As a school librarian I constantly toe this line. Parents and teachers want their children to find what they need and what the adults in their lives think the children want. Children often want something more. More exciting, more romantic, more violent, more rude…
Rude is the easy part. When someone fusses at me about a book with fart jokes (R.L. Stine’s “Rotten School” series is a case in point.) I can smile and shrug and say “I don’t really like fart jokes so much either. That’s really not my taste in humor. But I’m not in second or third grade…” Often questions about rude humor are brought up by students in 4th or 5th grade who are developing their own, very necessary, internal censor and I can assure them that their feeling uncomfortable shows that they are very grown up.
Language is also fairly easy. The question becomes not whether our library should have books with “words like that” but do the words (all the words – not just the “naughty” ones) serve a purpose. Is the story or the information worth the shelf space in the library and the mind space in our students’ brains? These issues are again often raised by fourth or fifth grade students who are concerned that the library has books with “inappropriate words.” I haven’t yet had a case where that student felt that they shouldn’t have been allowed to read the book – only concern that others might! Students who bring up these issues often want to and are ready to talk them through. Part of reading is discovering that characters sometimes act and speak in ways that might be distasteful to the reader, but that can be part of realistic behavior. Some people behave badly, and a good and truthful story can include people like that.
Violence is harder. I read, reread and think hard as I select books. My library is a school library, so it serves the school’s needs as well as the students, and shelf space is tight. If I am going to bend the rules a little and carry a book that is “rated” in the review literature for middle school students, is there a purpose besides satisfying a student’s desire for more gore? As with language, it comes down to the story or the information. Is it worth the shelf space? Is it good, interesting, readable, entertaining, thought provoking, etc? Walter Dean Myers may at times be disturbing, but is always worth reading. I do have students who crave “scary books” and even some who specifically ask for books with “more violence,” so every year I search to find a few more books that are readable, age appropriate, yet scary. “Goosebumps” is a wonderful series, but – then what? It is hard to find books that live up to the expectations of young people that have been watching slasher movies and playing violent video games since second grade, but I keep trying! Short story collections such as R.L. Stine’s Beware:R.L. Stine picks his favorite stories and the Guy’s Read Thriller give students craving a scare a place to start looking for new favorite authors.
Now about romance… We live in an era where many fourth and fifth grade girls want to read “up” not so much in reading level as in maturity level. Many ten year old girls want to pretend at least some of the time that they are in high school. The good news is that many authors work hard to make their books accessible to younger girls. Ann Martin, Judy Blume, and Meg Cabot are just a few of the authors that make young girls feel that they are reading very grownup books. I have read and loved The Fault in our Stars. Yes there is romance. There is even a sex scene. But all we “see” is that he removes his prosthetic leg and her oxygen line gets tangled up as he tries to undress her. It is “rated” in the reviews for grades nine and up. I know that most of my sixth graders bought it and read it last June. This year we only go up to fifth grade so I probably won’t add it to the collection. Part of me feels that I am holding out, not offering this prized book to my students. Is this selection? Or is it censorship? What do you think?