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What a BC Librarian Thinks about Calls to Ban Books

‘If we want to be promoting joy of reading, we need to have diverse books for students to access.’ A Tyee Q&A.

Katie Hyslop 22 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

In late February the Chilliwack RCMP put out a news release confirming what a reasonable person may assume to be true: the Chilliwack School District does not keep child pornography in its school libraries.

The release came in response to a complaint the Chilliwack detachment had received alleging books available in some School District 33 libraries fit the legal definition of child pornography.

Chilliwack RCMP declined to share the list of books included in the complaint because the content “did not meet the criminal threshold.”

According to a report by Global News, the complaint was made by Tanya Gaw, founder of Action4Canada, a COVID conspiracy organization that has expanded to campaigning against books in schools that contain LGBTQ2S+ content, depictions or mentions of abuse, sexuality and anti-racism themes.

All the books named by Gaw in her interview with Global News — The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Identical by Ellen Hopkins, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson and It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley — are by American authors and have been subjected to calls for banishment from U.S. schools by people who oppose anti-racism, LGBTQ2S + content and comprehensive sexual health education in schools.

The Tyee sent interview requests to Gaw via phone and email but did not receive a response.

Following a January presentation to another school board in Mission requesting the removal of books, Action4Canada was banned from addressing that board for one year.

Mission board chair Shelley Carter told the Mission City Record Action4Canada’s platform “is full of misinformation and wants to present hateful propaganda.”

So: in B.C., who decides what books should be in public school libraries? Teacher-librarians.

In addition to curating school library collections, teacher-librarians educate students about information technology and work with classroom teachers to deliver inquiry-based lessons and literacy education to students.

No stranger to people upset about books available in school libraries, the BC Teacher-Librarians’ Association released a letter last October in support of the government-approved sexual orientation and gender identity learning resources known as SOGI123.

“There were letters from Action4Canada that were sent out to public librarians, but also to some school librarians about our choices and purchases, and especially with the SOGI materials,” Tammy Le, president of the BC Teacher-Librarians' Association, told The Tyee.

“And so we decided to write a letter saying that freedom of choice for reading for students, that's very important for us. And it's tied into the curriculum as well, and part of the curriculum is joy of reading. And if we want to be promoting joy of reading, we need to have diverse books for students to access.”

In an interview last week, The Tyee asked Le, a secondary school teacher-librarian in the Surrey district — which won an award from the Canadian School Libraries Journal in 2022 — how teacher-librarians decide what books go on library shelves, why it’s important to introducing challenging topics to teenagers and why everyone should care about book banning.

The Tyee: How do teacher-librarians select books for school libraries?

Tammy Le: I'm a secondary teacher-librarian, which is very different from an elementary teacher-librarian. They do have more restrictions on their purchases. But school libraries do not follow the same procedures as classroom resources. Classroom resources that teachers use with their classes have to be approved by the school district. And depending on the district, we have Focused Education Resources, that does a lot of approvals.

What's Focused Education Resources?

Focused Education is an organization that hires teachers to do book or resource reviews. They review the resource and see if it's appropriate for classroom use. They also do a lot of social considerations. So they usually have two teachers who review the same resource, and they have to talk it out. And if there's anything that is explicit, they will note that down, whether it's approved or not and things like that.

Focused Education is for all teachers in the classroom to use. And anyone can access the website and take a look at the resources that are approved. Just teachers have the ability to look at the details, like the social considerations.

Each district is a little bit different. So in my district, we also do our own reviews. Focused Ed may have reviewed a resource, but the district will also take a second look to see if it fits to our district's standards, too.

And that would be for classroom use?

Strictly classroom use. For the library, we have a little bit more freedom, mostly because it is student choice at this point. They're not choosing to read because their teacher wants them to read for class and learning purposes, but mostly for them, for leisure. They may choose it for an independent novel in their class, but it's still them choosing what they feel is appropriate for them.

In those cases, teacher-librarians review books. We can't read everything, but there are companies that review books for us that we can look at: Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal, things like that. For the elementary levels, they're a little bit more restricted; they also have to think about what's appropriate for students of that age group. They put that into consideration far more than we do at the high school level. We're not trying to just put anything in the library. But we also want to make sure that we're putting books that really make students think. And that it caters to all our diverse needs.

Maturity levels for high school students vary pretty greatly. So how do you make those decisions?

