On Book Ratings and Empathy

The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom blog has a post up titled “OIF and other organizations oppose book ratings system in West Virginia school system.” The jist is that, as a result of a parental book challenge in a high school, the Kanawa County school board is apparently now considering some sort of rating system for books used in the classroom. The ALA OIF and five other organizations have co-authored a nice letter opposing this notion.

Letter Excerpt:

“Single-letter ratings, such as the board proposes, are inherently reductive and subjective. Novels and other complex materials can’t be described by a letter, and it would be impossible to ensure that materials are rated consistently. For example, does a single instance of profanity warrant an “L” (for “language) rating, or is it 10 instances, or 100? Would the violence in the Bible or Shakespeare require a “V” label? What would be the criteria for labeling something “mature” content?”

Great points, and somewhat amusing to ponder. However, this current event got me thinking, because, as much as I hate to admit it, some teeny tiny part of me relates to the desire for warnings on media materials. Not the useless ratings like they put on movies and television shows these days, when mothers typically die at the beginning of G-rated films but same-sex kisses are Restricted. (I don’t know about your kid, but mine is much more disturbed by the idea of his parents dying than he is by anyone kissing anyone else!) But meaningful alerts to materials I might wish to avoid.

This is why:

When I was a new parent, struggling through the sleep deprivation of living with a newborn, the too-soon return-to-work compelled by the U.S.’s lack of decent family leave systems, the recovery from birthing a brawny nine-pounder in my spare bedroom, and the intense hormonal downloads of the postpartum period, a dear friend of mine gave me Cynthia Ozick’s novella, The Shawl.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Shawl begins with a short story in which a woman is marched to a concentration camp during WWII, along with her niece and her infant daughter. At the beginning of the story, the daughter was exactly the same age as my son was when I read the book. The woman manages to hide her baby from the Nazis for months, until she learns to walk and toddles out of the barracks, where she is immediately killed in a rather graphic manner. I cried my eyes out after reading this book. I felt destroyed for a short while. And most of all, I was shocked and appalled that my friend would be so callous and horrible as to give me this book at that time.

Never have I longed more for a rating system. I desperately wanted a discreet little symbol on any book containing a dead baby. I could not bear the idea of reading one more account of a baby like mine dying, much less being shot to death by Nazis after nearly starving for a year. I wanted a “DB” on all such books, so that I would not have to suffer repeat trauma brought on by a well-intentioned friend or librarian.

BUT, really, when I look at this scenario rationally, it was a horrible experience brought on by the innocent good intentions of a friend who just didn’t think about my temporary vulnerable state. I was not traumatized for life. I wasn’t even temporarily disabled – just really upset. I had nightmares but still managed to go to work, care for my child, shovel the snow out of my driveway, etc. In retrospect, I actually learned something from this experience — I now often warn new mums I’m friends with about reading traumatic baby-death stories. However, what I took away from this experience was increased empathy and understanding of what it’s like to be a new mum and the feelings of vulnerability that can sometimes come with that position, not a new mission to keep babydeath books out of the hands of the potentially vulnerable new mums of the world!

Why do I even bother sharing this story? Because I think, in our staunch-defenders-of-intellectual-freedom roles, we library-folk can be seen by some as cold and oppositional. Unfeeling. Inhuman, even. We talk in codes and roll our eyes when people don’t know where the LCCN HQ21.S325 is. When a patron tells us they can’t find something in the catalogue, our “sympathetic” response is to agree that the OPAC’s interoperability and user interface leave much to be desired. You get the idea.

And sometimes, maybe just sometimes, the parent who is freaked because she just realised – while reading it aloud to her child –  that King & King is actually about two princes who get married doesn’t really understand that we are also parents who wish we could protect our children from all that is bad in the world — despite the fact that our “bad” and their “bad” may have different definitions and we may have different assessments of how realistic it would be to actually be able to provide such protection.

And maybe, just maybe, sometimes it’s healthy and useful for us to recognize the deep feelings that underlie the urge to want to censor something, even if we would never follow through on any such action. Even though I am on “the other side” (the librarian/IF side) when a parent wants a book out of the school library, it’s important for me to retain empathy for where that parent is coming from in her concern.

