Libraries: Guarding Our Freedom to Read
Our guest author is Jenn Kalata, an adult services library associate at Worthington Public Libraries and treasurer for Worthington Public Libraries United, Local #6606.
I work in a small library system in Worthington, Ohio, just north of Columbus. My colleagues and I have started sharing the latest book bans from around the country as a strange sort of bonding exercise. Although our community tends to be open to all sorts of materials, we have noticed an increase in book challenges. The director and building managers are wonderful at talking to these folks and getting them to reconsider, reminding them that our collections reflect our community. One librarian put together a display specifically to highlight banned books, and it has been a hit with patrons. It is always satisfying when I can grab a book from those shelves and put them into the hands of someone looking for a good book. However, I often find myself feeling like we are avoiding the worst, given the rise of book bannings happening all over the country.
When I began working in public libraries six years ago, the culture surrounding book bans was already shifting. At first, book bans seemed to stem primarily from particularly stalwart religious or far-right groups. At the private Roman Catholic School where I grew up, for instance, the irreverent Captain Underpants books were banned. In 2023, though, there is something far more insidious and frightening about the increasing vitriol of the current bans. They are far more frequent and the scope of what is being deemed inappropriate has widened far beyond commonly challenged books such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Recently, I found myself skimming over yet another list of book bans, wondering if there were any new titles…trying to find something particularly egregious that I could commiserate over with my colleagues. I came across a title that gave me pause, however – The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, a book about puberty published by American Girl in the late 90s. Its frank discussions (and scientifically accurate illustrations) of breast growth, body hair, menstruation, and other topics for preteen kids assigned female at birth has, for some, earned it the dubious distinction of being “inappropriate.”
I felt a defensiveness towards the title in a way that I had not experienced with others because this book was my lifeline when I was a kid. For the uninitiated, The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls was a survival guide for kids assigned female at birth who grew up in the late 90s and early aughts. I had a very well-loved copy on my bedside table during these tumultuous years, its paperback spine crinkled, the pages worn, and I reached for it over and over again. When my family, culture, and school did not give me the information about my body that I needed, this book stepped up.
I was enrolled in a private Roman Catholic school from preschool to eighth grade, so my opportunities for any sort of sex education there were limited. We didn’t get a “body talk” until well after I had started wearing a bra, and my body was prepping up to menstruate. Any discussions of female anatomy other than its capacity to carry a fetus to term were largely ignored. Worse still, there was no discussion of consent, boundaries, or healthy relationships. Apparently, when you’re a twelve-year-old in my Roman Catholic school, the only man you need in your life is Jesus. Asking questions at home got me the same answers.
The Care and Keeping of You was honest, real, and it made a young, queer, fat kid feel way less weird about a body I did not feel quite at home in. It actually prepared me for my first period – I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed one of my mom’s pads, which gave me the time I desperately needed to muster up the courage to tell her about it. It gave me a choice in how I wanted to approach my first period, in spite of growing up in an environment where periods were considered shameful. Having knowledge about my body from this book gave me a sliver of autonomy over my body when I otherwise had very little.
Book bans that target books about puberty and health speak to the different landscape in which libraries operate. Libraries have long been a bastion of democracy, as they have been trusted to provide the public – regardless of their age, housing, health, race, etc – with factual information. Knowing that I can be the conduit for this mission is something I treasure especially in light of the torrent of book bans and attacks on libraries. I dread to think how things would have been different for me had I not had the vital resource in The Care and Keeping of You. I had knowledge from a book whose authors set out to give me autonomy over my own body regardless of my age.
Depressingly, The Care and Keeping of You is not the only scientifically accurate book about puberty and sex education to be targeted by book banning campaigns. Among these are It’s Only Natural and Sex is a Funny Word. Book bans such as these place library staff at all levels in a dangerous position. When we provide children with factual information about the human body, we run the risk of being accused of “grooming.” It destroys the trust in library staff on an individual level and leaves communities susceptible to propaganda and misinformation.
Where does a young person go to get answers about their body when answers aren’t available at school or at home? Where can we learn what to do when menstruation begins? How to call our body parts by their medical names so we can talk to our doctors? Or how to prevent pregnancy? How can someone choose birth control when they don’t even understand the actual function and purpose of the menstrual cycle? The knowledge libraries provide can bridge this gap in knowledge, free of judgment or shame.
As library staff, it’s our responsibility and duty to provide our patrons with the best information on all topics. This reflects what libraries are at their core. They are a democratic institution that provide all patrons with the best information and resources possible. When trust in institutions in the US is waning, libraries remain largely trusted. Libraries are vital to healthy democracies and healthy people, because information is freely available without bias or roadblocks.
When books like The Care and Keeping of You are banned, the ones who suffer most are young people of all genders. As more and more legislation is being passed to curtail the autonomy of those assigned female at birth, basic information about their bodies gives people the power to make informed choices about what is best for them. Additionally, many of these laws are based on faulty – if not outright false – ideas about how assigned female bodies function. Books such as The Care and Keeping of You need to be freely available to all, rather than challenged and removed from library collections.
To have open access to information about one’s own body buoys the foundation of democracy, which is self-determination. Inextricably tied to this is the Freedom to Read, a cornerstone of the philosophy of the American Library Association. So important is this idea that ALA has deemed it the theme for this year. The Freedom to Read Statement articulates,
“It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people's freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information.”
In a world plagued by misinformation, libraries and their staff protect what matters most – the freedom of determination over both our minds and bodies. Books like The Care and Keeping of You belong in the hands of readers, not on the ever-growing lists of challenged and banned books.