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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Feb 11, 2024

What role should a teacher play in choosing books kids read?

By Candace Brown

Secondary ELA

What role should a teacher play in choosing books kids read?

By Candace Brown

Previously, I wrote about the tension surrounding book choice in schools from four main parties: parents, teachers, students, and admin.

This article will not have an admin option. It will address a group I left out last time instead: librarians. Guiding students in book choices is not an administrator’s role, as I understand it; we trust the mentors directly speaking into students’ lives for that.

This article is about book choice as well, but it’s about the choice to say no (how to say no, how to tell when you should say no, what are the ramifications of saying no, what to do when you maybe should have said no but said yes instead, and how to turn a no into a consenting yes). I hope to offer you, teachers, tools for discussions about abstaining from certain books and tools for guiding students to choose books for themselves; I hope to offer you, students, with tools for discernment as well as tools for defense of your right to read. I will structure this post similarly to the aforementioned article with suggestions for action and research embedded for each group so that you could, feasibly, only read the section referring to you and be enabled to face your context. I also repeat certain parts of research across multiple sections but not every source is copied to other sections.

I want to preface again that my context is different from many of the writers of teacher blogs because I work at a private Christian international school with an American curriculum in Asia. The problems we are facing look different from those faced by public school teachers in Arkansas or Charter school teachers in Illinois. I’m also limited by my experience as a secondary teacher; these conversations have less controversy in lower elementary, though discussions about appropriateness do surface more commonly in the upper elementary/middle school transition. May you take what you need and may it be useful to you.

By this point, you teachers, students, parents, and librarians have entered the room of this conversation and taken your seats somewhere in the audience. Maybe you’re ready to verbally spar because of genuine concerns you have about the content being pushed to young children in the wide range of media accessible to them. Maybe you’re angry about book bans. Maybe you’re fed up with trigger warnings or content warnings. Maybe you think removing upsetting books from school libraries is the best thing for your child.

Regardless, I hope that you can take a step back and examine certain questions that have been previously unaddressed in certain contexts surrounding this conversation.

Teachers: curate, investigate/communicate, equip, compromise, and do not ban.


Your classroom libraries, core texts, optional reading, and on-the-fly suggestions have great power in developing your students’ love of reading, leading them to new understanding, and nurturing their empathy. That is encouraging but it also carries some weight. For your classroom libraries and your optional reading list, there should be more flexibility for challenging or more mature books. I have my own system of leveling and genre sorting that works for my students and I with some flexibility, and I have yet to have a parent or student protest my choices (fingers crossed).

As I mentioned in my book choice article, I served on our school’s taskforce last year for choosing the English curriculum for the next 6 years. Our book choices were based on three bits of accountability:

  1. At least two taskforce members had to read the book proposed.
  2. They both had to agree that the book worked for the grade in which it was being proposed.
  3. The book couldn’t be used in another grade.

These are straightforward considerations, but when we discussed the grade level matching for certain books, inevitably, conversations of “appropriateness” came up. Is 8th grade too young to look at police brutality? Is 12th grade too young to see certain swear words or innuendos in print (I say “certain” because many longstanding classics for secondary have slurs, innuendo, and swear words- see To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and any Shakespearean play, to name a few)? Now, these conversations are in seemingly every school district in the US and many make it into the news.

In a perfect world, teachers would be able to make choices for their students in perfect harmony, but I recognize that is not the case in every school or even most schools. Nevertheless, let’s assume that you have some measure of guidance over what your students read both for fun from your resources and for your class. Under that assumption, our teacher profession has a spectrum of options about what a student should read and when. Whether you are in the “all the books for all the students” camp or “reading inappropriate content is harmful for minors” camp or somewhere in between, you should know that the research is mixed for a few reasons:

1. Studies on the effects of media on adolescents’ social, emotional, moral, or sexual behaviors often don’t examine books, and there are more variables to measure when examining books’ effects.

They sometimes specify only graphic novels under books rather than all books. They sometimes only focus on social media or TV. The Collaborative Trust for Research and Training in Youth Health & Development released a report in 2019 for the Broadcast Standards Authority of New Zealand. It mentioned books only in the context of media in China being more likely to be controlled by the government. Even though it uses the term “media” throughout the study, it specifies “traditional media” including books and only in the aforementioned passage.

A more famous example would be a study conducted in 2019 with the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. It found that watching the controversial Netflix show Thirteen Reasons Why caused in uptick in suicide for teens in the US (more on that in the next section). However, it excluded purposefully “focus on other exposures (e.g., having read the book on which [Thirteen Reasons Why] is based)” (Inclusion And Exclusion Criteria).

Most of the research on suicidal behavior after consuming certain types of media are looking at two trends: the “Werther effect” (“i.e. that media coverage of suicide can trigger actual suicidal behavior in vulnerable individuals in the audiences”) or the “papageno effect” (“whether media recommendations on responsible reporting suicide cases have a protective influence”). According to researchers with the British Journal of Psychiatry, that protective influence had only been previously discussed on a theoretical basis but was confirmed empirically by the study.

“Books and films may act as sources of social support or mental health literacy and thus reduce the suicide risk constituted by low sense of belonging” according to that NHI study, but they conclude that, because “motivations for the students to engage in reading” could change the outcome (“was the motivator a form of avoidance/escape, or a desire to ‘belong’”?), more research must be done to “specify the target of belonging.”

2. Some studies about media and behavior find mixed results (or correlation rather than causation).

The NCAC noted that some evidence has been presented for “harm for minors” in consuming certain content but with mostly correlational studies (see subpoint 14). The aforementioned NHI-sponsored study on Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why TV show needed to be revisited.

Even though the results claimed to have “[accounted] for seasonal effects and an underlying increasing trend in monthly suicide rates,” Data Curator Daniel Romer, with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at UPenn, recognized a potential need for data reaggregation. He found in a 2020 study that there was a natural (though this word seems callous to use here) uptick in suicide rates worldwide because of the many external factors about which we hopefully are all aware. The study recognized that where they saw causation before, they should have seen it as correlation with even possible benefits for students who are contemplating suicide, such as this study found:

“Unexpectedly, current students who watched the entire second season reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all (ps < .01). Moreover, those who watched the entire second season were also more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared to those who stopped watching.”

