It was bound to happen sooner or later.

I had stocked my library with edgy titles. Where once the shelves were mostly full of “classic” YA titles and somewhat aged adult mystery novels, now they’re full of books about queer teens, unexpected pregnancy, parents with drug habits, and graphic novels. (Books with pictures! The horror!)

They’re all appropriately reviewed, of course, and many of them are award winners, some several times over–but when it comes to content, they don’t pull any punches.

So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that I recently got my first book complaint.

As librarians, we tend to talk a lot about intellectual freedom and defending our teens’ right to read whatever they want. But when push comes to shove, how do we really respond to book challenges in the heat of the moment?

As my pulse raced and I struggled to maintain eye contact and speak clearly (stammering is a personal struggle for me when I’m on the spot), I felt immensely grateful that I’d attended Sex in YA Lit: From Blume to Block and Beyond at last year’s Annual Conference in Chicago.

For those of you who weren’t able to attend, the panel–made up of librarian (and author!) Lynn Biederman, sex therapist Marty Klein, and YA author Laura Ruby–discussed the history of sex in young adult books, but also offered up some practical suggestions for handling book complaints, since so many challenges involving YA titles have to do with sexual content. The most valuable piece of advice they offered:

1. Sometimes the parent or community member just needs to feel like someone is listening. Indeed, many face-to-face complaints will never turn into a formal challenge if you let the complainant get it all out of their system. It’s crucial not to interrupt or talk over anyone, no matter how much you might disagree with their opinion.

To this advice, I would add some of my own, gleaned from my recent complaint–an experience that turned out overall to be a positive one:

2. Don’t fake agreement. This one can be tough. Many of us were taught that active listening means body language like nodding. While it’s true that nodding and occasionally saying “Sure” or “Mm-hmm” indicate that you’re listening, they can also suggest you agree. You can acknowledge a complainant’s point of view without agreeing with it.

3. Let your policies back you up. If you don’t have a collection development policy, write one now. It’s vital that your policies support you, and it’s equally important that your co-workers and supervisors or directors are familiar with those policies so that they can back you up. Make sure these documents are available to the public, but be familiar enough with them that you could discuss them face to face as well.

4. Know your materials. We all have to rely on reviews and recommendations to some degree. While I’d like to believe there are librarians who have read every book in their YA collections, for most of us that’s not a realistic goal. (I know I’ve certainly been guilty of not reading as much of my collection as I’d like.) But the more books you’ve read, the more you can meaningfully discuss if they’re ever challenged. For those titles that you haven’t read yet, make sure you know at least the basic plot points.

5. Acknowledge that not every book is right for every teen. As it turned out, the book in question really wasn’t a good fit for the teen in question. And many teens will figure this out themselves, long before an adult notices strong language or explicit content (which may be taken out of context). The important part to remember–and to convey to a complainant–is that while a book might not be right for one teen, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for every teen.

What advice would you add? How do you handle complaints in your library?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.

7 Thoughts on “Objectionable Content

  1. I’d add that it’s not personal, even tho it can feel as if it is, and it’s important to try to remember that.

    And there is always going to be something someone objects to in the collection — including something the librarian doesn’t like!

  2. I agree with Liz. It’s not personal. But it is to the kids who’s collection you represent. Don’t forget you are an advocate for your teens and their freedoms.

  3. Kristin, that always helps me – because I think sometimes I’m a better advocate for someone else (the teens) than for me.

  4. Jodyth on March 3, 2010 at 2:22 pm said:

    I’m glad you didn’t fall into the trap of self censorship, either. It’s easy to do if you have limited funds to limit your collection to books that won’t rock the boat. Well done!

  5. Saying thank you. Thank the parent for caring about what their child reads, and for bringing their concerns to your attention, even if you don’t agree.

  6. Susan on March 3, 2010 at 9:24 pm said:

    What an interesting, well-written site you have! This post is excellent. You really can’t please all of the people (or parents) all of the time–nor should you try. I believe in intellectual freedom, and yet, I know there are things I really do not want my own children to read just yet.

  7. Great additions, everyone! I really like Beth’s point, and I’m surprised I forgot to mention it–even if a parent has concerns, I’m always thrilled to hear they’re at least talking with their kids about what they’re reading. (Though of course it’s maddening if they don’t bother to read the whole thing and complain about something out of context!)

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