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Library vigilante returns racy teen books after her moment in the media glare

May 10, 2010

The problem with a principle like civil disobedience, established in this country by the English-lit superstar Henry David Thoreau,  is that sooner or later someone I don’t agree with will make use  of it. Like Tina Harden, the Orlando mom who thinks she can decide what your kids get to read.

You may have missed this story last week, what with the Gulf oil spill, the attempted New York terrorist bombing, and the prospect Greece might slip, Atlantis-like, under the waves of the wine-dark Aegean Sea.

In 2008, reported the Orlando Sentinel,  Harden flipped through four books her daughter, then 13, brought home from the Seminole County library. Then she flipped out.

Offended by words like “marijuana” and “stoned,” and references to a student having sex with a teacher, Harden refused to return the books to the library. All four are Young Adult novels in the popular  “Gossip Girl” series, or its spin-off series, “It Girl.”

Harden ignored calls from the library or its collection agency for two years as she piled up overdue fines of $85.”If I turn them in, they will be put back into circulation and they’ll be available for more young girls to read,” said the mother of three. “Some material is inappropriate for minors.”

Harden said she didn’t want the books banned, but restricted so young people couldn’t get their hands on them.

The library system offered to re-shelve the books in the adult section, but otherwise declined to make them unavailable to underage readers.

“If we denied access to this particular title, it would be censoring,” Jane Peterson, the county’s library services manager, explained patiently.

Displaying a formidable lack of understanding about the way things work, Harden insisted that as a taxpayer she should have a say in what books the library stocks. “They’re supposed to be public servants,” she said.

Good luck with that line of thinking. I tried that out once on a traffic cop (“I pay your salary! You can’t give me a ticket!”). Didn’t work then, either.

What’s heartening about this story is how little support Harden received from her own community. The Orlando Sentinel reported that 81 percent of 2,500 respondents to an “unscientific” poll said Harden should return the books pronto. So many people came forward offering to replace the missing books that the Seminole County library system had to announce it could accept no more donations of “Gossip Girl” books.

The one thing we can probably all agree on is that some books — or movies, or music, or video games, or websites — are inappropriate for children. But it’s up to the parents in each family to decide where the lines should be drawn. By seeking to impose her values on everyone, Harden, ironically would diminish rather than increase parental involvement.

After a day in the limelight, Harden returned the offending books on Friday, saying she had achieved her goal of drawing attention to the issue: “I feel like I’m a pretty middle-of-the-road kind of person. I just want children to be safe and not come across material that’s really inappropriate for their age level.”

May God save us from do-gooders of all stripes. By hiding the books in a closet, Harden missed a classic “teachable moment” with her own daughter. If she’d read the books along with her child, they then could have discussed matters of drug abuse, sex and language, reinforcing the parent’s beliefs.

Instead, the books may now take on the irresistible lure of forbidden fruit.

As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said: Books like those in the “Gossip Girl” and “It Girl” series can help “teenagers confront life situations in the safe environment of a book.”

She also pointed out this minor detail: Restricting access to books would be, you know, unconstitutional.

So tell me: Do you support Tina Harden’s attempt to protect children everywhere from “Gossip Girl” books? Or should she mind her own business?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 10, 2010 12:32 pm

    Oh God, those stupid Helicopter parents. She should definitely mind her own buyness. It would be interesting to follow this one and see how her daughter turns out. Except more publicity? Nah….

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 10, 2010 1:36 pm

    That seems to be pretty much the consensus among Orlando Sentinel readers last Thursday and Friday, when this story was breaking.

    If my memory serves me right, you were the one who asked me about librarians recently. This is a good example of librarians — your average library drone — defending someone’s right to information against an aggressive and ill-consdered attack.

    Librarians do this ALL THE Time, with little fanfare or reward, other than knowing it’s the right thing.

  3. Kris Montee permalink
    May 10, 2010 2:06 pm

    So I go to the library yesterday to check out a William Burroughs book, “Wild Boys.” No can do. The book is nowhere to be found in the entire Broward County Library system. I’m thinking, well, I know Burroughs is a little rough for some tastes, but he’s censured?

    Then the librarian sighs and tells me teenagers — wild boys! — steal his books all the time, so they have given up trying to keep them in the system.

    If parents only knew what evil lurks on the library shelves…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 10, 2010 2:39 pm

      Oh my god. How much they would love Abbie Hoffman! Steal This Book, indeed. Great story, Kris. Thanks

  4. May 10, 2010 2:30 pm

    I am proud of the library. I am proud of the librarians. (I grew up with some of the best) I wish some stores would allow more children’s books in. Yes folks many of the stores. Lots in independents stores only allow certain books in. Why? Previous business relationship with sellers and publishers. Your children should be allowed to read the best. They and parents should have choice of the best. That is not how it works. It is a form of censorship.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 10, 2010 2:40 pm

      I’m not sure you can call market economics “censorship,” can you? It’s unfortunate, but it’s something other than censorship.