This isn’t about the book, but it is about a narrative that came from the book, and that might make a difference in how the show was arranged. The book had staying power on bestseller lists for years after its release for a reason: it spoke to the ones who needed it. “Reading books… may compensate for lacking social support if, for instance, the reader can in some way identify with the narrative, situational factors or protagonists in the stories.” (NHI)

When studies do examine books with content that could cause a behavior change– the overall fear behind reading controversial or mature books from certain parents, according to a featured article with the International Literacy Association –  they find that the “forbidden fruit” isn’t the focus for students. There’s not an obsession with the behavior.

Here’s the research:

“This finding supports what other research has shown in relation to young adult literature: Adults focus on potential controversy, whereas students see literary elements and draw connections to social themes (Freedman & Johnson, 2000). What it also illustrates, however, is that the stance from which the actual reading of a book occurs is key to understanding these clashes [emphasis added]. Adults might benefit from consciously attempting to read and understand from the perspective of youths so they can better empathize with adolescent populations and entertain discussions related to tough topics.”

3. Using the term “harm for minors” has more to do with parent perception and cultural norms than it has to do with psychological, emotional, or sexual consequences.

There is a broader spectrum than you may think for what is perceived as “harmful” behavior for adolescents. A study conducted in 1998 interviewed men and women and found that even their gender altered their perceptions for certain sexual behaviors in adolescents compared to judgments of the facilitators such as sex abuse experts, therapists, etc. Marjory Heinz with the NCAC said this of using the term:

“… ‘harm to minors’ is at bottom not a scientific, but a moral and ideological concept.”

The Broadcasting Standards Authority of NZ report noted the following:

“The empirical literature is divided as to whether exposure to [sexualised] media content leads to harmful impacts for children and young people. Some studies found no causal link between exposure to [sexualised] media content and risky sexual behaviours in children and young people. Other variables, such as the influence of peers and parents, rather than media, had more impact on the sexual attitudes and beliefs of adolescents.”

Another article from researcher Yuval Gozansky discussing the exposure of puberty on children’s television explained this:

“The contradiction between the moralistic ‘protective discourse’ promoted largely by adults, and children’s rights to sexuality education and information, raises the question of children’s television’s ability to address the subject of puberty without being accused of immorality or inappropriateness for children.”

In other words, the cultural piece of expectations from parents is both more effective on child behavior and more “wronged” by a violation of the sexual attitudes and beliefs of a person being outside of their expected level. Cultural and parental expectations can complicate efforts to offer healthy discourse or exploration of ideas. There’s no need to drop the evidence for this point because of not discussing books because the conversation still stands.

Consider how fiction changes your perceptions positively. Another potential benefit of reading fiction is also “perspective taking,” a development of understanding from someone else’s experience. What possibilities open up when empathy can develop in tandem with open discussions about hard topics?

Many of you may know teachers who were fired for merely the presence of a book with certain themes, characters, words, or scenes depicted. That must have given many of you pause the next time you were in a bookstore holding a potential classroom library purchase. It can also feel unfair considering how widely books get rated in “appropriateness” for age level or grade based on what metric or leveling system you use. For example, Edutopia notes that the popular Twilight books are rated differently across 3 main leveling scales: Fountas and Pinnell (for high school students), Accelerated Reader (for fifth-grade readers), and Lexile (for early elementary readers).

The history of book bans and censorship spans millennia with the Comstock Act of 1873 (later creating a noun similar to “crusader”) and the Obscenity trials. Supreme Court Case such as Roth v. United States (1957) propelled the conversation on defining obscenity which has still not been fully defined today, though questions about prurient interests, intent of consumption, and the dominance of specific themes appealing to those prurient interests continue.The Court ruled in Miller v. California (1973) that the [first amendment] should not protect “obscene” works “which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

In Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), it was ruled that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” a conclusion which should be freeing to you as educators. When choosing what books should go into your library, remember that you are defended in your choices on the grounds of the first amendment to the Constitution and “literary merit” from Pope v. Illinois (1987).

Yet, this only applies if you’re in a US public school; private schools are not protected by the first amendment and thus need to make choices based on “ethical principles”, says the ALA. There are some holes in your defense if you teach in this context and you can equip your students to face censorship. Nevertheless, the NCAC says “students in private schools should be accorded the same intellectual freedoms and civil liberties as their peers in public schools. Free speech is not just a legal imperative; it is a core educational principle.”

If you can defend the book’s cultural or literary value, it should hold up against scrutiny.


If a parent raises concern about a particular book in your library, you should already have a procedure in place that is approved by your administrator for your classroom library. Check your school policy on classroom libraries, choice reading, and parent approval for book lists. Build your policy based on what your school has in place already, but formally challenge portions of the policy if they do not offer accountability or review processes that include voices of the school staff outside of the administration.

Your policies might include…

  • Sending home a letter to parents before beginning a core text with the proviso that they have to sign and return the form to opt out of their child reading the book.
  • Putting a policy about book choice into your school syllabus
  • Emailing parents before giving students access to your classroom library with your sorting options (ex. If a middle schooler wants to read books you have marked as “HS Only”, parents can write you back with permission for them to have access for the year)

If you are at a school where there is little-to-no freedom of choice in what goes into your students’ reading lists, work with what you can to ensure that your students have some choice baked into your class. We know that choice helps engage students and if your particular combination of student body needs and locked-in canon doesn’t afford that on its own, you’ll need more support to get their buy-in. The other way to get student buy-in without alienating parents is to…


I currently teach 8th-12th students with many language backgrounds and cultural experiences having access to my classroom library. For the sake of clarity, I’ll focus on my 8th grade practices;I teach my 8th graders to choose books that they might enjoy, to recommend books they like to friends, and to try to challenge themselves in their reading level.

