Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Second verse, same as the first

A commenter asked yesterday on the blog about the news that the Hamas government has banned a book of Palestinian folktales, Speak, Bird, Speak Again, from West Bank schools because of sexual references. And this is different from U.S. schools banning It's Perfectly Normal or The Higher Power of Lucky because . . . ?

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

No different than the U.S. situation with "The Higher Power of Lucky" and "It's Perfectly Normal."

It's the "pot calling the kettle black."

No surprises. Yawn.....

M

Anonymous said...

And it's different because the government banned it there. While here, librarians are simply doing their jobs and choosing appropriate books for their readers. No censorship happening for Lucky; just voting with their $$.

S.

Anonymous said...

And In what school has Lucky been banned? I haven't heard of one. Only schools where librarians choose not to purchase.

Roger Sutton said...

Oh, I love this argument. Public school librarians ARE the government (as are public librarians). And a book that a public-serving, publically-paid librarian "chooses not to purchase" because he or she disapproves of something the book says is engaging in the very purest (not to mention sneakiest) kind of censorship. Excluding a book from a collection because you don't approve of it is no different from removing a book from a collection for the same reason. As ALA's Library Bill of Rights says, "materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval." By "proscribed" they mean not allowed in the collection in the first place. And I will personally buy and donate copies of The Higher Power of Lucky to the first ten school librarians who write to me on letterhead that (one) the only reason they didn't buy the book was that their budget couldn't afford it and (two) that they promise to add the book to their circulating juvenile collection without restrictions or modifications to the text.

Anonymous said...

Go Roger.

Anonymous said...

But if my child's school doesn't stock Lucky, I am still free to go buy it from the bookstore, or order it online, or for heaven's sake interlibrary-loan-request it. If the text, itself, is illegal -- if I can be arrested for procuring it -- that's a whole other level of oppression.

This doesn't constitute a defense of the librarians' censorship, but I don't think it does any good to call the two acts the same when they're not.

Anonymous said...

anonymous said:
"But if my child's school doesn't stock Lucky, I am still free to go buy it from the bookstore, or order it online, or for heaven's sake interlibrary-loan-request it. If the text, itself, is illegal -- if I can be arrested for procuring it -- that's a whole other level of oppression."

Yes...What you say may be true. But in this instance, the Palestinian folktale book was simply pulled from the schools. The text hasn't been made unavailable. It's not oppression. It's in the article.

The situation is indeed very similar to the situation here in the U.S.

The only difference - It's not a full all-out ban in U.S. schools. Nothing in the article even mentioned a ban in Palestinian libraries. That fact is interesting.
M

shahairyzad said...

I'd rather donate 10 copies of any other children's/YA book to the first 10 librarians who tell me they didn't buy "The Higher Power of Lucky" because there were so many other better books to buy.

I mean, come on, this is not "Ulysses" we're talking about. It's a nice little book with cute drawings and one controversial word in it. But if that's all it takes to get a Newbery and make the grapevine quiver for six months, hell, I'll work "vulva" into my next book.

Greg T. said...

Yeah, I'd say the Hamas government stepping in and making a book completely unavailable is a whole different level of censorship. I'm in the middle of The Higher Power of Lucky right now...as Maxwell Smart would say,..."And loving it!"

Greg

Elzey said...

It's odd, when I read this news story I didn't draw the parallel between Hamas flexing it's cultural muscle and our own homegrown librarians caught in the middle of a raging debate over community standards.

No, I suspected the real reason for the censorship was that the folk tales were narrated by women.

Anonymous said...

"As ALA's Library Bill of Rights says, "materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval." By "proscribed" they mean not allowed in the collection in the first place."

It sounds good, but it's impractical. No library can stock every book. Hence, EVERY librarian in EVERY library is guilty of "proscribing" some book or other.

In reality and in practice, librarians are in the business of CHOOSING. And when they don't walk in lock-step with a committee's decision--so what? Why are they being attacked?

The problem seems to me that many people take an elitist view of the Newbery selection process, that the committee somehow knows what is best and the poor local librarian is less than intelligent. That kind of elitist attitude and resulting attack on the integrity of librarians is less than helpful.

I repeat: they don't get to vote on the committee, so they vote with their $$. And we pay them to do that job.

Roger Sutton said...

I think it's sophistry to say that since a library can't/doesn't purchase every book that each book not selected is being censored, and that therefore the accusation is meaningless. "Proscribed" doesn't mean "not there," it means "not there because someone had a moral disagreement with its content." There are plenty of solid reasons not to buy Lucky, just as there are for not buying, say, Sarah, Plain and Tall. Your library may not serve the age group for whom the book is intended. In a school library, you might only buy fiction that relates to the curriculum. You might buy little hardcover fiction because it doesn't circulate. But if you routinely purchase middle-grade fiction that wins the Newbery (not because the Newbery is infallible, but because the award creates demand and/or classroom use) but decide Lucky constitutes a special case because of one word, then yes, you are censoring.

