Property of the Rebel Librarian,

Saturday, November 03, 2018

It should come as no surprise to any of my readers that I'm an OG book nerd. I don't ever remember NOT being able to read, and many of my childhood memories revolve around laying on my bed reading. In elementary school, I was quiet and bookish, and I tried not to be noticed. Most of the students in my blue-collar, working class school didn't get me, and as we see all too often, people are not usually that nice to people they don't understand. I was often teased for being a teacher's pet, a judgement that was in no small part reinforced by the fact that I found it impossible to disobey my teachers. In some of my classes, this meant I was often called upon to be the "class monitor", and to report students who were not following directions or who broke the rules. You can see how this would endear me to my classmates. Whenever I could, I would escape into books.

My bookish ways were a weakness in the eyes of my classmates, one they could exploit for their own entertainment, except for one time each year: the annual classroom reading competition. Our librarian had classes or student teams compete against each other for the number of pages read in a month, and for that glorious 30 days I went from being the object of ridicule to the class hero. I read not just a little bit more than most of my classmates; I read more by a factor of ten. This wasn't that hard to do, considering how many of my students never read anything at all, but it was a pretty good bet that whatever class or team I competed with for our reading contests would win. For one month, I suddenly became visible to the classmates who ignored me the rest of the year, and even the actively mean and nasty of my classmates backed off some, instead growling what I assume they thought were words of encouragement in my direction, hoping to ride my literary coattails to fame, glory, and class popsicles.

Eventually, elementary school ended, and I moved on to middle and high school, as we all do. I left behind my torturous recesses hiding on the playground, and met other kids who loved books, kids I could feel safe being myself in front of. I left behind being invisible, as well, and allowed my natural extroversion to show itself, leading me to be the loudly opinionated lover of discussion and debate that I am today. But no matter what else I have done in my life, or how I have grown and changed over time, nothing has changed the love-no, the reverence- I have for books and the written word.

And because in my heart I am still that little girl lying on her bed buried deep in a good book, Property of the Rebel Librarian may be my favorite new middle-grade book. The protagonist, June Harper, is your average book-loving seventh grader. She happily goes about her life, reading whatever she finds in the school library that interests her, until the day her parents discover a novel in her room they consider "inappropriate". Thus begins a sad spiral into a reading desert for June. The beloved middle-school librarian is suspended for providing developmentally inappropriate reading material to students, most of the books disappear from the school library, and June's own personal collection is rounded up and sanitized by her parents. June falls into despair, until a Little Free Library she passes on her way to school gives her an idea-she will round up copies of the banned books and turn her locker into a secret Little Free Library. Suddenly, students who have never shown an interest in reading can't wait to get their hands on a forbidden book. As reading fever grows, June comes up with a plan that just might save the library-and her own intellectual freedom.

I identified with both June and the librarian while reading this, though I admit I would NOT have been brave enough to confront the problem so boldly when I was June's age. I would, however, have been crushed if someone had tried to curtail my reading. Occasionally I picked up books I wasn't quite ready for (my parents' copy of The Joy of Sex comes to mind), but put them down again because I wasn't able to relate to their content at all. Thankfully, my parents believed in the freedom to read, and they supported my habit with frequent trips to the library and the bookstore. Allison Varnes clearly worships at the altar of books as well, and she and I apparently have similar taste in books. Many of the books that Varnes weaves into the novel as examples of "inappropriate" titles are books that I read and loved as a young person myself.

Nowadays, of course, I relate more to the librarian. In my current position, I am asked to justify a book that we teach in our high school curriculum at least a couple of times a year. Usually the complaint has something to do with profanity, or with controversial content. And we do read some novels that deal with pretty heavy subject matter: death and grieving, sexual assault, abuse, and suicide being a few. But these books also explore identity, and redemption, and healing; they provide a window into the experiences of others that allows our students exposure to diverse perspectives, and to think deeply about what it means to be a friend, or a child, or a partner; in other words, to explore the full range of what it means to be human.

Property of the Rebel Librarian is a middle-grade novel that empowers young people to stand up for what they think is right, and to respect the free exchange of ideas that contributes to greater understanding of our complex world.

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