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.
“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.