It’s the beginning of Chapter 3! A much more upbeat chapter, I promise! It’s also Banned Books Week, and to celebrate, we are updating every day this week, and giving away a couple of our favorite frequently challenged books. (Including Craig Thompson’s Blankets!) Win a book by commenting- tell us your stories about your favorite book as a kid, dealing with censorship, or just ordeals you went through as a 14 year old that totally sucked. We’ll choose our favorite five comments from readers at the end of the week.

We’re also talking to some very awesome authors and librarians about banned books, starting today with librarian & free speech activist Pat Scales.

Pat Scales started out as a middle school librarian in the 1970′s, and worked with her students and their parents in a groundbreaking group called “Communicating Through Literature.” The parents read the books their kids most wanted them to read, and then discussed them with Ms. Scales and other adults, and then their children. By seeing how the questionable material was handled in context, parents were no longer afraid of the books their kids were reading, and found a new way to communicate to their kids about troublesome issues. Scales, now retired, has continued to speak out for first amendment rights, and remains one of the most outspoken supporters of unrestricted access to books for children and teens. You can read her most recent article here.

When you first started working, how did you discover the need for your book group, “Communicate Through Literature”?

My dad was an avid reader. When I was in junior high school, he would hand me the books that he was reading and we would discuss them. I remember that as a very special time that he and I shared. It never dawned on my dad to censor anything that I read. When I became a middle school librarian, I noticed that parents didn’t seem to know anything about middle grade and young adult literature. So I decided to teach them. I didn’t begin the program because parents questioned books their kids were reading. I started the program because I wanted them to have the same experience that my dad and I had. I wanted to offer them the literature and the skills for discussion. It didn’t occur to me that this program would be viewed as a pro-active way of dealing with intellectual freedom issues. I just saw it as a way to get families to read together. Then Judy Blume read about the program and wanted to promote it. The rest is history. To this day, I hear from kids and their parents who were a part of the program. They tell me the book or books they liked the most. And, these kids who are now adults tell me about reading with their own children. Some actually say that they didn’t like reading until they got to middle school. That, of course, is music to my ears.

When working with parents, what are the points you try to emphasize to them about controversial books?

I learned early on that I needed to structure the program around themes. I chose topics of concern to middle school age students. Things like the need to belong, teenage sexuality, sibling rivalry, and relationship with parents, issues of friendships, etc. I chose books that dealt with these topics and book talked the books to the parents. They would take them home (they were all issued library cards), read them, and ask their child or children to read them. Then they would discuss them at home. At the next meeting, they would share their thoughts about the book they and their children read. Sometimes one particular parent may find an objection to a book, but another parent would like the book. Everyone listened to the opinions of all, but I never really had to defend any book, because a parent in the group would. The thing that middle school parents have to face is that this is a special age. They really are in the middle. They are rehearsing for their teenage years. We can use books to help them make that final journey. The parents began to see that through story, it is much easier to discuss some of life’s most difficult lessons.

Some parents voiced concern that their kids wanted to read about issues like child abuse, drug abuse, and eating disorders. They wondered if that was a reflection on them. I explained that children who are abused most often don’t want to read about it. They already know how bad it is. I use an actual case: a sixth grader was removed from her home because she was being abused and her classmates came to the library to request a certain book about child abuse because they needed to understand what had happened to their friend. Parents actually were proud that their kids had so much feeling for their friend.

Things went so well with this program that I was invited to do four workshops with parents at a very conservative church in town. A minister at the church had read about the program and decided it would be a good idea for their family workshop. I approached it in the same way I did with my parents. I was amazed how open they were. For example, a mother told me that her daughter asked her if she could read Forever by Judy Blume. The mother wanted my opinion. I replied, “Say to her, sure read the book. I’ve wanted to read that book too. Let’s both read it and then we will discuss it.”

This experience solidified my belief that people just need guidance. Most censors fear the unknown. Once they understand the themes in books and how they parallel child and adolescent development, then they totally get how books are the best tools for creating open discussion.

