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>Throw the book at her?

>Librarian Kristin Peto of Maine sent me the story about the woman, JoAnn Karkos, who checked out two copies of It’s Perfectly Normal (a 1995 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor awardee, so you know where we stand) from Maine libraries and is declining to return them, sending checks for $20.95 (I’m guessing the price on the jacket) to the libraries instead.

This instance of civil disobedience doesn’t seem to have been all that well thought out. Both libraries involved have already ordered replacement copies (one bought two, citing the demand engendered by the theft), so access to the book has been at most temporarily impeded. Neither library will accept her check (which would make them parties to the crime), so some other books will now go unbought at the same time It’s Perfectly Normal sells three more copies.

Here’s the most eccentric detail: the woman who says It’s Perfectly Normal is “a predator’s dream” now has two copies. Mind your children . . . .

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Does she get to keep her library card???

    Barb Kerley

  2. >Interesting question, Barb. Wonder what the library policy is on books that have not been returned? Do they have a legal leg to stand on refusing to let her check out other titles?

    I would guess because this is a public library and taxpayers pay for the books it is a rock and a hard place issue. Guess it’s up to the lawyers now.

  3. >By “books that have not been returned” do you mean “stolen?” One can’t go just around taking things that one wants (for whatever reason) and then mail in a check after the fact. Else I would have a lot more things.

  4. Chris Barton says:

    >How hypocritical of her. She’s trying to force others to not-learn how babies are made, when she clearly chose entirely on her own to not-learn how books are made.

  5. >If you read the ALA US and World News, you can see that a high school student in Alabama is doing the same thing with Ellen Wittinger’s Sandpiper. How interesting that these people probably see themselves as the epitome of good citizens and yet they are infringing on others basic right to information.

  6. >Yeah–and a few years ago, an anti-gay religious group took my BRIAR ROSE out of the Kansas City public library (along with two other gay-themed books) and set them on fire on a hibachi on the steps of the KC Board of Education. As I thought at the time, they should be charged with two crimes: stealing public property and burning trash without a license.

    But what do I know!

    However it shows that this is not a NEW problem but an OLD solution.


  7. >I once worked at a public library that had an off-duty police officer as a security guard in the evening. He hated being bored (not much security action at this branch) so he would call people who had overdue books, and say “This is police officer XXXX calling about your overdue library books…” It was amazing how many books came back the very next day after such a call–a much better return than we got on our usual mailed overdue notices.

    Of course this approach would just give these people the opportunity to put some martyr-ish spin on it, claiming to be singled out for harrassment just for taking a “moral” stand…

  8. >It keeps sticking in my mind that she said she ‘rented’ the books from the library instead of borrowed. The word ‘borrow’ implies, well – a debt or favor from the lender, a service that one should feel appreciation for. She obviously didn’t rent any books in the first place, although she did later think she could rightfully purchase them [maybe she has this whole library thing mixed up with Blockbuster] but her use of the word ‘rent’ certainly implies a set of perceived consumer rights and an obligation to satisfy that the word borrow does not have.

  9. >People like this give censorship a bad name.

    Really. Every time I start to think that someone needs to open a sensible discussion to find some well-reasoned ground, some whack job like this casts the entire subject back into black-and-white: we must never never question the books selected by librarians and teachers because we might incidentally support narrow-minded and self-righteous spotlight-seekers like this woman. She is immoral, un-american, and not helping anyone.


  10. Roger Sutton says:

    >If I were the library director, I would pursue the matter as if it were any other overdue book, following whatever procedures were in place for that. I don’t think it much matters why she doesn’t return the book.

    ‘h, I’m interested to know what shades of gray you think we need to look at. I’m not saying there aren’t any but am curious to know what you’re thinking. My own point of view is admittedly pretty black and white!

  11. >Roger, I really like your take on the irrelevance of the woman’s motives. It underlines the library’s commitment not to pass judgment, which sits right at the heart of freedom of access. It’s an argument I use when confronted with folks who want to limit children to the children’s area. That limitation is predicated on the idea that kids are taking the books out to read them. I imagine that, in most cases, they are. But they might be checking them out because they want their room painted the color of the dust jacket, or because their uncle wrote the book, or because they want to sit on it while practicing the piano. We don’t know, and we shouldn’t care. It’s your library card, not mine. I’m thrilled to help a child find a book she just might love to read. But I’m just as happy to help her find something for purposes all her own.

