Sunday Reflections: Teen Librarians are not Pornographers and Other Things You Should Know About the People Who Have Dedicated Their Lives to Serving Youth in Your Community
Trigger Warnings: Homophobia, Transphobia, Sexual Violence and Suicide are discussed in this post
Today as I write this post there are tons of calls for book banning and, yes, even book burning happening in our country. There have been calls to ban books, burn books, to jail and imprison librarians, and some librarians have now even had people from their community show up at their house and threaten them. These are indeed scary times. And it’s important to note, these are my personal thoughts on my personal blog about a lifetime in librarianship.
I’m not here necessarily to talk about the book bannings themselves, there are plenty of articles out there about that (I will link some at the end of the post). Here in the state of Texas, there is a list of around 850 books going around and the things that those books have in common is this: they are all written by marginalized people who have always had to fight hard to have a voice. They are written by Black people, Latinx people, LGBTQ people and women. They are written to share personal stories about what it means to have to fight hard to justify your existence, to navigate this world safely and to be seen and heard in a world that wants to oppress, control and sometimes outright wipe you out of existence. They are books about sex education, gender and gender identity, racism, and there are even a few books about teen rights thrown in there. There are lots of posts about the books on the lists going around there as well.
But today, I want to talk to you about being a librarian and working with youth and how this is the scariest time to do both. Please note, I am a public librarian, not a school librarian. So while I have some fears, it is nothing compared to what my many friends who are school librarians have. And also, this is a personal post drawing on my 29 years of experience working with youth, mainly teenagers, in a public library.
I buy books for kids and teens. I have for 29 years now. Sometimes, those books talk about sex. For those of you who don’t know, the average age of a person’s first sexual encounter is 16 years old. Do I think teens should be having sex? Not personally, no. But they do, and since they do, I want them to have responsible, informed knowledge about what healthy consensual sex is, how to protect themselves physically and emotionally, and I also think it’s just a good idea for everyone to know how their bodies work. The reproductive system is one of many systems in the body and understanding how your body works is actually good. Teens have questions and they go looking for answers, whether we want them to or not, so it is imperative that they have resources that give them solid, factual answers. They have ready access to pornography on their phones and computers, so they aren’t reading nonfiction books and YA romances for porn, they are reading to learn the science behind how their bodies work and to help navigate the very real and complex emotions involved in human interaction, including what it means to fall in love and have your heart broken, and how to heal. That’s the power of literature, and the importance of it.
Do I buy books with LGBTQ content? Yes, yes I do. Because LGBTQ people are people and they deserve representation. They deserve to exist in this world without fearing for their safety. They deserve to read stories about kids who are just like them, because all people do. They also deserve to read books about people like their parents, because some parents are LGBTQ and they too have a right to parent their children and share stories with their children that have characters that are like them. The presence of LGBTQ content alone does not make a book pornographic any more than watching a Hallmark love story where two characters date, fall in love, and kiss does not make it pornographic. Because there are people who are very anti-LGBTQ in this world they try to make the mere existence of an LGBTQ character a sexual obscenity, and this is just not the case.
Do I buy books that talk about racism? Yes, yes I do. Because racism is real and it’s bad and it’s ugly and it’s ingrained and intertwined in our history. To not buy books that talk about racism would be a lie. I believe that knowledge is a powerful thing, and that even when the truth is dark and hard, we must know it. Even in the whitest of white communities that I have worked in, there were always Black and Latinx and Asian American kids and they too deserve to have their truths told, their stories heard, and their feelings centered just as much as the white majority in those neighborhoods. And as the white mother of white children, I want my kids to have access to stories about kids that don’t look like them, even the ones that tell hard truths about white privilege and the history and still present day effects of racism, because I want to raise compassionate people. As a Christian, it is one of my main parenting goals, I want my children to wrestle with hard truths and come out on the other side as compassionate people who live as close to the teachings of Jesus Christ as possible. And I want my children to help build a world where the Black and other children of color are nurtured and valued and respected and safe. And I want to stop hearing the children of color that I work with day in and day out share their heartbreaking stories of the amount of hate they receive on a daily basis and the stories of how it began when they were 4 or 5. I want to stop hearing them talk about how they fear dying at a young age. If you care about children, you have to care about all of them, even the ones that don’t look like you or yours.
Around our country right now there are tons of people calling for school librarians to be imprisoned and books to be banned because they don’t like the books in school libraries. The things that these books have in common is that they are book that talk about sex, or books that talk about the LGBTQ community, or books that talk about racism, or books that talk about being a survivor of sexual violence. They are even going so far as to call people who buy these books for libraries pornographers. I am a public librarian who has worked with school librarians for years. Some of my best friends are school librarians. Like all teachers, and school librarians are almost always teachers, these are people who have dedicated their lives to serving our youth. They work long, hard hours and spend lots of their personal money to help our kids become the best versions of themselves. And now they are doing so in the midst of a pandemic while certain members of the public call them pornographers and ask that they be jailed and sometimes are even showing up at their houses and calling them horrific things in front of their own kids.
