Steamrollered: when librarians are told to censor kids' books

Of all the professional challenges librarians face, there's nothing quite like a demand to remove a book. Sandy Bradley discovered that when it comes to children's literature, there's no telling what kind of book will arouse controversy. Boing Boing presents a story from Long Overdue Library Book.

"When I got my library card, that's when my life began."

-Rita Mae Brown

My older sister and I were in ninth and tenth grade when Peyton Place was first published. My mother had never initiated censorship in our reading and we were among the first of our group to understand the “facts of life." But we didn't know how she would feel about the book with its scandalous sex. So when we bought a paperback copy from a newsstand we didn't tell her. We liked the book and bought Return to Peyton Place when it came out too. When we found our mother reading her own copy of Peyton Place we confessed that we had the sequel and she asked to borrow it when we were done. We all agreed it was not great literature, but fun to read. We laughed about it at the time, and it paid off, because when I was reading more adult titles in the eleventh and twelfth grade some had the “adult only" red stripe on them, and my mother could assure the librarian in our small branch library that she approved of my reading those books.

The issue of a request to remove or ban a book is so often raised that most libraries have a standard process to deal with it, and forms to complete to initiate that. To be prepared, libraries have also wisely made public their selection criteria for purchasing books and other materials. The issue is often based on sexual or religious content and usually is raised if parents or teachers believe that youth should be protected from such material. The process begins when a parent registers a verbal complaint. We ask if the person initiating the complaint had read the entire book, since many passages are problematic taken out of context but wouldn't upset the reader if the entire book was read. Often they had not read the entire book; once they had read it they would not follow through with the request.

Today the issue is often enmeshed with technology. As libraries become centers for the public use of computers, the censorship issue is often raised with the decision to install filtering software on the computers, or whether to permit children to use computers – they might stumble onto the “wrong sites." Without filtering software, the public is often exposed to the odd individual who uses the public computer for his not so private pornographic journeys through cyberspace.

The story I relate is from a simpler time, when computers were not part of the daily life, and the library had only books and a few videos. I was the children's librarian of a medium-sized public library, and I had already had a few experiences with censorship. I had dealt with parents whose concerns led them to initiate a protest against a book. I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to handle these attempts to remove books because all of the parents who were given the forms to complete failed to return them, and the protests died before they began. The forms were not complicated or difficult to complete, but it often gave the complainer time to reflect upon the book and change his or her mind.

I was used to individuals who felt that some of the material in the “hygiene" (the words sex education were never spoken) books was too explicit for their child. They often agreed that the more unfortunate child whose parent or clergy did not provide enough guidance might actually need the information in the book. Often they found an adult book that their child had brought home which we could show was intended for adults. They then understood that they had the ability to shield their child themselves if they accompanied him to the library to select books they felt were appropriate.

Having deflected many complaints, I was feeling pretty confident until a patron brought up a picture book and told me that it was dangerous for children to have it on our shelves. I asked the patron the usual questions, and she had read the entire book, as she had read it to her four-year-old. She did not take the book out of context and was sure it was going to cause harm some time. I gave her the usual forms to complete and hoped we had heard the last of it. I was wrong.

She returned with the forms the following week and brought the book to me at the desk, requesting that I remove it from the shelf. I took the book from her and kept it off the shelf pending our inquiry into her request to remove it. I admit I was puzzled by the entire thing but felt some responsibility because I was the children's librarian and I was supposed to know the collection. I had read this book, which was pure fantasy, and I didn't see that it would endanger a child.

The book was titled The Steamroller: a Fantasy. It was written by a noted children's author, Margaret Wise Brown, and illustrated by Evaline Ness, another well-known children's book favorite. In the story, a young girl, Nancy, mysteriously receives a single Christmas gift – the steamroller. She takes the gift out for a ride and flattens many things along the way, one of which was human, as I recall. I believe the human popped back up, unrealistically. The complaint was that it was too violent and that a child might believe it was possible to flatten someone without any lasting consequence. It was really intended for a child older than four, but since it was a picture book, it could easily be picked up and read by a preschooler.

I had mixed feelings about the book. It was not a classic like Goodnight Moon, the author's most famous contribution to children's literature, nor did it have a great message that all children would benefit from hearing multiple times. It was fantastic and pretty macabre if you looked at it that way. I had never seen a parent say how wonderful The Steamroller was or have a child laugh delightedly while reading it. I could see the parent's point of view, but I frankly disagreed with her assessment that it was dangerous. But what was the principle here? What right was I trying to protect?

I was feeling guilty because I had erred in the past with an event where this same woman and her child were in attendance. It was a Halloween themed story time, and I had shown a children's cartoon video that had a scary witch in it. The witch was not scary in the book version, but the film version did frighten some of the younger children. We turned it off and went to a less scary book, but I felt bad that I had not previewed the film first, because I was familiar with the book. I should have known better but it did occur and I remembered the woman was justifiably not happy.

I was truly confused, so I asked others. I spoke to the branch supervisor and to the county head of children's services. Neither of them had strong feelings about the book, but neither felt that a single complaint was enough to warrant removing it from the county system. If the issue had been that the content had been too sexual or too anti-religious, I would have had stronger feelings. But my job was not to respond to a complaint if I agreed or disagreed, it was to resolve it according to our process.

The process moved the book from my hands to the branch supervisor and the county head of services, both had already stated that it was a selected book and was clearly marked as a fantasy, so what was the problem? Meanwhile, the parent asked me what was happening each time she came in, and I replied that the book was being reviewed – which was true. I wanted to have a strong belief and conviction that we were “right" in our decision to not remove the book from the shelf, but I was also aware that a parent has every right to protect their child from danger or harm, which she clearly believed the book represented.

So I punted. I didn't remove the book from the county system or ban it outright, I simply sent it to another branch. With almost thirty branches in the system and only four copies of the book, the odds were that we would not see it again, and the parent would be satisfied. I did tell her the book was gone, but didn't elaborate. She didn't press and seemed happy that the process “worked." I was never sure if I should feel that I won one, or lost one, or more importantly, if censorship had hurt a potential reader's opportunity to embrace the story. I tried to imagine a troubled six-year-old boy who wanted to flatten a tormentor and could do so safely through the pages of the book. It would be a form of bibliotherapy.

Ten years later the Flat Stanley books appeared, but I never heard of any of those causing a parental complaint.


"The Book" appears in Long Overdue Library Book: Stories Librarians Tell One Another, a collection of vignettes about a library or a librarian in an atypical situation, ranging from funny to sad, to even a little strange and quirky. All proceeds from the book sales go to support public libraries.

Published 9:37 am Wed, Jul 2, 2014

About the Author

Sandy Bradley is a semi-retired librarian who has worked in public, academic, and special libraries, and now writes a blog, longoverduelibrarybook.com with her co-author, Elsa Pendleton.

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