Monday, May 30, 2016

Reflection: Challenging & Banning Books

One big topic that always comes up when discussing children's literacy is books that have been challenged or banned. You can view some of the lists of frequently challenged books here. Challenging a book means that someone has attempted to remove the material from either the classroom or the library (Short, Lynch-Brown, & Tomlinson, 2014, p. 134). Banning a book means that the book went through the process of being challenged and was successfully removed.  Most recently, I have heard of a few books being challenged, such as El Deafo by Cece Bell and the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey.
In order to get a better idea of why a book might be challenged or even banned, I picked up a book called Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes. This book has won many awards, including the Newberry Honor award in 2004. It is a story of a young girl entering her teen years and describes her emotions and life experiences at this time in her life. The book also deals with the topic of death. It has a lexile score of 680L, but the book itself is recommended for ages 10-14 due to content.

But, what is that content, you ask? I'll get to that in a moment.....

First, I wanted to mention that while this book is 217 pages long, most students would find it a quick read. Some chapters in the book are very short; only a paragraph or two long and barely cover a page. Also, the pages seem to contain lots of empty white space. Every page has a one inch border around the entire frame of text. I have to assume this was done on purpose because Martha, the main character in the book, feels very alone in the book, and the use of white space gives the reader a sense of that feeling while reading the pages.

Going back to the content, I took a few notes while reading the book, and here was my thoughts as to why the book was challenged and banned:
  • The book deals with the death of a young girl and the emotions of another girl that could have been her friend. Many times in the story, Martha visualizes the death of Olive and gives us a sometimes violent picture of how she died. Also, the topic of death is revisited quite a few times in reference to other characters in the story, such as Martha's grandmother. The visualization and the topic could both be disturbing to some children. 
  • In one part of the story, Martha's parents are kissing and acting silly towards each other. Martha describes the behavior as something her brother told her- MSB or morning sex behavior. This brief discussion of how her parents may or may not have just had sex could be startling to some readers. 
  • Martha's emotions are very "all over the place". She mentions quite a few times about disliking her parents and at times uses very strong words to describe her feelings towards them.
  • The term "assholes" is used by a teen boy. Some readers may find that term unacceptable in a book labeled for children. 
  • A teen boy tricks Martha into thinking that he likes her and uses her for a kiss. He videos the kiss to show others that he won the bet that he could get her to kiss him. Martha feels used and embarrassed. Some children may feel uncomfortable about the events that took place, but nothing went past the kids holding hands and a simple kiss. 
  • In the story, Martha almost drowns in the ocean. Martha did not intend to drown, but at one point, the reader is not sure if she wants to live. Some students may find it unsettling and upsetting. 
According to a press release from the ALA, the book was most frequently challenged because of offensive language and sexually explicit content (Morales, 2008). As you can see from my notes above, banning this book for those reasons alone may have been somewhat of a stretch. In my opinion, the topic of death and Martha's response to the classmate dying is more disturbing than the brief language and kissing that happen in the book.

Altogether, I found this a very interesting book that could help many children come to terms with their emotions during a time when they are confused. Martha's feelings about the girl dying could help others work through their own emotions of having a classmate die. While I do see how the book may not be appropriate for all children, I do believe that it offers a real picture of the world we live in and the many emotions that our students and children are having.

In the Classroom.... 

Using this book in the classroom may be difficult because of the likelihood for some parents or caregivers to find the topics not appropriate for school. However in some cases, like with the death of a class or school mate, it could help a lot of children deal with how they might be feeling. Also, Martha's emotions about growing up are very real and easily relatable for many children. Students will find themselves connecting to Martha and her journey to discover herself over the course of the summer.

If using this book in the classroom, I believe that the recommendation for the book to be used in the 5th-8th grades is appropriate.  First, you would want to identify students that could be mature enough to handle the topics discussed in the book, and gain approval from their parents. Then, I would form a small reading group from those students. The students would be required to do assigned readings outside of the classroom for homework every night, and the group would have discussions about what they read and how it made them feel. Questions should be formed beforehand to help steer the conversation. Some possible questions for the discussion group can be found here.