What have kids taught you about their ability to understand complex issues?

Most of the middle school kids told me that they had never had anyone to care about what they thought. I think that most elementary schools put so much emphasis on the teaching of reading that little attention is given to book discussion, or even reading for fun. This is partly due to amount of testing done in schools. Kids have to be given the opportunity to think through issues, and to express themselves. I went into all language arts classroom at the beginning and the end of the school year and ask students to write a paragraph about what book or books they would most want their parents to read and why. They could remain anonymous, but I did ask them to put their age at the top of the page. This is how I developed the bibliographies and topics for the Communicate Through Literature program. They wrote very honest, heartwarming, and even heartbreaking responses. And, their answers were extremely complex. I also did a Morning Reading program where I read aloud a novel before school to anyone who wanted to come and listen. I chose books that I didn’t think kids would find on their own. I had about 75 kids each morning (mostly boys). I read some very complex books. There was always spontaneous discussion after we finished a novel. And, I was amazed at some of the responses. I actually had a call from a mother whose child was in a self-contained special education class who told me that she had never seen her child so animated and excited about anything until he joined Morning Reading. She said that he was finally acting like a Middle School Student. Most parents worried about the Middle School years, and this mother was worried that her son would never embrace these years. She said that he actually told her about the books we read. For example, when we read The Giver, they got the issue of euthanasia and understood the conflict within Jonas. Most of all, they couldn’t understand why people could disrespect the opinions of kids and their ability to understand the book by attempting to ban it in schools throughout the nation.

Do you have any advice to teachers and librarians who are facing challenges to their collections?

Make sure that your school or district has a selection policy and materials reconsider policy. This is the best protection against challenges, and against a school board that may want to boot out books. In most cases, challenged materials that are taken through the right process are retained. Next, I would suggest that librarians become very pro-active in helping parents understand what appeals to their children and teens. Ask to be a speaker on a PTA program, or work with the local public library and do a joint program for parents. Let them know that as children mature, their reading choices get more mature.. Make sure that parents understand that children have choices when they use the library, and if there is something they don’t want their children to read, then that is between them and their children. Other parents may want their children to read the book. And, children need to understand this as well. I once had a student who asked for Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and another student who heard her quickly said, “My mother won’t let me read that book.” I responded by saying, “That’s fine, but Amy’s mother wants her to read the book.” That was a lesson in intellectual freedom to the kids. We have to do this on a daily basis. It’s our responsibility to demonstrate the principles of intellectual freedom in everything that we do. We listen to everyone, respect everyone’s opinion, but let him or her know that no one has control over anyone else. Most people just want to be heard. It’s all about communication.

Which are your favorite books to discuss with kids & parents?

I always chose books thematically or topically. I liked using two very old books, but ones that still have extremely important messages for parents –The Language of Goldfish (Zibby O’Neal) and The Goats (Brock Cole). Every single year, I had parents that wanted to talk about bullying. Now, I think there is a larger issue that could be discussed –cyber bullying. Sometimes we dealt with humorous books and I would ask kids to tell me the funniest book they had ever read. The parents were bolded over at what their kids thought was funny. I told them that I could sum it up in this way: bathroom humor and smart-mouthed kids. I did introduce new books because I constantly read everything as they were published. I remember giving Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers to an eighth-grade boy and asking him to give me his opinion. He read it and asked if he could keep it longer because he wanted his dad to read it. This kind of thing happened all the time. The kids became so comfortable about sharing books with their parents. If I were still running the program, I would want them to read The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie), Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson) Looking for Alaska (John Green) and The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak). Each of these books have been challenged somewhere in the nation. Then I would have them read One Crazy Summer (Rita Williams-Garcia), Small Steps (Louis Sachar), Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, and to two forthcoming books Exposed by Kimberly Marcus and Orchards (Holly Thompson). Each of these books deals with tough topics that kids need to digest and discuss. I would hope that parents would read these titles and see them as an opportunity to open up a line of communication with their children and teens.