What's worse, though, is when you pretend you aren't censoring, by suddenly invoking vague rules about "literary quality" that somehow didn't apply when you acquired all those copies of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. My favorite example of this is from my first job and we didn't buy Show Me!, a copiously, graphically illustrated sex ed book, because (as my library director said) "it didn't have an index." (And interestingly, that book is now illegal in this country because it has photographs of minors engaging in sex. There's an example of censorship that even Hamas did not in this particular interest aspire to.)

Andy Laties said...

Anonymous said:
"The problem seems to me that many people take an elitist view of the Newbery selection process, that the committee somehow knows what is best and the poor local librarian is less than intelligent. That kind of elitist attitude and resulting attack on the integrity of librarians is less than helpful.
I repeat: they don't get to vote on the committee, so they vote with their $$. And we pay them to do that job."

My response:
This argument is an analogy to the "Local School District versus Federal Mandate" debate. The Newbery Award committee being set up as the United Stated Congress attempting to set National Standards, and the local librarian as holding the line for a different set of Community Standards. (It also sounds like the similar States Rights argument.)

But: the Newbery Committee is merely offering an opinion; giving an award. In doing so, they make a recommendation. There's no coercive power over local librarians. No legal sanction for non-purchase of the award-winning book.

So, any criticism or praise of this local librarian's decision comes from community members and professional peers.

The issue seems to be: "What is the definition of a professional librarian?"

It's not about the POWER or lack thereof that the Newbery Committee holds. But rather, Given that you've joined a "profession", what is the definition of that profession and what should such a professional do in a particular, rather common, kind of dicey situation? What is professionalism, in librarianship?

I'm a bookseller. I am without a profession. There are NO schools of bookselling, no degrees, no certifications. My peer group includes anyone who announces they have become a bookseller. I really like this situation.

But a librarian is different. As long as librarians claim they are "professionals", then they have to act in the manner that such professionals act. It has nothing to do with National Versus Local. It's all about the uniform aspects of behavior within the profession.

Otherwise: just quit and become a bookseller!

(By the way, the street of booksellers in Baghdad was bombed yesterday and 60 booklovers were killed. I think the existence of Radical Islamic book-hating is a pretty good signal to us Americans that the openness to sharing controversial books -- a task that's safeguarded by the existence of a PROFESSION dedicated to this task -- is a key marker of our democratic freedom. To quote our Fearless Leader, "Are you with us, or are you with the terrorists.")

Anonymous said...

If I am a librarian, and I do not purchase LUCKY because I do not agree with my professional society's recommendation that it is the best work of children's literature last year but choose to purchase another novel instead, am I "censoring" LUCKY from my patrons or am I using my professional judgment to "select" another novel that I think is better written?

from Anonymous J

Andy Laties said...

Well of course I personally don't know anything about the official nature of the professionalism of librarianship. Also, I apologize for acting as if I do. (In truth, among booksellers I often complain that we need much better educational programs for booksellers and that if there were certification procedures there would be a much higher quality of independent bookselling in this country.)

I can say this though: I as a PATRON of libraries would like to have access to books that are specifically controversial. So -- my feeling -- again, as a library patron -- is that BECAUSE "Lucky" is controversial, it should be in the library. Not because it won the Newbery. Not because it's good. But because it's the subject of controversy, so I might want to get a hold of a copy (for free: it's the library, which is where the free books are) to decide for myself about the controversy.

Anonymous said...

I think we all agree that censoring is a bad thing, but censoring at a national level is worse than a few librarians exercising bad judgement.
Marian

Roger Sutton said...

No, J, I wouldn't call such a decision censorship: not even ALA believes that its choices for book awards constitute mandatory purchase by its members. But I might question your professional (not literary) judgment. Is your collection composed solely of books that meet your threshold of literary quality? I find the first two-and-a-half (I then gave up) Harry Potters to be at best second-rate. But as a public librarian, there are other factors I need to take into account, such as popular demand and the fact that mine is a minority opinion among my reviewing peers. As Andy says, there are likely to be requests just out of sheer curiosity for a Newbery winner that's become so notorious. Personally, I would be embarassed to tell a patron I didn't purchase a Newbery-winner for the library because it didn't meet my standards, which by unspoken implication are higher than those of the person who is requesting the book. But could I remove Sarah, Plain and Tall while I was at it? ;-)

Anonymous said...

"I think it's sophistry to say that since a library can't/doesn't purchase every book that each book not selected is being censored, and that therefore the accusation is meaningless. "Proscribed" doesn't mean "not there," it means "not there because someone had a moral disagreement with its content." "

But again--librarians choose. That's their job. On what basis does a professional librarian choose? Certainly moral, literary, popularity, controversial--all these enter into the decision. But it's sophistry to say that moral disagreement is never one of the reasons. No librarian is perfectly neutral.

There is a difference, too, between a public library and a school library. Public library has a wider mandate to include a wider range of moral, literary, etc. books; a school library needs to serve the curriculum needs, the intellectual needs of their students, etc. The result could be vastly different decisions.

It seems to me that the ALA has missed a great feedback moment: many members has risen up and said they don't agree with the Newbery committee's choice. (Some may disagree with the REASONS they don't agree, but put that aside for a moment.)