So I offer up this story about when I wanted – for few minutes, at least – book ratings warning me about content I found objectionable. Because I truly believe that human connection facilitates education and understanding in a way that no policy statement or weblog rant can. There isn’t always the opportunity to share a humanizing moment with the upset person across the desk, but sometimes, well, sometimes there just might be.




Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom

3 responses to “On Book Ratings and Empathy

  1. Joanne Markovitz

    The difference you describe is that you were an adult when you found yourself in that situation. You had life experiences that helped you to deal with your emotions and to rationalize your feelings. Children by their very nature have less to fall back on, as far as life experience. Children are all very different. No one child matures at the same rate as another. To assume that each child is at the same maturity level mentally or socially, as they are chronologically is simply that just an assumption. Every child deserves the right to be protected from potential danger. Parents reserve the right to decide how far they are willing to go to prevent potential danger. We live in a society hell bent on baby proofing everything in order to prevent the slightest of injuries. Yet, as soon as they reach school age some teachers believe they know what is or isn’t appropriate. I do take an active role in what my child watches on TV, what she listens to on the radio, and now I find that she has read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” for her 9th grade english class. Hmmm. I’m just wondering what kind of life experiences my daughter may have had that will have prepared her to discuss violating a dog, or having someone muffle your cries with a penis? Please don’t take offense I’m just trying to grasp the concept of controversial books on a 9th grade reading list. I look forward to your opinion.

    • greyson

      Hi Joanne,

      Thanks for your comment. I have given your words a lot of thought. In many respects I agree with you here. It *is* a parent’s job to do what we can to protect our children from danger, and to help them develop the skills to manage danger and difficult situations when they are grown. I think it’s fabulous that you take an active interest in guiding your daughter’s media consumption. We all have different values and we do what we can to pass them on to our children.

      You are also correct in identifying that there are cultural norms, which may or may not always coincide with your personal or cultural values. As our kids grow up, their spheres of experience get larger and larger: from the home & family, to the home + neighbourhood, to home + school and social circle, to really the entire world. At some point in this progression we lose control over what our child comes in contact with, and I have personally found this to be quite a poignant experience.

      Also at some point in this progression, our kids experience things we would rather protect them from. What do we do then? It’s a genuinely tough question. I would argue that those of us who are able to be by our children’s side during these early life challenges, and experience them in literature rather than in person, are the lucky ones. Unfortunately, many 14-year olds do or soon will have personal experience with issues such as sexual violence. While I hope your daughter has not had – and never has – such experiences, it is more than likely that just by virtue of growing up and interacting with the world around her she has the groundwork from which to begin to discuss this type of difficult issues. This is not a bad thing, though – in fact, I would argue that a childhood in a nurturing, supportive and safe environment is precisely what will give her the best possible life experiences from which to engage in a thoughtful and grounded discussion of the hard stuff in life.

      “Age appropriateness” of media materials is indeed a challenge to assess – as you point out, individuals have different life experiences and mature at different rates. Schools generally try to take a balanced approach, drawing on first and foremost what is considered to be good literature (assuming that your example is, in fact, as English assignment, for which the object is to teach the principles of literature and writing), and attempting to also provide materials that will engage students and work with the norms of the majority of the community.

      As a children’s book reviewer, I would say that The Perks of Being a Wallflower, while not a book I personally loved, was high-quality writing and appropriate for a typical secondary school student. It is a realistic novel about the life of a 15-year old. The majority of the book is not sexual in nature, and the sexual situations were hardly gratuitous.

      You may disagree, just as I sometimes disagree with things my son is told in school. What do you do then? Sometimes there is an option for an alternate assignment, but I would actually suggest that you help your child work through the issues in the assigned material that you find troubling. If you find an assigned book distasteful, that is a great opportunity to read it and discuss it with your child.

      Of course, if one disagrees with a very large or significant portion of the public curriculum, then perhaps the appropriate course for that family is private or home education. However, assuming we are talking about a single book or assignment here or there, I would urge you to see such events as opportunities to respectfully work through difficult issues with your daughter. This can be a wonderful way for you to model your family’s values as she transitions through adolescence to a state of greater independence, in which she will need the tools to survive danger on her own.

  2. Pingback: Censorship & parenting | Social Justice Librarian

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