Reading representation: CCSD libraries broaden perspectives

From classics to children’s literature, the American Library Association tracks hundreds of attempts to remove books from shelves and curricula across the country every year. Out of this vastly undercounted figure, most challenges do not result in bans. But as censorship takes a more prominent place on Georgia’s political stage, legislative agendas follow suit and Clarke County School District media specialists have concerns.

“Not just within Georgia, but nationally people are looking closely at libraries and librarians and what our role is and assumptions about what we do and don’t do,” Andy Plemmons, David C. Barrow Elementary School media specialist, said. “So in a very stressful time, it’s even more stressful.”

According to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, 273 books were challenged or banned in 2020. However the ALA estimates 82-97% of book challenges remain unreported. In recent CCSD history though, book bans have not been an issue. Plemmons, who has worked at Barrow for 14 years, says he has never even received a formal complaint about a book. 

If CCSD community members take issue with a book in the library or classroom, they can file a complaint and their school’s media committee, composed of the media center specialists, teachers, community representatives and students (in secondary schools) will meet to read and discuss the book in question. According to Cedar Shoals High School Media Specialist Kerry Hogan, conflicts are usually resolved at the committee level.

“Whenever there’s a challenge, we sit down together, we all have to read the book. We all look at it and we have a meeting to talk about it whether or not we think it’s legit. Then we came to an understanding and agreement about what we would do going forward,” she said.

New Georgia legislation will disrupt this chain of communication. In the Georgia General Assembly, the Senate in February and House of Representatives on March 25 passed Senate Bill 226. On April 28 Gov. Kemp signed it into law and officially instituted a new process for responding to complaints. 

Upon receiving a complaint, school principals would determine whether material is “harmful to minors” or not and then how to restrict or remove the material. If the party who filed the complaint is not satisfied, they can appeal the principal’s decision to the local superintendent. 

“This new legislation is different in that it takes it out of our hands and puts it in somebody else’s hands who may not know all the things that we do to protect everyone’s rights,” Hogan said.

She says redirecting the authority on which books are appropriate makes it more likely for books to be removed without adequate reason. 

“So few principals know what their media specialists do, but honestly they have much bigger things to worry about than their media centers,” Hogan said. “If an angry parent comes to a principal who just wants to make this go away it would be much easier just to pull the book for some person or to not have it in the collection in the first place.”

Plemmons has unease about how his role might change with the new legislation.

“What I’m fearful of is what could happen at the state level that could mandate that these books be taken out, and override all of the expertise and all of the requests of families and students to erase people in our community, which is so harmful,” Plemmons said. “I know that I may not have control over that, and yet I still have to somehow be supportive of students who can’t find themselves and can’t find their families in the books in the library.”

BOOK BUDGET PROJECT: Andy Plemmons stands among Barrow Elementary School’s collection of books. As media specialist, he leads students in choosing books to buy for the library and funds the project with the normal library budget, grant money some years and book fair profits. “It worked. I saw how powerful that was for kids to be able to make decisions about books in the library,” Plemmons said. Photo by Jackie Wright.

Of the ALA’s list of the top ten most challenged books in 2020, the top two were “George” by Alex Gino and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Retitled “Melissa,” Gino’s elementary and middle school level novel tells the story of a transgender middle school student who shares her identity by playing Charlotte in her school’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.” According to the ALA, the book has been challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with religious viewpoints and sexual references. Published in 2016, it has been on ALA’s most challenged lists since 2017.

“Stamped,” a history of racism and antiracism in the United States directed toward younger readers, was published in 2020. Its critics have challenged the book because of its storytelling focus on racism as well as Kendi’s  public statements.

In CCSD, Hogan says she is less nervous that books about Black history like “Stamped” will be challenged. 

“I don’t worry about what is happening in some counties where particular books are not allowed to be taught, the list of books like “Stamped from the Beginning.” That book is not going to get banned in CCSD, that is not the issue here,” she said. 

Rather, she says books about LGBTQIA+ people are at risk of censorship because the district has already seen formal complaints about them. In fact, in the 2018-19 school year, Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School in CCSD received a complaint about Gino’s book, but it remained on the shelves after the media committee vote.

In some districts, including CCSD, complaints cited a page of “Melissa” in which Melissa’s older brother references a “dirty magazine.” Neither Melissa nor her brother explicitly look at pornography or even possess it in the story, but the reference alone was the basis of criticism.

“It was a different avenue at trying to get the book out of schools,” Plemmons said.

In March, Gino came to Athens to attend the Georgia Conference on Children’s literature as a keynote speaker and visit local schools including Clarke Middle School and Clarke Central High School.

“Middle school is a time when we’re really starting to figure out who we are as people, and how we interact with the world when we have more agency to make decisions,” Gino said. “But when you’re 10, 12 years old, you’re developing friendships and connections that are distinct from your family and are really your own. That age deserves tools to make sense of this bizarre world we’re in.”

Thus, Gino says, limiting access to books makes life harder for young readers.

“Everyone has the right to choose their own reading, including young people,” Gino said. “To not read something doesn’t make you not who you are. It makes it just harder to find it.”

MELISSA’S STORY: Alex Gino talks about their first book, “Melissa,” in their keynote speech at the Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature. The book about a girl named Melissa was originally titled George, but it is in the process of being renamed to match the name the transgender main character came to identify with: Melissa. “My stories seem to be about friendship, and my stories seem to be about listening to each other and seeing each other,” Gino said. Photo by Jackie Wright.

In filtering which books are available to students, school librarians use district and local criteria to determine which books stay on the shelves and which ones to order.