At the high school level, this is when we really feel strongly that students are now at an age where they should be allowed to choose. And I always let students know if you don't feel comfortable reading something, then you are, by all means, allowed to put it down, to not read it, to put it aside.

It's not that much different from a public library: you're still choosing for yourself. And I think a lot of our learners have learned that if it's something that they're not comfortable with, they're not going to continue reading it. But that doesn't mean that it should be restricted from everybody not reading it, either.

Are you having those conversations with students where they're like, "Why is this book in the library?" or "I found this book disturbing"?

Yeah, occasionally, I'll have some of my students come in, they say, “Oh, there's a scene that's a little bit racy for me.” Like a lot of the young adult books nowadays: I don't know if you read YA, some of them have sex scenes in there. And some of my younger readers may be like, “Ooh, Miss Le. That was a little bit more than I'm comfortable with.”

I'm like, “That's okay. That means you don't have to read that. And maybe a couple years later, you might be ready to read that. And that's totally okay. There's nothing wrong with that. That's just your best choice that you make personally.” And they understand that. And so a lot of them will say, “Yeah, I don't think I want to read this yet,” and that's totally fine.

How long have you been a teacher-librarian?

Since 2011.

Then I'll ask you to cast back to your own high school experience: How have young adult novels changed in terms of that content?

Okay, so speaking from my own personal experience as a high school student, number one, YA didn't exist.

Really?

Young adult books were rare. Like, you're just looking at classics when I was in high school in the ’90s. It's so limited. We have come a long way and that genre has grown so much. Books like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent: those are what really blew up this whole genre making it a reality that, hey, this is actually a whole section that people really enjoy reading.

Has the explosion in YA engaged young people with books?

They have more choices. There's social media, there's TV, there's all kinds of stuff now versus back then. But I think it's competitive enough that it still holds strong for students. The whole world of BookTok: I've got kids crazy reading all kinds of books because of that. They're still wanting to read. It's still widely popular.

Why is it important to give teenagers access to books that have mature themes like racism, sexuality, sexual assault, stuff like that?

Personally, I think that they want to see reflections of themselves, right? That's why we read. We want to find some way to make connections. And sometimes those connections need to be in a way that's safe for them to interact with. So you might not be a rape victim, but you want to read about in a safe way so you understand a little bit better about that. We're giving them that space to learn about these issues, to learn empathy, to just have an open mind about things, and that's for a wide variety of reasons.

Which is the reason why I'm so happy now that we have so many BIPOC authors, too, and LGBTQ authors. We're seeing such variety, which I never saw when I was a teenager. Every author I read was white. But now I'm seeing that reflected back: now there's so many Asian authors and Black authors and Indigenous authors, it's just so nice to see that variety, and be able to give that to our students and say, “Here: read it, learn about it, and then open your world a little bit more.” And I think that's the whole idea of reading books is just to have that world open up in a safe way that you can just explore.

What do you make of the Chilliwack RCMP’s investigation into child pornography in school district libraries?

From the results, as we know, that was unwarranted. And that's the challenge that we are facing today is that there's more and more concern about what our students are reading. But I hope that parents understand that we are trying our best to provide them with resources that are appropriate, but will also challenge them.

What do you say to parents or members of the public who are concerned about what might be in the library?

Talk to your children. I think at the end of the day, part of that disconnect is when we don't have good conversations with our children about what they should be reading, and what we feel they should be reading. But also, sometimes parents might have trouble talking about certain topics, too. And that's where a book is really nice because it can talk about those subjects in a way that parents can't.

The Chilliwack RCMP would not say what books they investigated. But Action4Canada has talked about the titles, almost all by American authors. Do you have any thoughts as to why they're not looking at Canadian books in the same way?

That's just because we don't have as many Canadian authors writing. There's way more American authors than Canadian authors in the market just as is. So I don't necessarily think it's a Canadian versus American thing. I think their concern is LGBTQ issues and exposing their children to those topics.

And racism.

Yes, absolutely.

Why should people outside of the education system care when groups or individuals talk about banning books from schools?

Because it impacts everyone. Ultimately, when you start having book bans, you're restricting people from learning about certain ideologies, topics, whatever it is, and in the long run that could affect everybody, right? It's preventing people from being educated about certain ideas instead of being more open-minded to it.

For example, religious groups might want you to be teaching abstinence only, and never talking about other forms of protection. So the same thing with banning a book is now you're trying to omit that topic so that other people will never be able to learn about it.  [Tyee]

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