My bare minimum rule is this: “open to the first page, and if there’s at least one word that you’re not entirely sure you know what it means by the end of the first page, it’s a good challenge for you.” This rule is dangerously close to the more outdated practice of leveling, but I’ll get to how I help that later.

These encouragements and suggestions don’t address when a student doesn’t like what they’re reading, though. I use a version of book reviews (thanks to Kelly Gallagher’s “Book of the Month” resources) as one way for my 8th graders to tell me when a book has made them uncomfortable or helped them grow (and often it is with the exact same aspect of the book).

In the book reviews, I ask, “What are some things that made this book a good choice?” and “What are some things that made this book a not-so-good choice?” Even though these questions aren’t directly asking about maturity level or “appropriateness”, they often give me a window into any opinions or concerns students may have about content that might not match what they are thinking about. They also get honest about the vocabulary level being too easy for them while telling me that there was a scene or character that made them uncomfortable. We have a conversation about how they can read books that aren’t challenging in vocabulary on their own but not for their book reviews, and I follow up about the scene or character with them.

If they have content concerns, I ask them, “Do you think other 8th graders should be able to read this book?” No matter their answer, I ask for their reasons why. If they say yes even though they were uncomfortable, how they answer shows their understanding that books don’t have to be everyone’s favorite in order for everyone to have a chance with them.

I use the word “everyone” loosely here, though, as “common sense” is still a voiced expectation from some anti-censorship voices. Even the NCAC (“We believe in freedom of choice for all people but we also believe in common sense, and common sense will tell you that it is extremely unusual for a young child to check out adult material.”) suggested that there is a “common sense” line to draw.

Giving students permission to exercise their common sense shows them that they are people, too. The whole point of my classroom library is to give them choice in what they read so that there’s buy-in for exercising their reading muscles. If they can’t choose to walk away from a book, their choice is more limited. They are less likely to make riskier reading choices such as trying a long nonfiction book when they usually read shorter fantasy novels. On the subject of trying new genres, note also that students can find a book challenging even if it’s not challenging in the same way they’d find a classic novel challenging. I ask my students to try at least 1 new genre per quarter because new genres afford new vocabulary. It also helps them get variety in their “training” away from basic leveling, as literacy expert Tim Shanahan notes:

“Top runners don’t train at one level: They take long runs, fast but shorter runs, and also can lift weights to build specific muscles… Kids should read a wide range of texts, and libraries can help. They should read easy books to things that kick their butts. The variation of difficulty does matter.”

That difficulty can be found both in the usual areas of syntax and vocabulary as well as content and theme. However, I also ask for student trust by encouraging them to finish a book if I know it can be growing for them even with some challenging content. For example, you secondary teachers know that Orwell’s 1984 is a staple for classic dystopian lit in secondary (usually high school). There’s a wealth of personal growth possible in those pages. It does have more mature relational content toward the end. However, it has a mature dialogue throughout with its government policing the thoughts and actions of its people, its philosophical points about security versus freedom, and its warnings about surveillance. It’s a book that forces you to think through hard topics. That is its goal, anyway. If a student gets over halfway with 1984 on their own and starts to grow weary, I would encourage them to finish it.

I equip students to dig through my classroom library by teaching them the following:

  1. “Read books that are challenging for you. How you can tell is by reading the first page. If there’s just one word you’re not entirely sure you know, it’s the right level of challenge.
  2. “Ask yourself, ‘What are some things that made this book a good choice?’ and ‘What are some things that made this book a not so good choice?’”
  3. “Do you think this book should be ready by others in your grade or not? Why did you answer that way?”
  4. You should try to finish a book that you know is going to be good for you, but you do not have to finish every book you start.


You might be all too familiar with this idea already when it comes to your classroom library. I hope that your school has protected your ability to offer choice reading that is relatable to your students. If you face backlash for a book in your curriculum, library, or optional reading list (even after following your school’s guidelines for curriculum choices or free reading, especially in secondary), the course of action could go something like this:

  1. Schedule a meeting with the parties involved.
  2. Before you meet with the involved parties, meet with your librarian, administrator, learning specialist, etc. to discuss options for the conversation and for possible alternatives. Ask for their support at the other meeting, if possible.
  3. Meet with the involved parties. Remember that you could note precedent with classics having much of the same controversy in their wake while still carrying literary merit.
  4. If the involved parties do not consent even by the end of the meeting, compromise with a book that meets similar learning goals as best you can.

I recognize that some school policies do not allow for this kind of dialogue, especially in 2023 as more districts are subject to state scrutiny of their school libraries. Remember that the goal at the end of the day is for your students to learn. That learning is going to be defined differently in the minds of everyone involved in these kinds of decisions. You as the teacher have a clearer path for those end targets, but the “how” does have to involve some level of consent along the way.

I am not suggesting that you get parental approval for every poem, short story, novel, worksheet, or activity in your course plan; I am suggesting that you continue letting your “common sense” go in tandem with transparency with the people who have the most to gain or lose with your students’ growth: their parents. The National Council of Teachers of English’s Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Instructional Materials says similarly:

“In considering the role of teachers and the possibilities of young people, it is clear that decisions as to the aesthetic and pedagogical value and developmental appropriateness of instructional materials must be entrusted [emphasis added] to teachers and librarians, working in concert with school administrators, school boards, and parents. In all cases, the primary concerns must be fostering student growth and understanding while protecting intellectual freedom in our schools.”

You shouldn’t have to hide what your students study, and you shouldn’t have to hide the world from them, either.

Do not ban. Practice discernment instead.

Consider yourselves bastions of civilization, teachers. You are ensuring that your students have a safe environment to wrestle with tough conversations, philosophical dilemmas, and more mature ideas as they navigate becoming adults. Should murder be punishable by death? Shakespeare tiptoes to this question’s answer in Hamlet. What happens when society’s norms fall away in the wake of desperation and survival? Read Lord of the Flies. How can we develop empathy in middle schoolers? Refugee by Alan Gratz might be a good start. All of these stories have been banned in some form or other in the United States. Teachers, if any of you think that all books that include political messages (Refugee), sexual content (Hamlet), or violence (Lord of the Flies), note that you will have to ban a text that holds greater weight for many in the US: the Bible.

