Keeping the Lights On During Banned Books Week

Cynthia Compton - September 23, 2019

It’s Banned Books Week again (did that 12 months fly by, or have I reached the bookselling age* when every season change seems prematurely upon us?) and I have been thinking about this year’s theme: Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark: Keep the Lights On!, both as an illuminating display prompt and as a personal bookselling reconciliation exercise. As I pull challenged titles from the shelves each year to make our own store display and hold each book in my hands for just an instant, I think about who I might handsell it to. I consider which young readers I know personally who are ready for that book, might not have read it, or might be aware of it but have never picked up a copy from their school library or their own family bookshelf. I think about how often we might talk about those books in our regular sales day… and sadly, it’s often not very much. Some titles are simply “classics,” and sell themselves through reading lists or reputation, with customers never knowing that the very title they are holding has been challenged in school systems or public libraries, or removed from curriculum because of someone’s vocal objection to content. Some are just bestseller backlist, such as those titles with strong commercial appeal, or a Netflix series or film notoriety that sparks reader curiosity (“Oh, look, they made that movie into a BOOK, Mom! Can I get it?”) Again, those young readers may never know that Harry and Bella and Katniss and Hannah were all in danger outside the plot of their stories, and their very existence on the shelves is a victory against censorship.

I have been reflecting, too, on a subtler kind of censorship, the one that happens on our sales floor. With no malicious intent, but without careful thought and deliberate care, it is easy to fall into bookselling traps that limit the titles we present to young readers and their parents. I could never imagine myself or my staff speaking to a school board or media specialist protesting a title’s inclusion in a  classroom collection, or requesting an outright ban….  but when we select, dozens of times each day, which books to handsell to customers, are we following tired scripts that keep readers from stepping outside their world view, and opting to avoid potentially awkward conversations with parents and grandparents who are purchasing books as gifts? Surely, we are businesses that need to move books, and must meet each customer where they are and encourage their choice of an indie store to seek reading recommendations. But in my haste to meet their needs and offer three or four “just right” titles (then wrap the two they select, swipe their credit card, and get them to the carpool line), am I choosing expedience over widening horizons of our young readers? Am I, in fact, censoring readers by my own book recommendations? In talking about just this topic with my staff, we listed the most common ways we see this occurring in our store:
Gendering books: Yes, we know full well that there are no “boy books” and “girl books,” but how easy is it to fall into the trap of the stack of sparkly covers for girls? In a year when “girl power” books are thick as the leaves collecting on our front sidewalk, if you don’t grab an early chapter series with glitter and cute animals on the covers for an 8-year-old girl’s birthday and wrap it in matching unicorn/llama/woodland creature paper, there’s an entire section full of “Inspiring Women” titles, from pioneers in science and politics to coders and astronauts. But how often do we offer either of those categories to boys? Not very often, in my experience. We’re pretty comfortable talking about plot over character gender when it comes to middle grade and young adult fiction, but there is no doubt that we shortcut the handselling process in ways that limit and define readers by the construct of gender.
Fiction Addiction: We like to sell fiction at every age level, and our store displays reflect that preference. Oh, we HAVE plenty of nonfiction titles in stock, all neatly arranged in sections and spinners, but we walk toward middle grade and young adult fiction — and even picture books — with the ease of sitting at the same lunch table in the school cafeteria. We want to talk about the newest releases, write shelf talkers and blog posts about them, and practice our two-sentence pitch of plot and theme. Non-fiction, however, seems to take care of itself — or does it? How often did I handsell a nonfiction title last week? Infrequently at best, it seems. Unless a customer specifically volunteers “My son is fascinated by the Titanic” or comments “we’re headed to Williamsburg for fall break,” we rarely lead with a nonfiction choice, even though I personally enjoy a balance of fiction and fact in my own reading list.
Ageism and Format: I will confess that if I could just be assigned to one department of my own store to manage and sell, it would be middle grade. (I would need to cover someone’s lunch breaks in the baby section, just for the opportunity to hold little ones while their parents juggled diaper bags and board books… but that’s just a perk of bookstore employment, isn’t it?) I love to read middle grade books, talk about them, spend time with readers of that age group, hang out with those authors…. truly, these are my people. These are my very favorite books, the ones that made me fall in love with both the practice and the profession of bookselling. But I know that middle grade readers are also well served by picture books — and yet I rarely offer those titles to adults looking for gifts for the 8 to 12-year-old age group. I can easily recommend titles to teachers as classroom read-alouds or writing prompts, and have provided numerous picture books to ministers and priests looking for homily inspiration….. but still, I don’t jump over to those shelves when asked for a great gift idea for a fourth or fifth grader.
As we talked about these subtle but real forms of reading censorship, my smarter-than-the-average-bear staff all suggested ways to “open up” our handselling conversations, and we’re trying out some of those techniques this week. I’ll keep you posted, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for “shining a light” on all the books our young readers need to see.
*there was a hilarious twitter thread last week about bookseller “age,” begun by Josh (shop at Indie Bookstores) Christie. Here’s the link, if you missed it:
(For the record, I am “2% solution, is The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants appropriate for my daughter?, I-still-have-MSN-email” old in bookselling years.)

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

3 thoughts on “Keeping the Lights On During Banned Books Week

  1. Cynthia Compton

    Thank you, Lindsey. I’m a fan of your work, and have spent the last few years thinking quite a bit about aging. (here’s one post: “An Unlikely Storytime”) As we continue to own the mission to bring diverse books to our communities, it’s important to consider age diversity, both in content and audience, isn’t it? I wish you good work – Cynthia


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