Are there books in the library that you might find offensive? Yes, yes there are. And you know what, you don’t have to read them! But you don’t get to make that decision for other people. You just don’t. That is and has always been one of the most fundamental tenets of a democratic society. It was so important that they made it a part of the 1st Amendment to our Constitution. I support a person’s right to read a book, and I support their right not to. That’s part of why we work really hard to buy a really diverse library full of books, we want you to find the book of your heart. We really do.
One of the books on the big Texas banned list – which has like 849 titles – is a book called Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson. It is a memoir written in poetry by the bestselling author sharing her experiences of surviving sexual violence in her life. It is her real life story written by a real person about their real personal journey. I read it out loud to Tim, Riley and Scout when it came out. I read it out loud with tears streaming down my face and we talked about what it meant to me, also a person who experienced sexual violence. We talked about how the words moved me, made me feel seen, and helped me heal. It helped them to understand what had happened to me and how it informed who I was today. It was one of the most powerful book moments of my life.
Another book on the list is Ask the Passengers by A. S. King. This was also a profound book moment for me where I came to understand that gay people were just people and their lives were hard because society had chosen to hate them and that by making different choices we, as a society, could make their life easier. And I have vowed to live my life differently because I think that all people deserve to live a life with health, love, and basic human rights. King became both Riley and I’s favorite authors and we have read all of her books – Riley often more than once – and they have spoken to Riley.
While these books may not be right personally for others, they were life changing and life affirming for me. They made me a newer, better person. And some of the books on this list may not be the right books for me, but they will be the right books for someone else. And that’s the power of literature and the free choice to read.
Book banning is one of the precursors to authoritarianism. The Nazis burned books, most often from members of the LGBTQ community or from the Jewish community. But the Nazis did then and they continue to think they have the right to decide for everyone what is right, what is best, what is noble, what is holy, what is legal, and what is good. And make no mistake, though we may not be calling them Nazis today, they are once again rising. They go by the names of Proud Boys and 3 Percenters and whatever, but they are most often white Christian nationalists who want power and control and they hate anyone who isn’t a white, straight, cisgender Christian. They hate anyone who isn’t like them and stands in the way of their power. But they also weaponize hate and fear to make people stand with them, people who normally wouldn’t. It’s not a new tactic, we saw it in the satanic panic of the 80s, the attempt to ban Dungeons and Dragons and rock music. Now I play Dungeons and Dragons with a group and my Sunday school teacher is my DM. We have done this before, I wish we would have learned not to do it again.
Did you know that last year was one of the deadliest years on record for transgender people? The push against trans rights and the demonization of trans people isn’t about girls safety in bathrooms? No, if they cared about girls safety they would pass anti-domestic violence bills and push harder sentences for actual sexual violence (which is most often perpetrated by straight men). We still can’t even get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. And the near total ban on abortion in Texas puts girls and women’s literal lives in danger and forces them to carry the baby of their rapists, thus giving rapists even more power and influence on their lives. Trust me, they don’t care about the safety of girls and women. They just hate trans people and the LGBTQ community and they want you to hate them too because if they can convince you that you share a common enemy, then you will overlook all the real harm that they are doing. Meanwhile, they are whipping up hate against the trans community to get your vote and members of the trans community are being beaten and killed in record numbers.
And I’m not going to lie, as a librarian, I worry that we too are being added to their agenda of hate. Already, I have seen stories of librarians being arrested and board members showing up at friend’s houses. In the press they are calling us pornographers and groomers and vilifying us. But it’s not just because of the books, it’s because they fear education. They fear knowledge. They know that true democracy depends on an informed, educated and empowered public exercising their rights. So they try to limit the education. They try to limit the rights. And they try to limit the exercise of those rights (see all the anti-voting laws being passed).
And I’m not here to say that no person who works with youth is a danger to those youth. We know that, unfortunately, sometimes they are. Sometimes a teacher or a coach or your best friend takes advantage of your children. That is evil and vicious and the most ultimate betrayal of all. But this is not about the books on a library shelf, this is something vile and insidious. It’s something different.
But reading books isn’t making your kids trans or gay anymore than reading a murder mystery has made us all crack detective or serial killers. But if they are struggling with being trans or gay, those books might help them find an inner peace that will help them not become one of the 40% of LGBTQ youth who attempt suicide. As someone who has worked with youth for 29 years I am here to tell you that there is nothing harder than seeing an LGBTQ kid lose the sparkle in their eye as they realize that this world well and truly hates them. I can’t change the hate in some people’s heart, but my greatest wish for these kids is that they find the will to survive and even thrive.