Note that there are different forms of censorship that you might already be using. Trigger warnings, age-leveling for content, and cutting books from your classroom library are all forms of soft censorship or indirect censorship (though calling trigger warnings soft censorship is still up for debate). I wonder if changing my “HS Only” section to say “HS Only (Ask)” would be more fitting with the research and my concerns about the validity of age cut-offs for secondary school-level content. If I have a 19-year-old senior, should they be allowed to read books that I might have only recommended for college students? If my school’s policy allows 8th graders in Quarter 4 to read “HS Only” books, where’s the actual age-leveling line? Changing my labels also ensures that if there’s a student who is not in HS and is interested in checking out one of my books, I can have a conversation with that student about why they are interested and follow up with parental permission.

Trigger warnings have been found to not work, anyway (or, at least, to help in the ways that they could help); trigger warnings have been found to modestly increase anxiety in readers rather than decrease it, put a particular trauma at the center of a person’s life if they have experienced it, and “[increase] in the severity of one’s Post-traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms” if one has the condition, according to Richard McNally, Psychology Professor and Director of Clinical Training at Harvard.

Banning books for all in a certain population limits them from the discourse surrounding that book, inhibits their training for the real world, and removes an opportunity for students to understand harder topics in one of the safest places in the world: the written word. Justin Azevedo, the youth materials selector at the Sacramento Public Library and co-chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, says it this way: “Reading is a safe place to experience things ­secondhand,” and, I hope, reading as a safe place also includes your classroom space).

Teachers, remember your burdens. As often as we want to forget them, we have a duty to our students that is complex and ever-evolving. Here’s what the NCTE says about our duty:

“Regardless of setting and cultural context, classroom instruction will require teachers to introduce potentially controversial materials into classroom discussion. These are complex challenges that require recognizing the needs of students, the responsibilities that educators hold in day-to-day contexts, and the considerations of power and positionality of adults working with historically marginalized students of diverse cultures and creeds. Despite these challenges, the ability to resist both direct and indirect forms of censorship is a necessary aspect of teachers’ practices if they are to support the civic agency of young people. Consequently, educators must ensure that all instructional materials and resources are available for classroom study and discussion and that these materials are equally accessible to students of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Protect books as best as you can.

Students: learn, discern, and don’t hide.


Students, you are the ones at stake in book censorship conversations. I’m sorry if you have been limited by your school’s book bans from accessing text that might have helped you grow. I trust that you are still trying to access books in any way that you can because reading can change the world. Now that I’ve gotten my proselytizing bit out of the way, let’s talk about your brain and what reading certain stories can do to it.

If you are a student who has grown to believe no one in your school community should have access to a book you find uncomfortable, you should know “risk” to students has little evidence as long as you can choose your own books and “reject ones [you find] problematic”.

More “mature” books often offer “different perspectives” than your own precisely because they are working with a different context than your possible day-to-day life. On the other hand, some more “mature” books deal with conversations that are very much a part of your day-to-day life, such as anorexia. Concerns about Laura Halse Anderson’s book Wintergirls point to the book’s seeming “handbook for anorexia”. The NCAC points this out about the book:

“… [The] critics of Wintergirls may in some ways be right: some people who read the book will also develop anorexia. Readers at risk may well do so even without reading the book. The most significant variable is not the literature someone reads, but the human factor: the medical history (physical and mental) and life experience of the reader.

…The objections to Wintergirls also fail to deal with the reality of eating disorders as both psychological and physical diseases. Whether or not you think the book serves as an instructional manual for readers at risk for developing anorexia, banning the book from school libraries or otherwise keeping it from teens in many ways ignores a problem young people are struggling with. It makes the subject taboo, and it demonstrates the lack of trust we often have in young adults to think critically about what they read.”

In other words, if you don’t want to read things because you are worried about the effect they may have on you, remember that reading is the safest place for you to honestly think through and consider difficult topics. We as adults have to trust you more to make those decisions for yourself, whether it’s a book we want you to read or a book we don’t want you to read. You would be well within your normative bounds to fight back against book bans as well. If you’re currently fighting against book bans in your school, look at resources with the Kids Right to Read Project through the NCAC. On the subject of choosing to read or avoid a book…


Recognize the difference between being stretched by what you’re reading and being offended or even traumatized by what you’re reading. Are you uncomfortable with a trauma-filled novel because it depicts a scene of abuse or violence that you have experienced? If so, try not to walk away from it.

“It can be really hard to feel difficult emotions,” says Torres-Mackie, psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition. “But if you can experience them through somebody else, like a character in one of these books, it allows you to feel your own dark feelings.” (Times)

The Times also interviewed San Francisco psychologist Juli Fraga. She had this to say about those who might have experienced abuse who read books like Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us:

“They’re looking for themselves in the story…Hearing that somebody’s experiences were similar to yours, or even worse than yours, can help you feel less alone—even if it’s merely in a book of fiction.”

There’s potential healing in those more mature books. Consider giving them a try, but remember that you should be able to walk away from any book you chose! Give yourself permission not to finish books, but if you’re just uncomfortable with a harder book, try to hang on. It could have something particularly helpful for you to read. Torres-Mackie suggests using this question to guide your decision, especially if you’re having nightmares or starting to feel unsafe in your usual routine:

“Does it fill you up, or does it deplete you?”

If you’re being asked to read something in class that makes you too uncomfortable to face it head-on and you do not think you have a choice in reading it, consider talking to your teacher directly, especially if you prefer not to read certain kinds of content such as mentions of bulimia, anorexia, suicide, sexual abuse, etc. They might have a suggestion for skipping certain pages (i.e. paperclipping those pages) or reading a summary for a particular scene rather than reading it directly.

