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Battle over books ignites more debate

Some warn restrictions on book content might eliminate dictionaries and the Bible. Nevertheless, officials and parents insist more care in book selection is needed.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


During Hernando County's latest book war, protecting the fragile minds of youth became a hot topic.

Some suggested that books ought to be rated like movies. To qualify for a spot on an elementary school library shelf, a book would have to be rated G. Middle school books would have to be no worse than PG. High school kids could feast on anything up to PG-13.

School Board member Robert Wiggins said elementary school libraries might do well to put books best suited for fourth- and fifth-graders on the top shelves. That way, younger kids might not be able to reach them.

Joan Anderson, the parent who brought the challenge against the book Freaky Friday, said words or deeds not permitted in school should not appear in the pages of school library books.

But according to Brad Vogler, manager of the county's public library collections, that would put most dictionaries in jeopardy.

Someone else said it might also consume the Bible.

The School Board voted 4-to-1 to keep Freaky Friday in the schools. But perhaps there was greater division over whether librarians should use greater caution in counseling kids about book choices and on the topic of how books are chosen for libraries in the first place -- a subject the board has promised to explore.

There are about 11,000 books in the library at Deltona Elementary in Spring Hill.

Diane Alt, who has been the school's media specialist for 21/2 years, has read only some. She loves children's literature. But there are simply too many books and too little time to leaf through each one.

Alt says most of the books in the library at Deltona, a school that is 10 years old, have been there much longer than she has. Yet, Alt is still confident that shelves scoured each week by 800 little patrons contain nothing harmful.

"I believe that I have all G-rated books in my library," Alt said.

She can say that because she trusts the judgment of her predecessors. For one thing, she knows how school librarians typically go about choosing their books.

They take requests from teachers, parents and students -- people who have read the books already. They also stock books to fit their school's particular emphasis. In Deltona's case, that means books related to Spanish language and Hispanic cultures.

Librarians also go out of their way for books that win prestigious honors like the Caldecott and Newbery Medals.

Then there are the book lists published by programs geared at getting kids to read -- like the Accelerated Reader and the Sunshine State Reader programs.

But for Alt, and many other librarians, a great deal of trust is placed in the primary source of information about new books -- reviews published in trade magazines such as the School Library Journal.

Based in New York, School Library Journal relies on volunteer book editors from around the United States -- typically college professors with expertise in library science or children's literature or librarians from public or school libraries.

In all, School Library Journal reviews 5,000 books a year -- about 90 percent of all children's books that are published.

Julie Cummins, the journal's editor-in-chief, said reviews typically contain a synopsis of the book and remarks about the quality of its writing and pictures. But reviewers also flag sensitive situations in books, such as violence or sex, and areas where the author appears to be extraordinarily biased.

"We're relying on the reviewers' experience," Cummins said. "It's a combination of working with children and young adults and knowing literature."

Along with sizing up its merit, reviewers assign a grade range to each book -- Grades 1 to 3, for example -- that factor in both a child's reading ability and required maturity level.

But, as Cummins acknowledges, such ratings aren't exact. Some children read at a level beyond their maturity. And standards of appropriateness aren't universal. "What's PG to you may not be PG to me as a parent," she said. "It comes down to very individual situations."

'Exposure to radical ideas isn't devastating . . .'

As a media specialist, Alt really has two jobs in one.

First, she is a library manager.

She buys books for the school, codes them for the computer and keeps up with fines for late returns. She reads stories to the youngest children and helps others find books to match their reading ability.

Second, Alt is a library science teacher.

She helps kids learn how to find books. She teaches the youngest the difference between fiction and non-fiction. She shows older kids how to use reference books and conduct Internet searches.

With all that responsibility, Alt says the most she can do to determine if a child is ready for a book is to gauge whether he can read the words on its pages.

She makes no judgments on content issues. But she honors the wishes of parents who request that their child not be allowed to check out certain books. Most often slapped with a Do-Not-Check-Out order at Deltona: The Goosebumps series of books by R.L. Stine.

Once a book makes it into a library, they are rarely pulled unless they wear out. With an average book cost of $13 apiece, libraries simply can't afford to toss out a book simply because it's old. Thus books such as Freaky Friday, first published in 1972, can span generations.

Suncoast Elementary principal Tizzy Schoelles, who was on the committee that first reviewed Freaky Friday, said the book's longevity might have worked against it.

It arrived in the county's school libraries before there were any policies about how books should be chosen and what resources should be consulted in making the selections. And there was no record of how it was selected, Schoelles said.

Having a paper trail might not have appeased Anderson to the point where she would have dropped the challenge, but the school was left with no way to document what thinking went into its selection.

One of Anderson's objections to the book was its use of ethnic terms such as "spic" and "colored." But such terms, while politically incorrect, were a part of the social dialogue in 1972. A review might have noted that.

Schoelles finds it ironic that Freaky Friday's ethnic slurs got it into trouble when the most popular television show of that era, All in the Family, was a spoof on the life of a bigot named Archie Bunker. The show is now considered a classic.

Maintaining a paper trail with journal reviews might clue in parents, principals and librarians about the item's relevance.

But in a larger sense, Schoelles said even books that espouse radical ideas should have a place in school libraries as long as those libraries are, as a whole, well-rounded and representative of all cultures. In that way, even kids with no parental supervision can safely learn about the world around them.

"People do not become members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Knights or white supremacists groups by reading diverse collections that are supportive of multiple viewpoints," Schoelles said.

"Exposure to radical ideas isn't devastating, it's mind opening. It's challenging."

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