Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

11.14.2016

Library 101

Had a fifth grader--guided by teacher, I assume, since the same happened for colleagues--find my contact information on my library's website and email me some questions as part of an assignment on banned books. I enjoyed typing my response today; it was refreshing to dwell in a different set of values than those triggered by politics lately. The exchange follows (altered slightly to preserve anonymity/pseudonymity).


Hi it would mean a lot if you could answer these question I'm in 5th grade and were writing a paper about banning books.

  • What age do you think James and the Giant Peach is aimed for?
  • What do you think it was banned for?
  • Do you think this was necessary to be banned?
  • Would you let your (answer to number 1) kid read this book.
  • What criteria would you give some if they challenged a book
  • What would you rate this book between 1(super clean) and 10(horrible)
  • Is there any book you think should be banned from our library.
  • What is the worst book you've read
  • What was the worst thing in the book.
  • Would you rather your son read on the Internet or from literature
Thank you please answer these.
 - G

-----

G,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. I am honored to have been asked and will happily take a stab at giving you some answers to them.

The best way to start, I think, is with a few thoughts about the idea of banning books, with reference to the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement.

I would summarize the key point behind these documents as being: Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what to read--in the case of children, that right belonging to parents and legal guardians (they get to decide for you until you are 18). No one except you (and your parents) gets to decide whether you should or should not read a particular book; and, at the same time, you don't get to decide for anyone else whether they should or should not read a particular book. Each person gets to decide for themselves.

Thus, banning a book is a problem because it is someone deciding for others that they should not read a particular book. Everyone has their own morals and opinions, finds different things offensive and problematic. Only they can decide if a book is suitable for their particular beliefs, and no one else.

In accordance with that philosophy, I'm not going to tell you what I personally think about the book, because it is up to you and your parents to decide whether the book is suitable or not.

That does not mean you have to decide in a vacuum, though. There are many resources available that let you see how others have responded to your questions.

You could start with our library's web catalog. The record for James and the Giant Peach includes a number of reviews from professional sources, some of which include age recommendations (School Library Journal, for instance, says grades 3-6) and descriptions of potentially problematic content. Below the professional reviews is the Community Activity, which allows library users to leave comments and recommendations of their own. Currently there are 16 statements about age suitability and one Notice someone left about "coarse language."

One of the professional reviews linked from that page is that from Common Sense Media, a website designed for parents and teachers to learn about books before recommending them to their children, and it includes a section titled, "What Parents Need to Know." Since different parents find different things problematic, they rate the book (and all others) in five categories: Educational value, Positive messages, Positive role models, Violence & scariness, and Language. You can read what others have said about each of these in relation to James and the Giant Peach there.

Also, a really nice article that discusses books by Roald Dahl both in terms of their popularity and why many people find parts of them objectionable is Banned Books: Publications by Roald Dahl from The University of Tulsa. A section from it: "James and the Giant Peach has been censored many times since its publication in 1961. 'It has been banned for being too scary for the targeted age groups, mysticism, sexual inferences, profanity, racism, references to tobacco and alcohol, and claims that it promotes disobedience, drugs, and communism' (bannedbooksweeks.com). In the early 1990s a public school system In Texas banned James and the Giant Peach from the primary school classrooms, library, and syllabi because the school district’s superintendent argued that the books were inappropriate for young children based off the use of curse words in the book such as 'ass'. In 1986 a small Wisconsin town banned the book because of a scene featuring the spider licking her lips. Religious groups in the town argued that this scene could be 'taken in two ways, including sexual' (The Times of London).  A year after this incident, a woman in Hernando County Florida took issue with the Grasshopper’s statement, 'I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican', arguing that the book promoted racist ideals. This woman also was bothered by the books depiction of snuff, tobacco, and whiskey. Her complaints to the local school districts led to a review by the Florida school board ending in the book being temporarily banned from the schools reading list." I think that gives a nice picture of the wide variety of different things that can be issues for different readers, and that no single statement about a book can represent everyone's feelings about it.

While there are many books that bother me personally, I would not advocate banning them from our library for that reason alone because that is me deciding for others, which is wrong. Someone else might find great value in a book that bothers me. A quote about libraries that I really like is from Jo Goodwin: "A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone." Librarians do have to make decisions about which books to include and not include, since each library can only have so many items, but we try to make those decisions without considering what we find personally offensive. You can read about this idea in much more detail in our library's Collection Development Policy, especially section 3.3, Controversial Subject/Items, that starts at the bottom of page 9.

And, one final thought related to your last question, would I rather my son read on the Internet or from literature: books and the Internet are merely two different devices for recording and relating information and stories. They are formats, not content. In many cases, even, they contain the same content. Project Gutenberg, for instance, exists to share works of literature as free ebooks. While many books become what is considered "classic literature," many more don't measure up in terms of quality or lasting appeal. In terms of concerns about potentially problematic content, I would advise you to consider the content of the specific material and not make any blanket assumptions about format (i.e. online vs. paper).

I hope those responses are helpful. Please let me know if you have others or if there are other ways I can assist you.

Degolar

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