    I once worked in a library where, while rearranging the picture book area, we discovered three copies of Daddy’s Roommate and two copies of Heather Has Two Mommies hidden under a range of shelving. The copies had been going missing, and we had been blithely replacing them. After our discovery, it would seem that the same person was disposing of them, without ever checking them out. At least this woman is forthright…

  12. >I remember loaning It’s Perfectly Normal to a parent in my class who was expecting a baby. I knew her to be a member of the religious right and was pleased to see that she wanted her child to have the facts straight while they were expecting a new baby after many years. She was a tad anxious about her late-in-life baby, but assured me she wanted to be honest and open with her daughter, who had asked very very specific questions.

    I did tell her that there were plainspoken references to sexuality, and urged her to read the book before sharing it so she could be prepared for the questions.

    Imagine my bemusement when my book returned, very well-read, with strategically-placed paper clips over the pages about homosexuality and intercourse! If her clever daughter was smart enough to ask, “But HOW did the sperm get into your vagina?” I imagine she was smart enough (and curious enough) to work a paper clip loose.

  13. >Roger,

    I am pretty strongly pro-choice, and getting more so all the time. I believe that all people, whatever their age, should be free to choose what they read, and part of that means choosing what not to read. When it comes to children, there are many of their rights we abridge, and while I believe that this may be one of them, I think any abridgement should be made with forethought and respect that is pretty rare these days.

    Frankly, I don’t want my seventh grader to be assigned The Chocolate War. Of course, I want it to be on the library shelf. If he wants to read it, I’ll never stand in his way. The most I would do is warn him that he might find it upsetting. I don’t give a rip that mentions masturbation. The main character could be getting it on with a hamster and I wouldn’t care. I just think it’s a horrible book. I didn’t want to read it. Not even for Betsy Hearne. Why should he be forced to?

    Granted, I am oversensitive to stories. It’s my head, and I’d like some control over what gets dumped into it. I think anyone should have that control, but if I went to my kid’s school and complained about the assignment, what do you think the result would be? The story on CNN would be “parent objects to masturbation in beloved book.” I am pretty sure that, to the average reader, I’d be indistinguishable from Ms. Karkos.

    Yes, we need to make kids read, even when they don’t want to. That doesn’t mean that we have the right to make them read any book we choose if we choose them carelessly. Katherine Patterson told me once how uncomfortable she was when teachers came to tell her how much they loved Bridge to Teribithia and that they assigned it to their third grade classes every year. She said she wasn’t sure how to respond.

    Monica Edinger had a good post about this a couple of month ago. I don’t remember it all, but I remember that she suggested that it was important to consider the feelings of a Japanese boy in the class; the world wouldn’t have ended if they’d skipped The Mikado that year. I was impressed that she sounded out her class every year before deciding to read Coraline by Gaiman to them.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop. I hope that you see what I mean about a reasoned discussion and how difficult it is, in today’s climate, to have one.

  14. >The above comment was by me.


  15. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think the context of school makes a lot of difference, with a lot of internal differences, too: public school v. private school, in the library/in the classroom/required reading, etc.

    In considering ‘h’s point, I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of the teacher. First, I would never teach The Chocolate War to seventh-graders. I don’t think I’d teach it, period–there’s just not enough going on there to be worth the time. But in another teacher’s hands it could be far from a careless choice–she might have excellent reasons, and a first-rate teaching plan, to back her choice up. I guess I don’t think it’s a completely nutty choice, in other words. ‘h, what would you do if faced with this example–have your child read another book? insist the teacher change her plans? move your kid to a different class? I think challenges to required reading (which is a concept I have no problem with) have to be resolved on a case by case basis.

    I always forget The Chocolate War has masturbation, too.

  16. >Roger,,1,2081088.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

    The link above is thanks to bookshelvesofdoom and leads to an article in the chicago trib. They aren’t teaching The Chocolate War as literature. It looks more like anti-bullying Conscousness-raising. But I take your point entirely: these decisions are local. Maybe this is a great program. But that is my point, too. It’s hard to tell from a distance what is going on, but nonetheless, all objections to a book are lumped together as censorship. It chills discussion.

    I know that asking teachers to change books from year to year is asking them to create a new curriculum from scratch over and over. And new books have to be purchased. There are reasons why curriculums tend to be set in stone. Because they are of necessity one-size fits all, I think selections should be made conservatively, leaving some wiggle room for the oversensitive, and for the teacher’s choices to change from year to year.

