Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

A Librarian/Teacher View on #metoo

Image: (vintage book cover)

Although I am a bonafide English teacher, I remain a librarian at heart and keep an invested interest in matters of school and public libraries. This month’s School Library Journal ran an article on how the #metoo movement has affected the juvenile literature world with the news of authors Jay Asher, James Dashner, and Sherman Alexie’s admissions and accusations. One result of these disclosures is for many librarians to contemplate whether the books of these authors should be pulled from shelves. Bill Cosby’s Little Bill picture book series is part of this conversation.

Banning, censoring–controversial terms that create a myriad of reactions. When books or the authors of books come into question, often the reaction is to pull, box up, and cleanse in the name of protecting young minds and upholding values. This is can become problematic.

At the public library level the response I usually observed was to ride the tide–if patrons objected to the material they had the option of not checking it out. Simple and neat. As one librarian noted: considering Hitler’s atrocities against humans should Mein Kampf remain on the shelf? If you don’t want to read hi as book, then don’t.

Somehow this philosophy of ignore and move on changes when it comes to material found on school library shelves. Social commentary and opinion frequently challenge books based on content, as To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, Fahrenheit 451 and other novels fall under scrutiny depending on public mood and cultural times. Yet, this new round of challenging is based on the behavior and actions of the authors, not the content of their books. Their objectionable behavior is in question, as rightly it should be, especially in these times of sensitivity upon the rights of individuals. Young readers aren’t necessarily going to be politically minded when they go to select a book to read. But their parents often are. 

I find it interesting that distance tends to soften outrage. Charles Dickens led two lives, all the while perpetuating Victorian values of domestic happiness, yet we embrace his books and promote them in our literature courses. Oscar Wilde was jailed for his preferences, and his books are not abandoned. Ernest Hemingway, well-known for his womanizing, is still part of the recommended literary canon. 

For me, as a teacher with a librarian’s directives, who is also a writer, I am reflecting on the responsibility I have as I recommend books to my students and as I write them. The #metoo movement, as it drifts over to the literary world, is certainly setting up a new awareness of the impact of words. 

What are reader thoughts on pulling books from shelves in light of the conduct of the authors?

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11 thoughts on “A Librarian/Teacher View on #metoo

  1. What I’m hearing from students is that they want to know about the controversies but also want to have access to the books. Students feel confident that they can read a book, get something out of it, and not feel sleazy because of an author’s behavior in the real world.

    Teachers seem to be saying they don’t want to promote the books, but they also don’t want them removed from library and classroom shelves. In other words, they don’t want to censor what is on the shelves, but they also don’t want to advocate for authors they don’t respect. I assume that means they will accept them as reading material that students find on their own, but these teachers don’t want to use those books as whole-class novels or any required part of a curriculum.

    My own wrestling with this issue is in this blog post: The comments from readers are also illuminating.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    • Thanks, Gary for your input. It is difficult to set aside personal feelings. In our May unit on Julius Caesar the quote of how the good is buried, yet the evil lives on applies to the current situation of creative talent misusing their influence.

  2. It’s pretty easy for me to say I’m not in favor of censoring books. I’m not. Period. However . . . do I want to support and encourage someone who’s behavior I find immoral or just plain unpleasant by spending money on their books? That’s a tougher question. It’s also complicated by the fact that purchasing a book doesn’t just benefit the author–it also supports a whole raft of people like agents, editors, publishers, marketers, bookstore owners . . . The #metoo movement has made me think hard about how we call out bad behavior in society. Especially as we all, in one way or another, behave badly. There’s no easy answer to this, but I’m glad we’re having the discussion!

    • It’s interesting how there is more concern about how books are creating more reflection than movies. Film celebrities and their behavior have been par for the course, it seems, over the years, and their movies aren’t pulled from the shelves. Do we hold writers to a higher standard?

  3. Over the years I have personally boycotted the work of many horrible creative types. I haven’t seen the Naked Gun movies, for example, since that fateful event in 1994. (Why, oh, why did they cast OJ when the original Nordberg, Peter Lupus, was still around and kicking? Come ON! Lupus was awesome on the TV show!)

    I do understand why people would want to pulling certain books from library shelves. Personally, I would *love* to purge the world of Bill Cosby’s creative legacy. But that instinct, I think, is unpardonably arrogant.

    I boycott stuff, because I *want* to boycott it, not because someone boycotts it on my behalf. So I could never support any effort to ban books that are authored by criminal scumbags. It’s important to let readers decide which writers are unworthy on their time. I (perhaps naively) trust that they will ultimately make the correct decision.

    • It’s definitely a personal choice. I’m not one to jump in the mass trend cart either—“don’t tell me what I can’t read” makes it more enticing—so goes student mindset.

  4. The problem with censoring is that once it starts, it is very difficult to stop. With the rise of social justice warriors who seem intent on banning everything which doesn’t confirm to their bizarre views, that would be a mistake.

    As for your particular point, in the classroom it could be good to discuss author’s behaviour and such, as well as the material in the books. I also think people tend to appreciate the works and ignore an author’s failings if the work is of a certain stand of literature.

    • True. Censoring, banning, challenging all becomes a slippery slope. However, I admit there are some books that I bypass when it comes to selecting classroom free reads due to a preponderance of profanity or sexual situations. Since I answer to parents and admin I lean towards conservative. Is there room for professional discretion?

      • Of course professional discretion is always advised, there are so many other sources for kids to find the bad stuff that it must be refreshing (probably not the right word) for them to have a bit of conservatism.

        If you wanted to take banning books to it’s logical extent the Bible and Koran would be two of the books that have would need to be taken out of circulation for their content. If one doesn’t discuss those books, then all others seem to fall by the wayside.

  5. Religion in literature gets tricky. Beliefs are personal and there is a variety, more so currently, yet allusions can’t be ignored and I find myself having to stop and explain basic Sunday School stories that once upon a time all students knew. I try to be respectful of my students beliefs, and hope the material presented doesn’t offend, but enlightens.

  6. Excellent point.

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