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This meeting was so eventful, entertaining, and unstructured that I hardly know where to start this blog. Rhonda Thurman, the Chairman of the Book Review Committee, clearly did not make any sort...
of written agenda for the 16 Committee Members to refer to. In fact, there was hardly any clarity on the exact purpose of the Committee itself, and the members present spent copious amounts of time asking clarifying questions on the meeting’s objective. Thurman stated multiple times that they would make recommendations to the School Board on fixing the current policies for librarians to follow but did not know how to proceed. It would make sense for them to have begun reviewing the current policy to locate any possible flaws, but Thurman said they did not have the time to go through the policies as a group. However, out of the two hours that the meeting was live-streamed, Thurman had ample time to go into her feelings about school libraries containing books with mature content, calling them “vile” and “really very bad.” Her own personal feelings on this matter were clear, and she had no issue lecturing the rest of the Committee on how dangerous it would be if they could not agree that coarse language and violent and sexual scenes were not appropriate for school libraries, and what parent’s reactions would be if these books remained on our shelves.Evidently, she expected everyone present to agree with her own beliefs on mature literary content and wanted the commonly mentioned “community standard” to be the same as her own personal standard.
One of my many criticisms of this meeting is that the Committee failed to define the difference between literary content at elementary, middle, and high school levels. Obviously, these are three distinctly separate age groups, each with its literacy and maturity levels. Let's take a book most everyone has read in school: To Kill a Mockingbird. This book shares a heartbreaking and critical story about racism in the south during the Jim Crow Era. The language is coarse at times, the subject matter is sensitive and mature, there are sexual and violent scenes, and the writing is more advanced. Obviously, elementary schools wouldn’t market a book like this. Older kids, however, are absolutely able to read a book like this and handle the mature content that it contains. I was in eighth grade when I first read this book in class, and I reread it in my sophomore English class, and I still feel that the book is necessary for people to read, regardless of the sensitive subjects it contains.
Books aren’t going to contain vulgar words or mature scenes without reason. Authors take time and care to write scenes to fit in with the book, so the so-called inappropriate content will more than likely contain a purpose (and if it doesn’t, then it wouldn’t be on our shelves). This kind of content adds to the book's value as a whole. It contributes something to the story, whether it be realism, plot advancement, thematic elements, character development, or several other literary components. It doesn’t make sense for someone to take those kinds of vulgar quotes out of context because it doesn’t represent the whole book and can not reflect the work's value. Not to mention, at middle and high school ages, students have probably been exposed to that content type somewhere else, so reading these kinds of books will not leave a negative impression on them.
While these kinds of books are appropriate for older students, elementary schoolers are obviously much younger and more impressionable, so they aren’t able to read them. This goes without saying, though, because most young children’s reading skills aren’t well-adapted enough to even comprehend those higher-level books, like the aforementioned To Kill a Mockingbird. However, each student matures at different rates (whether in terms of literacy or maturity), so this is not true for all kids. When I was in fifth grade, we were placed in reading groups based on reading level, and I was reading at a high school standard. My parents were fine when I began reading higher-level books (which at the time mainly entailed young adult dystopian series, like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments, etc.). In fact, they were ecstatic that I enjoyed reading so much, but every parent is different. Each parent has different rules for their kids, but no one wants to “co-parent with the government,” as one Committee member stated in the meeting. Since no two situations are the same, the decision should be left to the student’s family instead of the county. Like the Committee discussed, parents even have the option to privately email the school librarian with special requests about the books that their child can and can’t check out, which the librarian can then log in the student's profile.
In the meeting, Thurman and others raised a concern that the books are not consistent between schools and that there's not a standard set of books available to students at different schools. She did not consider that each school's demographic is unique so that each student body will have contrasting interests. Librarians should always supply books that their students are interested in and won’t take up unnecessary space on the shelf with books that their students don’t want to read. Parents can always check this unique selection of books at their students' school by going to https://library.hcde.org, scrolling down to the right school, and clicking on “display.” With this feature, they can search specific books by title and never have to wonder what particular works are available to their kids (this way, there is no issue with transparency, like Thurman and others have brought up before).
Finally, I want to point out that each librarian has a master's degree and is ideally qualified to make the judgments that they do daily (otherwise, they wouldn't have the job). No librarian will make books available to their students if they know that it isn’t appropriate for them, and they don’t want to corrupt kids with “vile” books, as Thurman put it. I think that that wording is dangerous to associate with something as beautiful as language and reading, but as I stated before, each parent has their own opinions on what their kids should and shouldn’t be exposed to. I think that we should be more concerned with re-engaging students with reading. Nothing saddens me more than seeing young kids say they hate to read, which is a feeling that will carry over long into adulthood. With this lack of passion, kids may never grow to appreciate the beauty of language or enjoy reading just for the sake of it. Even now, I hear so many of my peers say they dread assigned reading in English classes and that they can’t remember the last time they read a book for fun. We should encourage students to read and give them the literary options and intellectual space to do so.
I look forward to the next Book Review Committee Meeting on Tuesday, February 22nd, and I sincerely hope that this one goes smoother than the last, with more emphasis on policy review than arguing.