    So what do I do? It’s only just lately that I started to question my own complicity in sending my kids off to read books I’d resist reading myself. Now I have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy:

    -You don’t have to read all the books.
    -You have a responsibility to your teacher and your classmates to support an environment of learning, so if you ever brag to your friends, or even mention, that I said you don’t have to read all the books, I will kill you.
    -I expect you to bullshit effectively. Listen in class, skim the text for details. If your grade takes a hit, we’ll talk.
    -If your teacher ever asks you point blank if you have done the reading, you must tell the truth. You can then refer them to me.


  17. >I forget to say that I don’t ask for alternate assignments. Toby Zeigler said it for me in The West Wing when he objected to prayer in schools and regected the idea that dissenting students could just be excused. “That’s just another reason to beat up the Jewish kid during recess.” Singling out kids is not a solution.


  18. >Bookshelves of Doom is having an apropos discussion about what books people loved and which they hated when forced to read them in school. It just reinforces my feeling that there’s not much sense arguing for a change in the curriculum. The book that drives your kid spare might be the one that another kid latches onto for life. Better that they read most of the syllabus and quietly duck the things that just aren’t for them.


  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >As I did with Tristam Shandy, senior year of college. Too damned long.

  20. >Let us draw a veil over my short-comings in the class on Dickens and Eliot.

    Look away Professor Thomas, look away.


  21. >Well, I was overdosed on Jane Austen in high school and assumed I hated it all for far too long. And then, after enjoying the spate of Austen derived movies, I took out Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion and read them on long train trips to London and back.

    Who knew I’d love them now? (And why hadn’t anyone told me they were funny?)

    So if I’d insisted the books be put away, censored, stuck under book shelves, barbequed, or otherwise
    disappeared way back in the Cretaceous when I was at school, look what I would have missed. Look what those young readers who were smarter than me at the time would have missed.

    Now if only someone could help me love Proust. . .


  22. >Sorry to be late answering … By “books that have not been returned” I mean those that may have been lost, damaged, and yes, even taken by a patron.

    While it is indeed stealing, not every book that goes missing from a library does in the very public manner as is being discussed – with the blatent purpose of making sure someone else is unable to read the title.

    Interesting that she has done this so close to banned books week.

  23. >Why is having to read books one doesn’t care for that much worse than having to do math one doesn’t care for or imitate artists one doesn’t like…for every topic within a subject, there will be people who don’t care for it. I didn’t care for many of the books I was required to read in high school. But I didn’t expect all my teachers in every subject to cater to my personal tastes. Would that I *could* have said, “this calculus business does nothing for me. I’m sticking with geometry.” Or, “I really hate impressionism. I’m going to study surrealism.” Etc. No, I don’t think it’s the end of the world to read “bad” books. For one thing, I learn a lot aboput good writing from reading bad writing. For another, as Jane Y. alludes to above, we sometimes have to sample something several times before we can appreciate it. Also? There are lots of less than pleasant experiences we have in life. Reading a book one doesn’t love is hardly traumatic. A book doesn’t as much fill our head with ideas as we pull them out of books.

  24. >”Reading a book one doesn’t love is hardly traumatic.”

    I disagree. Or rather, I disagree that reading a book can’t be traumatic, not that a book you merely “don’t love,” would be. Have you tried Elie Wiesel’s Night? Books are powerful. They change the world. They move us, they inspire us. They change us as we read them. Sometimes they eviscerate us. They give us nightmares. They leave us throwing up on the bathroom floor at eleven at night. Maybe not you; of course, we are all different. I just mean . . . some of us.


  25. >lynn,

    On the topic of JoAnn Karkos and banned book week: It’s a stupid stunt. Unless her whole object isn’t to get the book banned, but just to get her name in the paper. I am starting to wonder how many of these people just want their fifteen minutes of fame. Wasn’t there someone mentioned on the ASIF website who wanted to sue the library for emotional damages who, coincidentally(!) was going bankrupt at the time?


  26. >’h: the smug superiority of your response has dripped all over the page. Of course books move me: good ones much more so than bad ones. Perhaps you really are a more impassioned reader than I, but I recall very few assigned texts which moved me very far in any direction, much less to the point of throwing up. If I hated a book, I skimmed or Cliff notes-d it. I don’t think it was a soul-killing exercise; in fact, it taught me some good things about sucking it up: the whole world doesn’t revolve around me, and that’s just fine.
    (my name didn’t save in my comment above, the one that attempted to put the horror of bad books in reasonable perspective.)

  27. >hope,

    Thank you. I have a hard time judging how I come across in a conversation like this and I appreciate your response.


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