Selection, self-censorship, and reading choices

I recently got some new high-interest, low-reading level series in the library (when I shelve them and book talk them, I call them “Quick Reads”, but that’s a subject for another post!). About two weeks ago, I had several classes in for book talks to learn about our new books and check out some winter break reading.

One of the new series was a horror one that is reviewed and recommend for the age of the students coming in and, though I’m not a horror fan myself, was a pretty enjoyable read. It does feature some gruesome covers, though.

I was surprised that in three of the five classes that came in a few students clustered around the “Quick Reads” table, saw the horror series, and said some version of the following:

“Why do you keep books that are so dark in the library? We shouldn’t be reading this stuff, we’re just kids!”

But in each class, a student always came up — whether shyly, sheepishly, excitedly, or brazenly — to pick up the very books that their classmates had deemed “too dark” or “inappropriate.”

Usually, in my experience, it’s parents and community members that raise concerns about content being too mature, risqué or offensive for students, so it was interesting to me to see groups of students questioning the library content.

I took these moments as a teaching opportunity to share with students that every reader has different wants and needs when they read, so it’s my responsibility (and the responsibility of every librarian) to have a wide range of books and offer them to students. I know that not each book will appeal to each student, but there should be something for everyone. Then, it’s their responsibility, with the help of their families, teachers, and librarians as appropriate, to learn how to make choices about what they want to read and what sort of content might align with their values, interests, and emotions right now. I even taught them a little about the concepts of censorship and self-censorship. I pointed out how important it is to be respectful of the reading choices of others and not to assume that the choice you make about whether or not to read a book is the right one for everyone.

As I set some New Year’s goals for my library program, I’m going to use this teachable moment as a reminder to myself to keep striving for diversity in my collection. I’ve got a few questions I’ll be reflecting on over our winter break with the hopes to make a few improvements to build a stronger program:

  • How am I teaching students to evaluate content and make reading choices? 
  • How can I better foster a reading community where students respect the diverse reading choices and needs of their fellow students? 
  • Do my selection policies ensure that I’m reaching all readers? Which readers am I not reaching right now, and how can I enhance those parts of the collection? 
  • How is self-censorship impacting my collection? 
  • Do my shelving system and space layout help all the students in my 5-12 school have equitable access to our collection? 
  • Do I provide enough passive finding aids (genre stickers, posters, signage, reading lists, bookmarks and handouts on ways to choose a “just right” book) that each student, even those who are unlikely to ask for help, is more likely to find the right match in reading level and interest? 
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