The school library is often a place of comfort for students. It's a place they can go to travel to distant lands, indulge their imaginations, and learn more about their passions. Libraries are also a source of validation. The stories contained in books on the shelves should reflect the diversity of experience in the student population. One area that is often overlooked is the LGBTQIA+ perspective. Today, lifelong teacher and learner, Jennifer LaGarde shares her tips for creating and maintaining an inclusive library.
My fist job interview for a teacher librarian position took place at an elementary school in a very conservative part of North Carolina. I will never forget it, in large part, because the principal of the school only asked me one question which was, “would you put this book in our library?” As a brand new librarian, who had only ever taught middle/high school, I’d never read Nijland and De Haan’s King and King (the story of a prince who is charged with finding a princess to be his queen, but who instead falls in love with another prince) so I gave it a quick read and responded, “I would follow district policy, but if it were up to me, yes... I’d put it in the library.” Then I told the story of a boy I knew in the 4th grade who had 2 moms and how great it would have been for him to have access to a book like this back then. The principal responded by saying she didn’t have any more questions and that the interview was over.
When I did land a job (at a middle school in the same district, but with a much better principal) one of the first things I did was add a copy of King and King to the collection. The truth is, all these years later, I’m really very grateful for that interview experience because it set me up for success when it came to future book challenges. (And there were plenty to come). It’s sad that we are still fighting these battles in 2021 and that many books that are removed from libraries continue to be those that feature LGBTQIA stories/experiences. And yet, here we are. Over the years, I’ve developed some strategies that have worked consistently when dealing with challenges of this type. Here they are:
- Have an up to date materials selection policy that includes current information related to all of the following:
- books as tools for both SEL and trauma informed teaching.
- Marriage equality and identity based discrimination.
- National trends related to inclusivity and own voices in children's publishing and
- Scholarship related to excellence in LGBTQIA publishing for young people.
- Have an active and involved library advisory board or committee who already feels invested in the library and who trusts your work on behalf of children. A committee that only meets when someone challenges a book won’t be prepared for a nuanced conversation that is informed by their own experiences with you and in the library. A committee that already knows you and your work and who feels invested in both will come to the table with information that will allow them to better serve ALL kids in the library.
- Have an “opt out” option ready for parents who don’t want their kids exposed to a specific book. Parents always have the right to choose what’s best for their own child. Problems arise, however, when one parent (or a small group) is allowed to make those decisions for all families. Having an easy way for the complainant to opt out can prevent the latter from happening.
- Focus on common ground. When talking to parents who have a concern, it’s easy to focus on the beliefs you don’t share - especially when those beliefs cause harm. Still, I was most successful at bringing book challenges to a successful end when I focused on shared beliefs. For example, I found that most parents were unaware of the fact that LGBTQIA kids are more likely to contemplate, attempt and commit suicide than their cis/straight peers. While we may not share the beliefs that lead some people to feel that identity is a choice or that some identities are inappropriate, surely we can agree that none of our kids should feel so unsafe and unwelcome in the world that they see ending their life as the only option. When posed in this way, the book in question can be framed as a lifeline for kids who are more likely to be in peril than their peers. But more importantly, it reframes ALL the participants in the challenge process as being good people who all want good things for kids. That parent can still opt out for their own child, and many will. But I have found that sometimes, when we reframe the ask, parents actually want their kids to participate. While they may be convinced that their child will never need the lifeline of a book whose story allows them to be seen, they sometimes DO see the value of their own kid being able to point to those books as resources for their friends, etc. And finally...
- Prepare/plan with the end in mind. As you build procedures and committees and resources to deal with challenges ask yourself: what’s the best possible outcome? What’s the worst that can happen? Then prepare on/off ramps for the outcomes in between.
Jennifer LaGarde has over 20 years in public education. Her educational passions include leveraging technology to help students develop authentic reading lives, meeting the unique needs of students living in poverty and helping learners (of all ages) discern fact from fiction in the information they consume. A huge fan of YA Literature, Jennifer currently lives, works, reads and drinks lots of coffee in Olympia, Washington. Follow her on her website or on Instagram or Twitter.
LGBTQIA Teen Suicide Info: