that they stay clear of issues involving morality, religion, homosexuality, or similar issues of no concern to any court.

        I advise them to read Board of Education v. Pico and other cases.

        I advise them that a recent Harris Poll shows most people oppose explicit books in schools. One might think otherwise with all the pressure from the national pressure groups.

        I advise them that national pressure groups frequently write misleading letters. For example, not once does the American Library Association reveal that the very creator of Banned Books Week said:

        “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

        That clearly makes a big difference.

        I advise them that they are not alone, and that the loud screaming about “censorship” and “banning” is really designed to scare other people off from ever daring to raise legitimate concerns. That’s a propaganda technique called “jamming.”

        I likely advise more than that, but that’s a good start for now.

        As to requiring parents to check out books, I do not see that as a problem. You simply log in to your local public library, do a quick search for the book, then request it electronically, online. You simply go to the public library and pick it up. Library hours are broader than school hours anyway.

        If this came up in my home, I would read the book all the way through, then decide what to do in cooperation with others. Most likely the kid gets the book. Rarely, I hope/suppose, a book may be so off that I would say no. The school book showing the adults having anal sex while the children look on would get a no, for example. Of course that might be appropriate for another family, but not mine. I am only concerned about explicit material. Gay penguins, an Earth older than 6000 years, a boy wizard hanging out in a bathroom, these things simply do not bother me in the slightest.

        There’s also a separate issue of what I would allow my kids to read (everything so far) and what I think would be inappropriate in public schools, and that would depend on the grade level. It thought The Chocolate War was not appropriate for 8 year olds in third grade, for example.

        I feel if a kid is reading a school book that is not educationally suitable, that means he is not reading a quality book instead. So it has a double negative effect. I would really want my kid to read the quality material that results in a quality education. Sex education should be taught in Sex Ed, not in English Lit.

    • THANK YOU for making this distinction. As an English teacher, the over-liberal use of the terms “censorship” and “banning” has long been one of my pet peeves.

  10. I personally do not limit what my teen reads. I sometimes suggest books to her, but never challenge the books that she does choose. I ask questions about them and she’s more than happy to share.

    I am very aware of the fact that she is mature enough to handle some adult content and has the critical thinking skills to recognize what is appropriate and what is not. She doesn’t need a book to tell her how to live her life, but rather to escape from some of the brutal realities she’s been faced with.

    I trust my teenager and her sense of right and wrong. I am confident in my parenting and hope she treats her children with the same openness and respect that I have given her.

  11. On a personal note, just as a consumer, I’d appreciate content advisories on books. I want to know in advance if a book contains the sexual exploitation of a child because I personally do not want to read that book.

  12. I simply don’t understand why parents don’t choose to opt their children out, instead of deciding to opt everyone’s children out. I have actually read 20 Boy Summer, and I handed it directly to my seventeen year old son.

    Books like yours make it easier to talk to my kids about hard subjects. It makes me furious to see other people deciding not only what’s good for their kids, but for *mine*.

  13. I’m the parent of a 15 year old girl. I read Twenty Boy Summer a year ago (so my daughter was 14) and told her you HAVE to read this. If I want to stop her from reading violence and sex, then I have to take away a LOT of books… including the Bible.

    The thing about books is that they can be a really easy way to talk about tough issues indirectly… i.e. you can talk about characters instead of people you know. Which I think can take the pressure off.

    I also respect the parents that want to know what their kids are reading, but I think that having an adult section in a kids library is a little creepy, too. Could they maybe have an automated email system that emails the parents what books their kids have out? Or make the system online so that parents could at least see it? (Most libraries are on online systems now anyway.) I don’t know just a thought….

  14. I was a teen who was not limited in my reading in any way. My mom sometimes read my books, but only after I’d recommended them to her. I was more like the reading guardian in that sense, ha.

    I’m a YA reader and writer and I’m 100% against censorship of any kind, and I’d like to second the idea that the right book at the right time can save lives. Some people tend to think that teens should be “protected” from things in the real world, but… when I was 12, at a sleepover with some girl friends, we were telling secrets. I found out that night that two girls out of our group of four, fifty percent of us, had been molested or raped as young children.

    And we lived in suburbia, in regular middle class families. We were the supposed people “those things don’t happen to,” the kids who “need to be protected” from that stuff. That censorship idea of “protection” had already failed for those girls. And I know for a fact that books helped make the difference to those two girls. The right book at the right time saves lives.

  15. No parent can control everything her child sees/hears/reads/discovers/experiences. It is impossible. The best we can do is provide a safe environment for growth and discovery while instilling values and teaching life skills. Making good choices is a life skill. Instead of trying to control the content of reality, why not teach your child ‘If you are reading/watching/listening to something that makes you uncomfortable – you can always stop and come talk to me about it.’ I’ve read all of these comments (and I wish more Americans were able to have such honest, considerate debates- well done)and I checked out Dan Kleinman’s Safe Libraries Blog and while I am personally 100% against book banning, I was interested in the recent case of the squirting sperm. (Who wouldn’t be?) The young girl was disturbed by the book, stopped reading, and talked to her parents. Sounds like the perfect choice! That child should be commended and her parents should be proud that she felt safe and confident enough to come to them. Now they have the opportunity to teach whatever they want about squirting sperm. That’s how life unfolds- and it isn’t always as you choose- especially as a parent. Nobody wants to teach an 8 year old girl about squirting sperm, but when situations like this arise we must take a breath and think about the lessons our actions impart. What does freaking out and banning the book teach your child about sex? About books? About honesty? About facing and talking about uncomfortable things? Sex happens. Sperm squirts. Do what you can to keep your child young and innocent and sweet. Do what you must to keep your child safe, educated and unafraid.

  16. As for the banned book in question…unlike the members of the school board who chose to limit access to this book, I actually read Twenty Boy Summer. Sarah Ockler has the gift of being able to evoke feelings through words, and Twenty Boy Summer left me with a hauntingly lovely feeling. Reading it was like sitting by the beach on a sunny day, revisiting bittersweet memories of first love, friendship, loss, longing, and letting go. For good or bad, sex is a very real, very meaningful part of these first experiences and memories. I don’t know why any woman would be afraid to share that with her daughter.

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