I want kids to survive adolescence and thrive. Every last one of them. I want them to learn and grow and be the best version of themselves and to help make the world a better place for us all. That is why I have dedicated my life to building expansive, diverse, factual, and inclusive book collections in library after library after library. It’s why I do what I do. It’s why I have always done what I do.
I get that we all don’t agree on everything. I have been a Christian long enough to think we even all agree on what it means to be a Christian. But what’s happening right now – It is terrifying. It has strong echoes of what happened in the past. And whatever our political, philosophical or religious differences are, I hope that we can all agree that Nazis are still bad and democracy is still the goal.
And please, look at the people in your schools. These are your friends, your neighbors, your aunts and your uncles. These are the kids that you babysat as kids and the people that babysat your kids. Look at them staying up late at night and grading papers. Look at them spending their own money to buy tissues and pencils for your kids. Look at them standing in the rain as a crossing guard to make sure your kids gets to and from school safely. Think about all that they have invested in your kids, in your community. And don’t let these liars and deceivers who want to weaponize your fear convince you to hate the very people who have spent their lives serving you. Think of who the real servants are in your communities, and protect them. Stand with them. Don’t let strangers with a microphone and anonymous people on message boards convince you to hate the very people that have spent their lives living beside you and helping you raise your children to be the very best versions of themselves.
To give you an idea about how misinformation and outright lies and conspiracy theories spread, I highly recommend reading True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy L. Otis. Did you know that most anti-vaccine lies began with just 12 people? That’s how this works. Just a few people decide that they are going to weaponize a thing – anti-CRT theory, transphobia, anti-mask, anti-vaxx – and then they put the information out there on social media and it gets whipped into a frenzy and then we are all being socially programmed and controlled by just a handful of people we don’t even personally know, nor do we know their credentials or motives. We turn on our neighbors. We turn on our friends. We turn on our families. We turn on each other. And they reap the rewards, and here the rewards are almost always money and power. Meanwhile, our lives our torn apart, our loved ones die, and we grower poorer and lose our political will and political power. Even if you think you are voting for the winning side, you are not personally reaping the benefits, very few of us are.
As a librarian, I buy books. I buy books because I believe in the power of the right story to change someone’s life. I never know what book or story that might be, but it’s an amazing thing to see it happen. I have spent my entire adult life dedicated to helping kids. I have done it because I was a kid who needed an adult to do it for me, and sometimes was lucky enough to find that adult. I do it because I believe that we can make the world a better place for every one of us. I do it because I believe, like the Jesus that I follow, that it is a sacred duty to nurture and protect and educate children and I understand, as did Jesus, that sometimes education means facing uncomfortable truths about who we are and making the choice to be different, to be better. I do it because I want every kid – every single last one of them – to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel valued, to feel respected, to feel hope, to feel empowered, to feel as if they have a right to exist in this world safely because they do.
As a parent, I can honestly tell you that I have told my kids that they can’t read a book or that they can’t read a book just yet. I think that is valid. You get to decide what you and your kids read. I get to decide what I and my kids read. But don’t let strangers make those decisions for you. Book banning is never the answer. Choice is. And for all of us to have the freedom to make those choices, that means we have to accept that others might make different choices than our own but the books have to remain on the shelves to make those choices available to all.
You get to decide for you. You don’t get to decide for me.
Some stories to pay attention to:
Virginia School Board Members call for book burning https://www.businessinsider.com/virginia-school-board-members-call-for-books-to-be-burned-2021-11?fbclid=IwAR0PI-tu3dbybODHT577tpu3WRhQhD4Q9aABpvFR1Q03Np3DKEhi3mfQ918
Missouri Could Jail Librarians https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/16/missouri-could-jail-librarians-for-lending-age-inappropriate-books-parental-oversight-of-public-libraries-bill?fbclid=IwAR2E37C0HpM5JLTYOEc3gY8TYkf-YBPrMm2Wv7rE8vp0so4AR4vDLgh-sb
Calls to Ban Books by Black Authors Increasing https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/calls-to-ban-books-by-black-authors-are-increasing-amid-critical-race-theory-debates/2021/09?fbclid=IwAR30P4D0iEBJ7unzXhCUYhjgF8tiya_qDTyd9NcfugcZQHY5QeF8DnZJAVo
School Board Books Bans are Hurting not Helping Kids https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/school-board-book-bans-lgbtq-issues-race-are-hurting-not-n1283691?fbclid=IwAR2OWZA5oFlC7NkwDm4v1a4htezt6TyArp6uoqiMjGufiBavMPjpfAKszIg
And in depth look into the books on the Texas ban list https://bookriot.com/texas-book-ban-list/
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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