Henkes, K. (2003). Olive's ocean. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Morales, M. (2008, May 7). Children's book on male penguins raising chick tops ALA's 2007 list of most challenged books. Retrieved from 

Short, K. C., Lynch-Brown, C., & Tomlinson, C. M. (2014) Essentials of children's literature (8th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Interview with a Librarian

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a media specialist for a local elementary school in my area. In case some of you are not aware, schools across the nation are now labeling their "libraries" as "learning commons" and their "librarians" as "media specialists".  But, it is not just the title that is changing- the entire library is! A learning commons is a place where all come to share and learn together. It is a place for teachers, parents, and students to collaborate with the many tools that the space has to offer, such as technology, games and books. A lot of learning commons also have a space designated as a "MakerSpace", which is just another way of incorporating technology and tools into the learning environment that encourage students to design and engineer.

So, the title change is most appropriate, in my opinion, because these specialists do so much more than just shelve books! Their job is to not only keep the library up to date and running smoothly, but they must also help make sure that the space and all of the resources are conducive for learning. A learning commons is interactive- bursting with engaging activities, chock full of technology, and has plenty of spaces for group collaboration. But, it is also a place that can be used for studying, reading, and relaxing.

Now that we understand what she does...let me introduce you to the media specialist that I interviewed. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education and taught third grade for five years. While teaching, she obtained her Master's in Library Information Science. At that point, she accepted and took the job of elementary school librarian, now known as a media specialist. She has been in her position for 12 years now. In order to keep up with the current books and trends in children's literature, she attends professional development workshops and webinars, especially those offered through the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. The School Library Journal is one of her favorite websites to go to for news and information and she also reads The Nerdy Book Club's blog regularly. She also finds it important to collaborate with other media specialists in the district.

On to the interview! We focused a lot on current issues and trends in children's literature, but we also discussed some other relevant information. Check out the questions and her answers below and compare them to credible sources in the children's literature community.

What are some of the major trends that you have noticed in children’s literature over the last 10-15 years?
Over the last ten to fifteen years, I have noticed that our books have become more racially, culturally, religiously aware. Just recently, we have become more diverse in other ways, such as children with disabilities or dealing with sexuality.

How do you feel about the “We Need Diverse Books” movement? 
The "We Need Diverse Books" movement is allowing for more books on topics that were previously not touched on. For example, we are seeing more books on children with disabilities, like Wonder and Out of My Mind. However, a good librarian was already looking for these books before the movement started. You need to make sure that you know your community, and your students and are providing for them.
Trending: Bird (2016) discusses that the "We Need Diverse Books" movement is bringing forth more color in our books and children's literature. It is about providing all children with literature that reflects today's world. We are seeing even seeing more books on topics that we have not seen before- such as transgender. 

Are there any specific genres that children are moving towards? Why do you think we have seen this shift?
We have moved from fantasy to more realistic fiction. Ten years ago, vampires and werewolves were the big shelf movers, but now kids want to read about kids like themselves. While fantasy is not going away, books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate are really flying off the shelves. Also, students seem to really be moving towards graphic novels in all genres. I would think this is a lot to do with the increase in technology over the last 10 years. Many students have constant access to tablets or smartphones that give them pictures and videos. Graphic novels give students with attention problems a way to read that isn't like a regular book- they can make quick connections between the written word and pictures that other books don't provide for them. 
Trending: In Alverson's (2014) article on "Teaching with Graphic Novels", she discusses how graphic novels provide students with a unique experience in their reading. She quotes Meryle Jaffe, an instructor for talented youth at Johns Hopkins University, about graphic novels as making "reading less daunting, with less text to decode. While vocabulary is often advanced, the concise verbiage highlights effective language usage".

With the push to move towards digital devices, do you see a decrease in children reading?
Not really in elementary school, but maybe in the middle schools. We still have a set time for each class to come in and spend time in the library each week, but in middle and high school, going to the library is a decision they must make on their own.  Kids are excited in elementary school to come to the library and get new books.
Trending: According to Schiemann (2016), middle schoolers have less time to get a book from a library shelf. When surveyed, many middle school aged students felt more comfortable reading an eBook in front of their peers rather than a print book because no one can see what they are reading. There is no fear of being labeled as the "dorky" kid or the kid who reads LGBTQ books.