Director of Communications at the National Coalition Against Censorship Nora Pelizzari notes that kids can and do self-censor which often results in “bring[ing] the book to their parents.”

It is harmful when “personal discomfort turns into an attempt to censor what others have access to read, view and think,” she notes. For you, you can choose to simply put the book down like other students do…

… But don’t hide (from hard topics, from hard books, from your parents, or from trusted mentors).

You can’t hide from hard topics in the real world (and nor should you). Andrea Burns, a recently retired teacher who taught 4th grade for the last 8 years in Kansas City, Kansas, was interviewed by Good Morning America about the 6 books she used in her classroom to talk about more mature topics that 4th graders alive today absolutely have to face, from grief to hard feelings. One children’s book published by the National Center for Youth Issues is about School Shootings: I’m Not Scared… I’m Prepared! A Picture Book to Help Kids Navigate School Safety Threats. It would be laughable to say that you won’t face shooting scares, know someone affected by shootings, or see them in the news, and schools are a safer place to have conversations about them.

Books that push you to consider other viewpoints aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Know that you are better preparing yourself to face situations in the real world by seeing a book that has a difficult passage, and you will not necessarily be affected negatively in your values by reading it. “Simple exposure to sexual content in the media will not make teens deny or ignore values and information they have absorbed from families, school, religious teachings, and other respected adults.” (NHI)

Bring your parents into the conversations from your books. It might seem scary or painfully awkward to involve them, but it might just show you that they are people who lived through similar life stages as you and care about who you are growing to be.

Parents: discuss/engage, trust, and don’t block for others.

Discuss/engage with your child and their learning.

Parents, it may seem that you have become major players in school curriculum and library choices across the country in recent years, but that negates your own parenting. You have been involved in your own child’s education since before they said their first word. What we’re seeing now is a greater focus on what other students read, sometimes ignited by what your child is reading. Let’s back up to the relationship that matters most to you in all the parties involved with you and your child’s education: your relationship with your child.

By the end of one lower elementary year, I had fallen behind in reading speed and stamina. My mom took immediate action. She took me to my local library all summer long and we both participated in a summer reading challenge. She read to my sister and I before bed every night, books that included death (I remember sobbing at that part in Where the Red Fern Grows) and conversations about good and evil (The Chronicles of Narnia).

At the end of the summer, we had read enough that I had earned a water bottle and a drawstring bag. I now realize that my mom was intervening to ensure my growth as a reader. She engaged with my learning, held me accountable, and spent time talking with me about the books I was reading, partially because she often was reading them to me.

Your direct involvement in your child’s learning shouldn’t start with a book you hear has swear words in it. It should start with an involved relationship with your child’s all-around reading.

Curator of the University of Minnesota’s Literature Research Collections Lisa Von Drasek, says that “although there are no flashing signs of maturity to watch out for, simply paying attention to our kids may be enough.” (Washington Post) “Think about who your child is in the world before you think about the books you don’t want to hand them. Knowing the child is way more important than knowing the book,” she says.

“Knowing [your] child is way more important than knowing the book.”- Lisa Von Drasek, University of Minnesota’s Literature Research Collections Curator.

Here’s what it could look like to be involved in your child’s all-around reading:

  • Going to the library with your child to see what kinds of books they check out
  • Taking your child to the bookstore and looking at books with them
  • Giving your child money for the school book fair with the proviso that they must use the money to purchase books
  • Asking them about what they’re reading when you drive them home or while having dinner
  • Have a family book that you read a chapter of each day together after dinner or that you listen to in the car when all of you are present
  • Having a book that is just for you and one child to read or listen to together
  • Enforcing a daily or weekly reading time/place for your household (i.e. no tech before bed, only books allowed in bedrooms, a “reading chair”, etc.) that you yourself follow.

You should also know that reading the book in question is eye-opening, not because of the content inherently but because of your probable reaction to it. Take, for example, an article I mentioned in the Teachers section about student and parent perceptions of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why which deals with suicide, bullying, and rape:

“The conflicts that we documented and analyzed in the dialogue and the rejection of student perspectives are also unique. Students and preservice teachers asserted the reality of the issues presented, such as bullying and suicide, and affirmed the capacity of youths to brainstorm solutions. Yet, in the conversation, the adults seemed to ignore the ability of teenagers to know what sorts of education or resources might best address the topics that parents feel are important from their perspective, even though the students shared the ineffectiveness of the types of programming they received thus far.”

Your denial of access to a book could be seen as a denial of the experience of your children which could disconnect you from them. The researchers suggest that,

“Adults might benefit from consciously attempting to read and understand from the perspective of youths so they can better empathize with adolescent populations and entertain discussions related to tough topics.”

It is possible that trust between you and your child can grow with discussions around books. Those discussions must be handled carefully and with authentic engagement/ accountability on your part. If they are there, you will learn about what makes your child uncomfortable in books and how you can be apart of their wrestling with hard topics. Gary Ivey and Peter Johnston explain what happens when students read disturbing-yet-engaging books in “Emerging Adolescence in Engaged Reading Communities”:

“We have documented countless instances of students recruiting others to their reading (Ivey & Johnston, 2013) because they wanted friends, teachers, and parents to work through points of confusion with them, to offer their perspectives, or just to share the intensity of the experience… Within a trusting community, intermediate and middle grades readers do not have to negotiate on their own unsettling information they encounter, and in our experience, they are not inclined to do so. This should make us less nervous about children who are choosing to read more mature subject matter and, frankly, more realistic, because rest assured, others will be talking with them about what they read.”

Students involve their community in their processing of the stories. There isn’t solo processing happening. They will work through what information is presented to them with the people that they trust which I hope includes you. You can help guide them in how to know when to walk away from a book; you can reexamine your own boundaries with reading to think of what constitutes a good reason.

Can a book have even a “closed door” sex scene for your child while still carrying literary value?

Can it have violence? Torture?

Can it have religious themes?

Can it include swearing?

Can it include relationship violence?

Can it include sexual abuse?