  5. May 10, 2010 3:13 pm

    If the best are being held out and the parents do not have the choice of the best, how do you call it any thing else? If you hold the number down to keep others in. I do not see how you call it any thing else. Just because you bring in the word economics it does not end it. Saying capitalism won’t work either. Why do they not want to sell these books if they can make money?
    They want to sell only certain ones. Maybe these books just do not appeal or are not right for their people, I mean clients. What you have is censorship hidden behind, well you call it what you may. What if a book store says I will not sell this book in my store because I do not agree with the writing and attitude of the writer? What if a store will not put a book in the stores using the same exact story as the lady? (who was wrong) Who does not get to read the book. The parents and children. Just like in Libraries, the parents and children can go to another library can they not? I guess if you only sell 4 books then you have only four books to choose from. That is limiting. Limiting available reading in any way is a form of censorship to me. I think at best we are in a very grey area. For sure not every book can be in a store. Same with a library. If Barnes and Noble came out and used the exact same reasoning the lady used, and said it will not be in our book stores because of that, what would be the discussion?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 10, 2010 4:50 pm

      Censorship in regards to books, the press and the First Amendment, can only be done by an act of governmental authority. The lack of choice in a bookstore is a function of market forces, not censorship. A bookstore owner, as the operator of a private enterprise, does have the right to stock or not stock books on the basis of personal taste, ethics or preference. For example, a Jewish bookstore owner can choose not to sell Adolph Hitler’s book, Mein Kempf, and not one can force him to do so. However, most bookstore stocking decisions are made based on what the owner or corporate managers think will sell. They are in business to make money, after all.

  6. rachel permalink
    May 10, 2010 3:37 pm

    I find it highly amusing that after all that she just returned the books. Talk about a non-protest protest. She seems like the type that might live in Disney’s town of Celebration.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 10, 2010 5:03 pm

      In all fairness, I think that unlike most people in the news she is what she seems to be. That is, she’s made this stand, however wrong-headed and self-defeating I think it is, out of a sincere reaction to something that offended her, not some carefully strategized media campaign to draw attention to herself. And yes, she may well be the kind of person who would feel right at home in Celebration.

  7. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 10, 2010 8:57 pm

    When I first heard this story I had a good giggle. Then today I after reading your blog, I have done some more serious meditation on the topic. I have to half-applaud her half stand, it’s better than just sitting and taking it. I also have to half-applaud her on the grounds that she actually picked up the book and read a little before condemning it or at least judging it to risque for her daughter to read. So many people let others opinion become their opinion on what is acceptable for them and their family without even a fair amount of investigation. While I am in the half-applauding mood, Harden gets another on the supposition that somewhere in America,because of the flap this woman started in the media, a mother sat down with her daughter and took advantage of the opportunity to have a serious discussion about the themes in the book. Themes she had no clue were in the book, which is hard to believe, because what else is gossip if not talk about who’s on what and who’s doing who? Okay, I take back one half-applause, due to daftness, leaving her with a clap. One clap.

    The librarians all deserve a thunderous round of applause, a standing O even. Thank You librarians! And I apologize, sincerely, for shushing you back when you shushed me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 10, 2010 9:43 pm

      So, Tommy, is that the sound of one hand clapping? That koan never made sense to me before…

  8. John Karwacki permalink
    May 10, 2010 9:09 pm

    Boo to censorship. Hooray for librarians. Jane Peterson is a new hero to me. Chauncey, what no snarky comment on the book at the center of this controversy? If it was “Twilight” I bet we’d have seen someting about the poor taste of Orlando teens.

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 10, 2010 9:45 pm

    John, the name of the first book is “Gossip Girl.” I rather thought not additional commentary was required.

  10. May 11, 2010 6:37 am

    Chauncey,

    The word is, economic reason, a book was censored. It is still censorship. Money will . If you owned a big or private book store and a very controversial books comes by. You could make money and customers by having it. You could lose money and customers. You make an economic decision to put the book out. You decide not to put this book in your store. It could offend some one. It could cost clients or people. Even though you are a big chain you have decided not to put that book out. You have in fact censored a book. The book at the library was bought also. Bringing in Hitler is showing how weak your rational is. I really do not like my name used in that way.

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 11, 2010 10:51 am

    Mike, what you describe simply is not censorship. Censorship occurs only when a governmental entity suppresses a piece of writing. A bookstore choosing not to carry a particular title is something else — unfair? foolish? — but it is not censorship.

  12. May 11, 2010 12:03 pm

    In the actual legal terms maybe not. In the actual life terms, I am saying a gray area. Example.
    If the library, the librarian, or committee that approves books and buys, did not buy the book for the library. The reason was because they did not like the content and spent on another book, then we have what?
    They can say that they can not buy all the books (space) or are out of money. Is that not censorship ? The book will not be there when we go to the library to get it.

  13. Haley permalink
    May 25, 2010 7:01 pm

    I think this was a pretty silly reaction. When I was a young adult I once brought home a book my mother didn’t approve of and she just took it back and let me know why she didn’t want me to read it. She didn’t try to ban all teens from reading it because, honestly, every teen is going to have a different level of understanding of controversial materials. Many young adults have sex and do drugs so reading about it is really the least of their problems. It’s up to the parent of each child to monitor their child and help them to make choices that they personally find “appropriate”.

    Michael J. McCann – I’m sorry but you seem far too upset about this. Do you not understand that one bookstore cannot possibly stock every single book in existance in order to avoid what you consider “censorship”? If I go into a store and they don’t have the title I’m looking for my response isn’t, “They’re trying to censor me!”. I understand that they have limited space and resources with which to sell their books and so they are forced to make choices that they feel are best whether is be for economic or moral reasons. It is your choice to shop at a different store. Go online to Amazon, you’ll be able to find just about any book you can imagine.

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