“We try to put books into the library that match the curriculum, but it also is a place where kids can come and get books that are just to read for fun,” Plemmons said. “I try to make sure there’s different ability levels of books, that their representation features various ethnicities, beliefs, cultures, religions within our community and beyond. It’s important for kids to see themselves in the books that are in the library, but also to learn about people and beliefs that are beyond our walls.”

In the Cedar media center, Hogan says she chooses books based on reviews and student interest. She orders books recommended by resources like The New York Times book reviews, the School Library Journal, Horn Book Inc. and the American Library Association

Then she looks at circulation data on student interests to determine which genres are popular and which ones may lack interesting books. If a student requests a book that is not in the library already, Hogan says she usually orders it. 

At Barrow, Plemmons consults reviews and circulation data to fill the shelves, as well as direct student input through the annual Book Budget Project he started a decade ago.

“I would observe kids coming into the library, and they would walk around at the shelves and I would go around and say, ‘What about this?’ They would just kind of walk faster away from me,” he said. “Then they would end up leaving the library with nothing and so it really bothered me that there was this library with 10,000 books and kids were leaving with no book in their hand.”

Plemmons wrote a grant and met with the students he saw leaving the library without books to shop for titles they would be excited to read. Now third through fifth grade students meet every year with vendors like Avid Bookshop and Capstone Publishing to choose books for the library. Each year they order between 100 and 200 new books. 

“I try to talk to the kids about how this is not my library. Yes, I’m in charge of it, and a big part of my role is adding books to the library, but it’s ours,” Plemmons said. “I think that kids should have a voice in what goes onto the shelves as well.”

In addition to the Book Budget Project, Plemmons conducts activities like the First Page Challenge to help students find books to read already in the library. Students sit at tables covered with books from every genre and read the first few pages of as many books as they can.

“I try to talk to kids about the importance of knowing what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not comfortable with. If you find a book and you start it and you realize this is not something you’re comfortable reading, it’s okay to put it back,” he said.

Once Plemmons made it a point to scatter nationally challenged books like “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” and “And Tango Makes Three” among the sample books. Without specifying which ones, he told students that people across the country were trying to censor some of the books on the tables. 

“​​That really piqued their interest. Several of them did try some of the ones that were banned and nobody really had any concerns about the books as far as the kids go,” Plemmons said. “In general that’s what you see, that the kids are not the ones that have a problem with the books. It’s usually adults and the fear around the unknown.”

At the high school level, Hogan aims to supply students with the materials they need to explore for themselves.

“We call people young adults for a reason. You’ve already made up your mind on a lot of things,” Hogan said. “It’s not for me to try to convince you of anything, but it is for me to try to provide resources on anything that you want to know more about, or any topic or subject that interests you.”

The consequences of limiting access to information can be harmful, she says.

“The danger is that we are erasing and not validating people. Basically we’re saying that you’re not important and that you’re not equal and that your viewpoints are less important, which is making people second class citizens, which I think is a dangerous, dangerous thing to do,” Hogan said. 

Dr. Petros Panaou is the chair of the Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature, a co-editor of a journal on international children’s literature called “Bookbird” and a clinical associate professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. He sees the importance of representation through children’s literature on an international scale. 

WORLDWIDE READING: Dr. Petros Panaou, co-editor of “Bookbird” and GA Conference on Children’s Literature chair holds the program for the 53rd conference. He says the International Board on Books for Young People, “Bookbird” publisher, disseminates international perspectives. “They (IBBY) had this collection called Silent Books, which were wordless picture books from different countries in the world that were actually used with refugee kids. You can easily overcome any language barriers when you’re looking at wordless picture books,” Panaou said. Photo by Jackie Wright.

“In Bookbird, we’ve got articles from different countries about LGBTQ stories that are being published. You can see different approaches and different representations,” Panaou said. “That’s wonderful. It’s helping people who work in countries that are not as accepting of LGBTQ stories. It helps them see how it’s being done elsewhere and how it could probably influence their population for children as well.”

Panaou says the alternative to banning challenging books is giving children opportunities to explore many perspectives together. He borrows a phrase from Cathy Short, a colleague from the University of Arizona.

“Her slogan is ‘Never read a book alone,’” Panaou said. “Never read just this one book. Also read another book and another book, so that you don’t stay with one representation. But also never read the book alone in the sense of: read it with other readers and talk about it and reach your interpretation and response to that book through other readers.”

According to Plemmons, librarians’ job is to balance their shelves with books that represent students both in and outside of the community served by the library.

“It’s important for kids to be able to see themselves in books and see things that they may be wrestling with in their own lives,” he said. “But also it’s important for kids to read about other people in the world and what their culture is like, what their family makeup is like, what issues they wrestle with, because the more that we read the more empathy we can have for one another.”

Jackie Wright

Senior Jackie Wright is the Co-Editor-in-Chief for Cedar BluePrints. She would like to pursue writing and potentially become a journalist one day, with the hopes of being able to learn about her communities from every perspective. Wright is interested in Athens news and politics, public health and creative forms of communication like music and film. As a journalist, she wants to investigate issues across Athens to better understand the success and failures of her community in serving everyone equitably. For her final year on the staff, Wright wants to better her writing and reporting skills through practice and learning from fellow staff members. She enjoys having the opportunity to pursue stories that have real impacts on her school and city with a team of passionate journalists. Wright has won many journalism awards throughout her years on the staff, including Best in Show for SIPA’s 2021 infographic portion of their Best Visuals Contest, second place in SIPA’s 2021 feature story portion of their Best Writing Contest, first place for SIPA’s 2021 investigative story portion of their Best Writing Contest, second place for SIPA’s 2021 personality feature portion of their Best Writing Contest, Best of Show for the in-depth cover story package of SIPA’s 2020 Best Visuals Contest, and was a part of a team that won Best Overall for SIPA’s 2020 Newspaper Team On-Site Production Competition.