Speaking of sexual content (which is a terrible way to start a new thought but it’s the best I can do), parents of younger children, you should know that it is normal behavior for a 5-9-year-old to ask you questions about what sex is, how babies are made, same-sex relationships, and where babies come from (Government of Canada, 2012; NCTSN, 2009; Stop It Now, 2007; Stop It Now, 2020; Virtual Lab School, 2021). That is different from what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (a UK non-profit) says is unhealthy behavior for a 5-9-year-old: to “have adult-like sexual interactions [or] discuss specific sexual acts”. What is healthy for each stage of development might be a good filter for you if you are trying to find a line that works for your parental judgment.

As I explained in the Teacher section, the research is unclear about any negative effects of reading mature stories due to “the long-term nature of reading” (Washington Post) and the nuanced influence of media; “Our research found that reading certain things does influence behavior,” says Brigham Young University researcher Sarah Coyne who studied swearing in adolescent literature but “you bring your personality to the situation… if you’re already a hostile or violent kid, the short-term effect may be to act out later.”

Worries about a book making your average child swear all the time should be assuaged. Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson notes that “People’s fear of fictional media is greater than the actual threat, and parents often worry that kids will read and imitate, but I don’t think there is any good evidence for that.” Ferguson notes one exception in a small study he conducted in Texas: adolescents who have been struggling already. He “advises… parents to check in with their teens to determine whether they’re depressed or anxious and to ask why they’re drawn to the books they’re reading. In such cases, he says it’s likely that ‘the problem is not the book, but something preexisting.’”

Note the pattern: you connecting with your child has way more importance than you protecting them from books with “age-inappropriate” content.

Note the pattern: you connecting with your child has way more importance than you protecting them from books with “age-inappropriate” content. 

Author and parent Melissa Scholes Young offered her perspective; she reads books with her children, researches them ahead of time, and attempts to be present with her children’s reading. She also offers this: “I’ve never censored [my children’s] reading. I’d rather watch them stumble on their own reading discoveries than limit their exposure… the safest place for them to stretch their experiences is on the page.”

Don’t block.

Making the choice for your own child is a very different conversation than banning a book from an entire community. A June 2023 Edweek article interviewing librarians puts it this way:

“Librarians largely want to work with parents to accommodate their concerns and requests about what books their child should have access to…

The part that stresses out librarians is when a community member or parent asks for a book to be entirely removed from schools, as opposed to just restricting access for their child…”

Even partial censorship for a whole-school body isn’t the answer to keep content “away” from your child.

I posit that your level of comfort in having hard conversations about book topics should rise to normalcy before you suggest school-wide, grade-wide, or district-wide book bans. More than likely, parts of books you are concerned about are often not what a student will grow from or remember in a more mature book, according to researchers Ivey and Johnston: … students who chose to read disturbing texts were drawn to the moral complexities of the narratives more than any graphic detail.”

You should also know that certain things confound our ability to decide what is “appropriate” for all students who are the age of your student, the first being that “appropriateness” isn’t an agreed-upon standard. It appears that cultural norms, parental expectations, peer expectations and moral principles are what gets the most concern for “harm” rather than the actual effect of students reading “mature” content (see Teacher section).

In fact, rather than the more mature books showing a harm for students in their morals or their psychological health, Ivey and Johnston found that “The books reduced [students’] self-absorption, diminishing personal concerns that might otherwise overwhelm them. Bad words and disturbing scenes simply fed bigger conversations about life and relationships.” The very things that most parents probably want in their child’s growth (empathy for others and deeper conversations about what matters) came from reading books with “inappropriate” elements.

In their 2014 article “The Social Side of Engaged Reading for Young Adolescents,” Ivey and Johnston explain other findings:

“Reading engaging narratives about characters with complicated lives, they reported, helped them become more empathetic, less judgmental, more likely to seek multiple viewpoints, morally stronger, and happier. Yes, happier. They reported improved self-control, and building more and stronger friendships and family relationships…

Central to these changes, they explained, were conversations about the books with peers, teachers, or family members—whoever they could recruit for different perspectives on provocative or confusing parts. They pestered others, including parents, to read the books.”

If you are genuinely uncomfortable with your child reading a certain book, your first step is to talk to your child. If you are still uncomfortable after talking with your child (or attempting to read it yourself), consider contacting the teacher or librarian involved. If the book came from a classroom library, suggest to your child that they simply return it. If it’s a core novel that each student needs to read, consider the following:

  • Read the book alongside your child (or, if they’re young enough, read the book to them!). You might find that a review you read about the book pulled a sentence out of context and isn’t as jarring or memorable as you suspected.
  • Even if you read the book a long time ago, consider rereading it.
  • Ask the teacher for suggestions on how to navigate the story. As I mentioned in the Students section, teachers might have a suggestion for skipping certain pages (i.e. paperclipping those pages) or reading a summary for a particular scene rather than reading it directly, both forms of chosen self-censorship or soft censorship.
  • Talk to your student about the story as you go. Working through discomfort affords great opportunities for deep conversations that might otherwise have not happened.
  • If you try all of the above and still think a student should stop reading the story, contact the teacher about potential alternatives (preferably in person). Setting up a meeting with the teacher to explain your concerns would not be ideal if you had not read the book yourself, though.

However, you should consider that self-censorship is a choice you might be asking your child to make rather than one you are making for yourself. Any choice of action you take should recognize that a) while you are their parent, b) you might be choosing to remove your student’s ability to grow and engage with a hard topic in a safe context they might not have again in school. Again, do not limit access to a book for everyone in your child’s age bracket or community.

HB 900, or the READER Act, passed in Texas in 2023. It mandates every book vendor label any book with sexual content being sold to schools with either “sexually relevant” or “sexually explicit,” blacklisting any vendor that does not comply under Sec.35.0003.c. (or doesn’t meet the deadline for labeling all of their books, which has since passed). One parent in a Texas school reacted this way: “I am tired of people saying ‘parent choice’ and not giving me a choice as a parent. You can’t choose for all the students.”

