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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Who decides what books belong in the school library? Can we talk about it?

You probably can't find Hustler in the school library -- or Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal, write Jay Greene and Robert Pondiscio in Daily Signal. Lots of books are inappropriate for children, uninteresting to children or just not worth the shelf space.

I'd guess students would search in vain for Sheila K. Butt's Does God Love Michael's Two Daddies?, The Tuttle Twins and the Road to Surfdom (perils of government regulation). Do they carry Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life?

Parents who want a say in what books are in school libraries are being slandered as censors or “book banners” by the American Library Association (ALA) and PEN America, write Greene and Pondiscio. That's unfair and inaccurate.

Parents and parent groups want to discuss "which books are appropriate for children of different ages; which works have enduring cultural or educational value; and the process by which those decisions should be made," they write.

The library association and PEN think that classroom teachers and school librarians should make these decisions unilaterally and unaccountably while parent groups simply want greater public oversight and parental input into these decisions as law and tradition have long allowed and generally encourage.

Shelf space is limited, they point out. Libraries can't carry every book. Those who "challenge the preferences of school librarians should not be denounced as "book banners."

If librarians decide a classic book is unacceptably racist, sexist, religious, heteronormative or otherwise not worth shelf space, are they "banning" the book? What if they decide not to shelve a popular but trashy book such as Fifty Shades of Grey?

The ALA and PEN are counting books as removed from libraries, when they've merely been challenged but allowed to remain, write Greene and Pondiscio.

Parents groups raised concerns about 156 school library books in Indian River County, Florida, but only five were removed, they write.

Nationwide, the third most "banned" book is Out of Darkness, which features rape, incest, interracial teenage lovers and a (historic) disaster that killed 300 students and teachers in New London, Texas in 1937. Parents who object to the award-winning book are "pawns in a political game," author Ashley Hope Pérez tells Education Week's Eesha Pendkharkar .

Last September, at a Lake Travis Independent School District in Texas, a parent read a passage from Out of Darkness at a board meeting that referred to anal sex. “I do not want my children to learn about anal sex in middle school,” said Kara Bell. The board removed the book and two others for being sexually explicit. "The explicit passages in Out of Darkness which deal with rape or sexual abuse" are not pornographic because "literature is always doing something more than simply arousing sexual interest," says Pérez. Even if publicity about the ban sells more books, nothing "undoes the harm of a real kid in a high school library not being able to find this book," the author says. "Not having the option of doing that work and sharing that encounter with the past, with our actual American history of racialized violence and hatred."

Controversies about what books are suitable for kids go way, way back. In the old days, the conflicts were mostly about sex. Now? Still mostly about sex.

Stop calling concerned parents "haters," writes Anne Palmieri, a Utah mother. Parents want schools to "follow existing guidelines regarding age-appropriate content with regard to indecency and obscenity."

Six parents who complained of offensive content to the Alpine (Utah) School board were asked by a board member not to read the passages, she writes. "Evidently, the passages from some of these books were too offensive for adult ears but are currently available in classrooms of students as young as 12 years old."

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