The Newbery has "power and prestige" because "we, the people" generally agree with the book designated for the award. But what happens when "we, the people" no longer agree?

The ALA accuses people of banning or censoring the book in what smacks of an ad hominem argument. Yes, they should support the committee's choice this year! But--shouldn't they also reflect on the process which has produced such controversy? Shouldn't they reach out and attempt to put a wider variety of people on the committee in coming years?

The alternative is that the Newbery will decline in it's popularity and influence--and I think the field of children's literature will be the worse for all that. I hope the ALA will not just attack those who disagree, but find ways to include them in the future.

S.

Roger Sutton said...

I don't know, Marian. Much federal censorship has to do with things such as child pornography and information re national security and intelligence, and I can see their point (even if the present administration wildly exploits the presence of the first for its own political aims and wildly overreaches on the second to cover its ass). A more pertinent area of concern here is the way the federal government requires public libraries to filter the internet in order to receive certain federal funds. Maybe someone who has first-hand experience with that could tell us more, as I really don't know how it works. We don't see federal censorship of local school books because we don't have a nationalized curriculum (not for lack of trying!), which it sounds like the Gaza Strip does. Anyone know more about this?

Roger Sutton said...

Man, these comments are coming thick and fast--and thoughtful, so thanks. But S., in my going-on-thirty years in this field I can't think of a Newbery choice that wasn't reviled and/or ridiculed by a significant number of librarians. Nor an Oscar, nor a National Book Award. That's just the nature of awards--see my editorial on that topic at http://www.hbook.com/publications/magazine/editorials/jul06.asp

YS Doug said...

I got my MLS in 1988, and one thing I've learned is that many librarians have a very high opinion of what they do.

My library automatically orders all award-winning books. We display them on special shelving. We encourage young people to read them. Who am I to question the choices of a committee? I didn't serve on that committee. I'm sure for every title that receives an award there are several members of the selection committee who didn't really want it to receive one. I don't care. It won; it's on our shelves.

Now, granted, if you have real budgetary constraints (my library did for years), you have to be a little more particular with your spending. But why on earth would you not have all the award-winners?

Imagine walking into Blockbuster and asking for the dvd of "Midnight Cowboy," only to have the manager say, "Oh, that movie was over-rated. I didn't like it. Besides, you know it was originally rated X? I chose not to stock it."

It's frightening that one librarian can make a choice that affects an entire community. Power-hungry much?

Anonymous said...

Then let's just move on from this thread with a quote...

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.
Just get people to stop reading them." ~~ Ray Bradbury


Says it all!

M

Anonymous said...

"It's frightening that one librarian can make a choice that affects an entire community. Power-hungry much?"

But that's just it, you see--librarians make these choices over what and what not to include in their collections every day, and these choices affect an entire reading community. It's not a power trip; it their job to make informed "selections" for their patrons. If LUCKY is just filling a spot for a "newer middle grade or YA novel," there are many, many other possibilities. If the library does not carry it, given the national debate (apparently) about it, then the librarian risks being labelled with censorship. It seems like reverse censorship to expect that he or she should carry the book, for whatever reason that is outside his/her normal selection process.

Anon J

Andy Laties said...

What is the definition of "Reverse Censorship"?

Is it something like: "Required Reading"?

Roger Sutton said...

Oh, I understand "reverse censorship," Andy. It's when you feel forced by public opinion to purchase something you honestly and firmly felt wasn't right for your collection. Like when you have to buy Jamie Lee Curtis books, for example ;-) Or, on the national, gossipy level, when ALA's Notable Books committee voted Wiesner's Tuesday off their list, only to have to stick it back on when the book won the Caldecott!

Andy Laties said...

When I opened the store at Eric Carle Museum I was besieged by illustrators who live in Western Massachusetts. They wanted to know why I wasn't stocking their titles in the store. I explained that with limited shelf space in the shop of a museum that strove to carry only to best, most representative books from the history of the picture book field, I refused to stock books merely on the basis of where the authors lived. It wasn't fair to authors who live in San Diego or Tokyo, or who died 50 years ago. I said that local authors were in competition for my shelf space with ALL authors, and I would rely on my own expert judgment. (In other words, I was pretty obnoxious to local authors and illustrators.)

However this turned out to be a real problem because FRIENDS of a number of these authors started coming by the store and asking to see their author-acquaintances' titles!! I realized I couldn't stay on my high horse or I'd get the local customers mad at me and mad at the museum, by extension.

I proposed to the museum that we begin running events with local authors. I started telling local authors and illustrators that they could FORCE me to stock their books if they would line up a storyhour or signing or event at the museum.

Over the past four years, dozens of local authors have appeared at this museum, and at least 5% of the titles on my shelves are by local authors. They sell! My value judgment that said "locality shouldn't affect book selection procedure" was just as arbitrary as saying the opposite. And so now I do frequently order a new title BECAUSE the author is local.

I had to learn from the customers, from the authors -- from the patrons.

I would say I was subjected to Reverse Censorship. I had to start buying books that I didn't want to buy. Guess what? It ain't so bad, and doggone, people like me for doing it.

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