Instead, trust (your librarians, your teachers, and your children).

If you have a healthy relationship with your school-aged child, you’ll know at least some of what they are facing, but if you have a reading relationship with your child, you’ll see how they’re growing in exploration of ideas in real time.

Your school staff have systems built in place to help them make wise choices concerning curriculum and free choice. If you’re involved, there will be no break between you being a part of their learning and you finding out about a hard topic in a book.

The Ivey and Johnston’s 2018 research published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy noted this:

“Parents reported welcoming opportunities for conversations, conveniently through book characters, about drugs, sex, relationships, and depression. The image of young people reading “dangerous” books alone, in secret, and in distress, was neither what we observed nor what the students described…The image of young people reading “dangerous” books alone, in secret, and in distress, was neither what we observed nor what the students described.”

Again, if you push for a book challenge that removes the book from your school’s curriculum, there are other implications. The NCAC’s open letter to Common Sense Media in 2010 explained it this way:

Unlike requests for alternative assignments, which most schools offer to parents who object to a particular reading assignment, most book challenges seek to have a book removed from the curriculum, library, or reading list, limiting access by all students. When they succeed, these challenges impose one set of views and values on everyone, including parents who don’t want to have the book removed. More importantly, the students are deprived of the opportunity to read important literature under the guidance of a teacher.

Isn’t it better to think of your child reading mature books knowing that they can process what they’ve ready with you?

Librarians: provide, know, and don’t be afraid or self-censor.

We already know that librarians across the US are tending towards not putting books in displays that have controversial topics. This is a dangerously slippery slope because it can lead to books being hidden from the readers that might enjoy them or even need them. Even something as innocuous as content ratings (on sites such as Common Sense Media) can have potential censorship implications. The National Coalition Against Censorship partnered with other non-profits and published a letter to Common Sense Media in 2010 detailing concerns in 3 main areas against content ratings:

1) the implication that certain kinds of content are inherently problematic,

2) the negative attitude towards books, and

3) the potential that the ratings will be used to remove valuable literature from schools and libraries.”

They also decry that by reducing a book to “a few emoticons that focus on only a small part of the content of the book, the ratings take material out of context and deny the message, intent, and value of the book as a whole.” It removes the ability for parents to make an informed decision about the book relative to the relationship they have with their child, let alone the self-censorship potential for a child. The letter goes on to say that “[parents] can make better and more informed decisions if they have information about the age appeal of a book, its literary merit, topical interest, thought-provoking potential, and entertainment value.” At least a few of those points are what you can speak to by virtue of your training as a librarian. Speak to their concerns rather than letting only rating services speak for you.


Do what you do! Keep looking for books that are well-received by critics and other patrons, have literary awards, and/or are relatable to students.

We know that books representing the experience of our students are important, and censoring out books purely for a character having a particular experience can be negative; Azevedo says “I want every kid to see themselves in a book, and by taking a reductive view of a certain story, you are diminishing their lived experience.” Consider using the American Library Association’s Toolkit for choosing books “appropriate” for age level. However, you should not rely on one metric for checking book “appropriateness”, as slippery of a term as that is, for a few reasons:

  1. Appropriateness isn’t an agreed-upon standard.

The National Coalition Against Censorship explains it this way in The Free Expression Educators Handbook:

“Some school officials conflate their duty to provide a safe learning environment with an obligation to suppress any material deemed “inappropriate.” The problem with using subjective standards such as “appropriateness” to evaluate learning materials is that they may conceal underlying ideological biases.”

When librarians have to decide what is inappropriate, they have to start by defining inappropriate; the American Library Association has guidelines for what variables should be a part of that equation, but it’s not a cut-and-dry answer. If the equation has only a “parent complaint” variable, each community’s “appropriateness” would be defined by the school’s demographics and biases.

The Free Expression Education Handbook, created in conjunction with the National Council of Teachers of English, also explains that red-flagging or labeling content as “inappropriate… encourages complaints and often leads to censorship”.

The Davis School District near Salt Lake City, Utah, banned the Bible from its elementary and middle school libraries after a parent filed a complaint in December of 2022. The outcry since shows that the intended target was not every book that had the objectionable topics.

2. Marking books as inappropriate for certain readers often slides to action rather than honest review.

PEN America released a Banned Books Week statement in 2016 explaining the situation another way:

In most cases, the complaint is reviewed by a school board or a special committee to determine the book’s future availability. In other cases, books are immediately removed from shelves or reading lists by teachers, librarians, or school administrators eager to avoid complaints and criticism. Even if a particular book challenge fails, teachers and librarians fearful for their jobs can sometimes avoid increased scrutiny by simply not assigning potentially controversial books or keeping them out of circulation or off displays. [Emphasis added]

PEN points out that book challenges are often aimed at works that “address race and sexual orientation, or that portray diverse characters;” that limits the availability to students to read about the “ full range of human experience.”

In 2016, a children’s book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington was stopped from further distribution because of public outcry against the portrayals of “happy slaves” (the author’s statement quoted elsewhere has since been removed). PEN America and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a joint statement recognizing the problematic portrayal while decrying its removal:

“There are books that can—and should—generate controversy. But those who value free speech as an essential human right and a necessary precondition for social change should be alarmed whenever books are removed from circulation because they are controversial.”

Know your books, your patrons, and your system.

Consider a system of “ask a librarian” rather than “MS or HS Only” because it can inform students if they could access books that might be cut off to them by school policy as long as they have parental permission and/or have a check-in with a librarian. Librarians, ask students if they have experience with particular topics, if they’re willing to talk about their experiences, and why they want to read the book if you’re concerned. Talking about it doesn’t increase their likelihood of doing the thing or a negative step in their health journey; sometimes, it’s exactly what they need to do (Suicidal Ideation or eating disorders, for example).

This isn’t a perfect solution and is still a form of soft censorship; I am aware. We don’t live in a perfect world, and this seems to help with that conundrum.