Does your library or school offer eBooks or any apps that provide access to eBooks?
We have a Tumblebooks subscription that provides classrooms access to eBooks. But, we are planning to give students access to Open eBooks for the summer to encourage reading over the break. This will allow students to check out up to 10 books at a time and they can keep them for 58 days. We are also looking at providing student iPads with an app called Epic that gives students access to eBooks.

The "summer slide" is a big issue with children not reading over the summer. What do you think is the best way for parents to help their children and what does your school do to help combat this? 
Read, read, read! Parents need to encourage their children to read at least twenty minutes a day during the summer. Find something they like to read and read it with them. Offer incentives for them to read each day. They just need to be reading! For the summer, we host a summer reading program here at the school that meets once a week. Children are able to check out books, and we do a read aloud. We also do a little activity to go along with our theme for the summer. If the children fill out the incentive sheet, they are rewarded at the beginning of the next school year. Last year, we did an ice cream party. 
Trending: Earnes (2013) discusses how in Allington's book on summer reading that “summer reading loss accounts for roughly 80% of the reading achievement gap between more and less economically advantaged children". When this is added up over an entire child's school years, this amount can equal almost four years that a child will lose due to the summer break. One of the best ways to combat this is to get children access to books over the summer and get them reading, like summer reading programs in libraries and schools. 

What genres or books seem to be timeless?
While I know that I stated it seems to be more about realistic fiction right now, fantasy is the one genre that really never seems to get old. For example, the Harry Potter series is still one of the most popular and is constantly being checked out. Also, whatever the teachers are reading! If a teacher starts reading Charlotte's Web, we will see a huge amount of children wanting to read the same book.

What books do you find students are most interested in?
Right now- graphic novels, realistic fiction, scary stories (like Goosebumps), anything to do with sports or the armed forces, the Who was....series, wrestlers, and origami, joke, or art books.

What are some of your favorite books? 
Fish in a Tree is one that I just finished not too long ago, and it was absolutely wonderful. After reading it, I also realized that One for the Murphy's  was written by the same author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Whenever I finish reading a book (I read all of the books!), I put a sticky note on it that says "I just read this, and if you will love this!". It goes on a special shelf where students know to look for recommendations or "hot" books that may have been returned recently.

What do you do to help teachers discover new books for their classrooms?
I have a google document that I constantly update with new books that are coming out or ones that I read that would be good for their classroom. Teachers will sometimes email me and ask for a book on a certain subject and I will help them find a book that fits their needs.

What books are set for release this year are you most excited about?
Any of the South Carolina book nominees would be great additions to our library. Also, I can't wait to add Raymie Nightingale and the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid novel.

Have you ever had a book "challenged" in your library?
Thankfully, no. But, this can be a real issue in some libraries. In the past, I have tried to follow what the school's principal recommends. For example, when I first started, if the book was at all questionable, the principal would not want it on the shelf. At that time, The Golden Compass was one of the books that was being challenged for its possible anti-religious connections. However, now, the current principal of the school is more open to offering books that may be controversial. So, while I have had a few teachers upset over certain books, like Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, these books are still on our shelves.

What do you do when a student brings content to your attention that they feel is inappropriate?
I ask them if they "can be a mature reader and skip over it and enjoy the story or if they need to put the book back on the shelf and get something different?" This almost always works, and the students all want to be considered "mature", so they let it go. Obviously, there are very few books on our shelves that would have inappropriate content, but occasionally we will have a book that has a cuss word in it. 

Alverson, B. (2014). Teaching with graphic novels. Retrieved from
Bird, E. (2016). What’s trending? What is, what was, what’s soon to be in kid lit. Retrieved from
Eames, A. (2013). The summer slide and the rich/poor achievement gap. Retrieved from
Schiemann, C. (2016). Ebooks can be a great choice for middle schoolers. Retrieved from