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