Don’t simply buy a book to stock your shelves because you’ve heard it’s good; this could reinforce your purchaser bias, according to researchers at the Cato Institute, an American Libertarian think tank. Use your 5 variables from the American Library Association to determine literary merit:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Public demand
  3. General interest
  4. Content
  5. Circumstances of use.

The ALA also suggests “Be appropriate for the subject area and for the age, emotional development, ability level, learning styles, and social, emotional, and intellectual development of the students for whom the materials are selected.” (I know there is wide room for professional judgment here, but that’s hopefully the point). Here are some other guidelines from the NCAC’s “Adopt and Follow Book Selection Procedures” section of the Educator Handbook:

“School officials, including teachers and librarians, generally have broad discretion to select and review materials. However, this discretion is balanced by a professional responsibility to prioritize educational objectives and a legal and professional responsibility to maintain a viewpoint-neutral stance. Without clear objective criteria for the selection and review of instructional materials, schools are more likely to suppress educationally rich content in response to complaints. In schools, such pressure can come from parents, students, staff or members of the broader community.


1. All decisions concerning instructional materials should be based on

sound educational criteria.

2. Decisions that are motivated by hostility to controversial ideas or by the

desire to conform to a particular ideological, political or religious viewpoint

violate the First Amendment.

By adopting and following clear policies for material selection and review, schools can make the resolution of challenges easier.”

If you’re being asked to swap out books, try to replace them with books that are still intellectually matched. There are some authors who are beloved because their novel templates are familiar, not because they encourage growth or engagement. I once tutored an ESL student who would only read Roald Dahl books because they could figure out what was going on partially from Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations. Strive not to lower the level of the library overall if you are being required to swap out certain more mature texts.

The American Library Association presents another aspect that makes this work more important: sexuality and young adult patrons.

“For this age range, a greater range of sexuality is both more marketable and more widely accepted than ever before. Teens are faced with both family and community expectations for their sexual orientation and activities, yet they can and should reflect on their own feelings in the matter, as well as their peers’ activities and expectations. What can young adult librarians do to better serve this population? Know your community, know your collection, and aim to provide truthful and accurately written materials on your shelves in order to promote healthy sexuality in young adult patrons and a healthy environment for our young adult patrons to learn more about themselves.” [Emphasis added]

You should already understand your school’s policy for challenging books; if you need resources for that, the ALA has a guide for challenge support. Above all, look to help your patrons grow.

Don’t self-censor.

Librarians have already been asked to block books with soft censorship systems. Practices such as “leveling” books and reviewing books for “age-appropriateness” are already normal practice libraries. Some librarians have, as PEN America mentioned, stopped displaying books with certain themes, character experiences, etc.

If you are afraid of losing your job, I understand how you would adjust your expectations for yourself and the library space. I cannot judge the choice of librarians worried about being fired, especially knowing that many have been fired for far less. However, about ⅔ of school librarians in the US say that no book should be fully banned from a school library, according to a survey conducted by the Edweek Research Center in April 2023. You are backed by precedent to say that books belong in libraries, but context is key. It’s important for you to already know your school’s system for external parties challenging library books. It has been happening around the US from political groups who do not necessarily represent all parents in a particular district (or do not even have children in that district’s school system).

In Conclusion…

Regardless of whether you love book bans or hate them, I suggest to you that we should each practice book discernment rather than book banning. We should each make choices for what to read for ourselves and our own families but not for the families of others. We should each work to better understand what actually happens when students read challenging books. Here’s what Amande Mellili, head of the University of Nevada Las Vegas’s Teacher Development and Resource Library, has to say:

  • Books help students “feel less alone, to help us make sense of a confusing world, and to help us understand the lived experiences of others.”
  • “[Diverse] stories… feed our complex imaginations and allow us to develop empathy for people who are different from us, and this ultimately leads to communities built on foundations of decency.”
  • “Not every book will appeal to every reader, but that doesn’t mean those stories shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t be made accessible. We would all love to live in a society where traumatic issues don’t exist, but ignoring the stories does not make the issues go away; it just makes people feel more isolated.”

Parents, at the end of the day, we teachers have to trust you to make the choices that are right for your child and your child alone. The NCAC says that “Ultimately, we believe parents know what’s best for their children, and each parent is responsible for supervising his or her child.”

At the end of the day, we all want to grow to be better people. Hopefully, we all see the value and power of reading as a gift, a weapon to tear down walls, a foundation on which to lay knowledge, a skill protected by book-curating educators everywhere, the last stronghold of civilization.

Privately, discern books. Publicly, protect books.

May they be read widely.

If you’d like more resources, visit the links below:

The History and Present of Banning Books in America (lithub)

United Against Book Bans

Sign ALA’s “Freedom to Read” Statement

Elementary Teachers, this blog post has some thoughts for how to guide student book choice.

Illinois Passes a Ban on Book Bans

Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship from the NCTE

Candace Brown

Secondary ELA

Candace Brown is a Secondary English and Yearbook teacher at an international Christian school in Taiwan. She has been published in literary magazines with the University of Arkansas, The Sagebrush Review, and Sonder Midwest. She has helped students publish their...
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  1. Thank you for this insightful post, Candace! As a teacher, I’ve often struggled with finding the right balance between guiding my students in book choices and allowing them to make their own decisions. Your emphasis on trusting librarians, teachers, and parents in this process, rather than administrators, is spot on. However, in my current context, I’ve found that focusing on exam preparation books like these https://www.fivesenseseducation.com.au/primary/test-preparation-general-ability/selective-school-tests has been necessary to help my students achieve their academic goals. I’ve seen the benefits of this approach, as my students have improved their test scores and gained confidence in their abilities. I appreciate the practical tools you provided for discussing abstention and guiding students to choose books that are appropriate for their development and interests. I believe that, in addition to exam preparation books, it’s important to expose students to a variety of books that spark their curiosity and interest. I’m currently exploring ways to incorporate more recreational reading into my curriculum, and I’m excited to see the positive impact it will have on my students.
    Keep up the great work!

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