A column of news, views and snippets from the international literature of books, libraries, and information, compiled by Peter Lor
In loco parentis?
Not many readers of this column will be old enough to remember the impassioned debates about children’s books, which raged in the Cape Town newspapers in the early 1970s. They were set off by a decision taken by Cape Town City Libraries to ban from their collections popular children’s series such as those by Enid Blyton (who authored over 600 books separately and in various series), the Just William books, by Richman Compton, the detective stories featuring the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew (both series written by a syndicates of authors and published under pseudonyms) and, in Afrikaans, the Trompie and Saartjie series both written by Topsy Smith. Kids lapped them up, one after another, but the librarian in charge of selecting books for Cape Town children, Lydia Pienaar, who had recently been awarded masters and doctoral degrees for her work on children’s literature, decreed that the addicted children wasted valuable time they should have spent reading books of better quality. She had worked out that the average child could only read about 700 books during childhood. After that the golden opportunity to enjoy good children’s books from a child’s perspective, was lost for good. Her opponents, including many parents, argued that these books got kids reading books, which was better than not reading at all or, horrors! reading comics.
The debate about comics is not over. In a 2020 article in the Washington Posts’ Perspectives section, children’s librarian Karen MacPherson makes the case that comics, which she prefers not to call graphic novels, are real books and can be a valuable literacy tool to encourage reluctant readers (MacPherson 2020).
Another slant on comics comes from efforts to save an endangered indigenous language, Hñäñho (also known as Otomi), spoken by the Ñäñho people from the Mexican state of Querétaro. Here a series of comic books featuring an impish deity called Tlaloc is being created. Tlaloc derives from the traditional mythology of the Ñäñho people. Their language and culture are in decline as a generation gap emerges: parents still speak their own language alongside Spanish, but their children only know Spanish. The comic books help the children connect with their culture while keeping the language alive (Gerry 2021). Is this an idea worth trying out in South Africa?
Sanitizing children’s collections
As a child I read lots of series books and comics. This did not stop me from reading “good” books too, and from majoring in English and French literature later. The articles I cited earlier prompted me to read more about the series which featured in my childhood reading. I discovered that many of them are still being published and have given rise to stage, film and television adaptations. I also discovered that well-intentioned sanitizing and correction of classic books for children and teen readers is alive and well, and creating controversy. Accusations of racism, xenophobia and sexism have been levelled at many children’s classics. Publishers have been sensitive to such criticism and have withdrawn some titles from circulation or altered text or illustrations that might be found offensive. Children’s favourites, including The wind in the willows, Where the wild things are, and the Harry Potter books, have been found undesirable and banned by high-minded censors in school and library boards. Not surprisingly, books by Roald Dahl, who delights kids with his rollicking, irreverent and sometimes revolting stories, and gets them clamouring for more, feature prominently on lists of challenged books (Smith 2014). Another addictive author with a gift for enticing reluctant readers was Dr Seuss. Recently the estate of Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) decided to withdraw six of his books from publication because of racist stereotyping (Alter and Harris 2021). This means that they will no longer be published, but it does not affect what happens to the tens of thousands of copies already in libraries or private homes. What happens to library copies is for the librarians to decide.
The controversies that this ignited in the U.S.A. are but skirmishes in the ongoing culture wars which are being waged on a broad front between conservatives and liberals. Liberals think it is good to expose kids to a wide range of ideas and societal issues, including gender roles, sexuality, traditional family structures and values, disability, racial discrimination and critical views on colonialism and imperialism. On the other hand, books with LGBTQ protagonists (Tagami 2022), or books that are critical of America’s history of slavery and racism, attract the ire of conservatives (Jensen 2021). To them, critical race theory is as the proverbial reg to a bull. (Bulls are actually colour-blind.) Conservatives prefer kids not to read books with such challenging topics and non-traditional values.
US libraries are part of a vibrant and turbulent, locally-based democracy. There is a high rate of public library membership. People care about their libraries and they get actively involved in supporting them. They also want to have a say in how their libraries are run. Party politics and cultural ideologies spill over into school boards and library boards, which are elected by their communities. There are pros and cons to grass-roots democracy.
We in South Africa often complain that our libraries are not sufficiently visible and recognized. But there are risks and benefits to visibility in the political arena. Without visibility it is difficult to negotiate the resources we need for library services. But with increased visibility also comes risk (Lor 2016). On balance though, I would say, let’s rather be visible and equip ourselves to deal with the challenges that may arise.
Special library collections come in all shapes and sizes: the National Toy Train Library in Ronks, Pennsylvanania serves miniature train enthusiasts (Dankowski 2021); seed libraries are being set up all over the U.S.A.(Helmer 2021), and, my favourite: the library op Yale University’s Law School has a certified therapy dog which can be borrowed for a thirty-minute session of “stress busting”. It is one of several university and college libraries in the U.S.A. which has a therapy dog on offer (Lou n.d.). What better way to end this column than with a happily wagging tail?
Alter, Alexandra, and Elizabeth A. Harris. 2021. “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts.” The New York Times, March 4, 2021, sec. Books. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/books/dr-seuss-books.html.
Dankowski, Terra. 2021. “Bookend: All Aboard.” American Libraries Magazine. January 4, 2021. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/?p=120578.
Gerry, Aaron. 2021. “Can Indigenous Language Comics Save a Mother Tongue?” SAPIENS. September 16, 2021. https://www.sapiens.org/language/indigenous-language-comics/.
Helmer, Jodi. 2021. “This Teenager Helped Launch Seed Libraries in Every State.” Modern Farmer (blog). February 8, 2021. https://modernfarmer.com/2021/02/this-teenager-helped-launch-seed-libraries-in-every-state/.
Jensen, Kelly. 2021. “Students Protest Book Bans in Pennsylvania School District.” BOOK RIOT (blog). September 9, 2021. https://bookriot.com/student-book-ban-protest/.
Lor, Peter Johan. 2016. “Risks and Benefits of Visibility: Librarians Navigating Social and Political Turbulence.” Library Trends 65 (2): 108–27. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2016.0025.
Lou, JoAnna. n.d. “Borrow a Dog at the Library.” The Bark. Accessed January 24, 2022. https://thebark.com/content/borrow-dog-library.
MacPherson, Karen. 2020. “Don’t Be Afraid to Let Children Read Graphic Novels. They’re Real Books.” Washington Post, February 27, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/dont-be-afraid-to-let-children-read-graphic-novels-theyre-real-books/2020/02/27/ed374b92-4dd7-11ea-9b5c-eac5b16dafaa_story.html.
Smith, Michelle. 2014. “‘Offensiveness’ and Children’s Books: Censoring ‘Slut’ from a Roald Dahl Classic.” The Conversation. August 31, 2014. http://theconversation.com/offensiveness-and-childrens-books-censoring-slut-from-a-roald-dahl-classic-31091.
Tagami, Ty. 2022. “Movement Would Ban LGBTQ Books, Online Materials from School Libraries.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 2, 2022, sec. Education.