Who are you if you are afraid? : On mediating complex content in children’s literature


“If I have the agency to read texts for young people critically, then might not young readers have this agency also?”

Nodelman, Perry (2016) The hidden child in the hidden adult Jeunesse : Young People, Texts, Cultures 8 (1), pp266-277


I have been thinking about this post for a while and how best to approach it. It was thrown into sharp relief by a few conversations I had recently, and some online activity I watched, which made me realise that I was thinking about the books I study and work with and read, madly, feverishly, selfishly, and had some ideas around content that were worth exploring in a post like this. I am self-indulgent on this blog, I know, but things like this matter immensely. Literature is a building block, a superpower, and once we understand how it does what it does and how we influence that doing, we are warriors.

I am no child. I am not married. I do not have children. I regularly work with and for children, for often librarianship is as much about the behind the scenes work as it is about the stuff in front of the curtain, and I actively advocate for children’s literature on a daily basis.

(I could write for years about picture books.)

Working with children’s literature, and working in public libraries, places you into a strange position. You are often read as a librarian, whether qualified or no, Saturday job or full timer, and with that reading you are imbued with a distinct power. The hush. People love the hush. I don’t think I’ve ever hushed anybody.

But people always, rightly, turn to you for help and support in engaging with the library services (and, sidebar, if you rebuff this then we need to talk about why you’re doing the job you’re doing). When it comes to children’s books, there’s a distinct teacher / librarian / bank manager / doctor type vibe, you are invested with authority. It’s a distinct, flexible, and occasionally quite transitory type of authority, but you are still invested with it. You are part of the library and thus, you are read as the library itself.

And when all of that connects with a problem, it’s quite a potent connection.

In this instance, the problem is a book. Somebody has decided that this book that they have in their hands is unsuitable for children. It is a children’s book. It has been sold as one, catalogued as one, and shelved as one. But it is unsuitable and has been bought to you to arbitrate upon and to make a decision upon.

The question is: what is the nature of that decision going to be?

The book, as I say, has been bought as a children’s book. Let’s say it’s a popular one. You see it on the trolley a lot needing to be shelved (which is one of the best markers of popularity there is, when you can’t see stats) and you’ve come across it a few times when you’ve tidied. But for this individual, it is an inappropriate book for children. It should not be there.

The question shifts.

It is not how do we get rid of the book but rather how do we acknowledge the validity of its presence. 

I do not ban books. I will never ban a book. A bald statement, yes, but one with justification. I will mediate and manage access to a book but I will never ban one. Fear of the language and fear of the content create a reading that often bears very little relationship to that which is held within. In not reading something, we often (and often unintentionally) misread something. And misreadings hold power.

Every book in a library has gone through a process to be there. It is a process that you may have had very little to do with, but it is still a process. As part of that process it has gone through mediation. Somebody has decided that it is going to be added to the stock. The book has had money spent on it. Time. It’s not there by accident.


The question becomes further nuanced:

It is not how do we get rid of the book but rather how do we acknowledge the validity of its presence and how do we acknowledge and manage the validity of the complaint?

A complaint comes from a place of emotion. And it is difficult and fruitless to reason with emotion because it is not a productive. So, initially, the best answer is to listen. To validate the time of their complaint with listening. Nodding. Understanding. Even if it is a complaint on the most narrow of issues, the representation of a jam jar, perhaps, when the family hates jam, it is still based on a space of reason for that individual.

The book – the problem book – needs a swift decision. The problem needs resolving. It’s almost past, at this point, it is the catalyst and not the resolution. The book does not move from the shelves. It should not. You have disengaged your personal feelings from the situation and know of the validity of enabling a diverse bookshelf. Diverse voices, diverse stories. Challenging content. Who are we if we do not find other voices in the world? So the book stays, yes. Always, really. There are ways to deal with it, whether it’s a simple shelving of it back where it should be or simply holding it whilst the person talks to us and shares their feelings. Sometimes that’s enough.

Often, when it comes to children’s literature, a complaint comes from a space of understandable concern. The children’s shelf in the library is huge. The age range covered is immense. The different stages of development are substantial.

And even when somebody has complained about the book, they have still engaged with a book. That’s what we want; readers, even when they don’t know it. They have engaged and that engagement can be managed. So this is the part where intervention occurs, where we talk and we nod and we spend time with them and we find out what they want and we guide them to it and we help them understand the clues on front covers and the semiotics of books and the way an image will lead somebody to the right space, even when they don’t know a thing about the book itself. And we listen

I am no barrier to literacy, even when the path towards it is rocky and complex.

I believe in readers, all readers.

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