Shhh! No Opinions in the Library!!

Nintendo Power, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and a biography of President Obama were on prominent display as I entered the branch library in Forest Hills, Queens. The librarian looked skeptical when I asked if I could leave copies of IndyKids newspaper on the free literature table.

“Does it have opinions?” she asked me. She consulted with the branch manager, who decided I could not leave IndyKids because it is “too political.”

This is the kind of response IndyKids often receives when we approach public libraries. IndyKids is a national, progressive newspaper that aims to engage kids in grades 4 to 7 in national and world issues, to encourage them to form their own opinions, and to become part of the larger movement for justice and peace. With the belief that the news does not have to be hidden or “dumbed down” for kids, IndyKids publishes articles on the financial crisis, same-sex marriage, health care, war, immigrant and labor rights, and global warming?mixed in with stories on youth activism, recipes, and puzzles.

In contrast, take a look at the children’s periodicals section of your local library: Boys’ Life, published by the Boy Scouts of America, has a cartoon Bible story and an ad for Rossi rifles that offers free junior membership to the National Rifle Association when you buy their new gun. American Girl shows girls how to work on the coolest hairstyles and host a pajama fashion show slumber party. Discovery Girls helps readers figure out what color nail polish will suit them. But none of that is political, according to the library staff IndyKids regularly encounters.

The American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights states that “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” If this were heeded, librarians would actively seek out and welcome publications like IndyKids that present views that are alternative to the mainstream press.

When IndyKids started in 2005, webriefly had a positive relationship with both the Queens Library and the New York Public Library (NYPL). Each system distributed one issue of IndyKids, but then we encountered problems.

“Although many of our staff members personally agree with your paper’s positions, they also feel professionally obligated to provide a more balanced presentation of political, ecological, and social issues for children than IndyKids offers,” wrote the coordinator of children’s services at the Queens Library.

The NYPL Office of Children’s Services also refused to distribute IndyKids. “There’s a stridency to the tone of the paper,” explained the assistant coordinator. “There’s not enough balance.”

IndyKids launched a campaign against the censorship of the two library systems. Dozens of parents and activists wrote letters to the librarians asking them to distribute IndyKids and volunteers distributed fliers.

At that point, the NYPL assistant coordinator said that the library had refused to distribute the second issue of IndyKids because it took issue with one fact in the paper?that more than 1 million Filipino people had died in the Philippine-American War: “I could not recommend an item for children that I knew contained facts that could not be verified.” I wondered if she often spent her time on the phone with the editor of Sports Illustrated for Kids debating facts in the publication.

Although Queens didn’t budge on its decision, NYPL eventually agreed to distribute 500 copies of IndyKids to 10 branches, although they asked us to remove their name from the “special thanks to” section of IndyKids’ masthead.

For a few years we alerted our contact at the NYPL Office of Children’s Services when we had a new issue ready for distribution. Each time she reviewed the content and agreed to have the papers delivered to the 10 branches. Then, in April 2009, she wrote IndyKids: “In the interest of going green, we have been directing our patrons to resources that are available online, including IndyKids. So we will not need paper copies of IndyKids.”

Presumably, if Sports Illustrated for Kids, Boys’ Life, and other periodicals become available online, NYPL will not carry any children’s magazines at all.

I contacted an organization of librarians for help. A children’s librarian responded: “I think some librarians may be intimidated by IndyKids because of its progressive slant and choose not to subscribe. Most of us children’s librarians live in the constant fear that one of those petition-wielding parents will cry foul over a selection we have made.”

The Myth of ‘Unbiased’ News

In fact, IndyKids is often asked “Why don’t you try to be more balanced?” Our response is that all media relay a point of view. All news publications?those aimed at children as well as those for adults?come from a certain political perspective, whether they admit to it or not. IndyKids openly states that it is a progressive publication that gives space to the voices and issues of marginalized people here in the United States and in other parts of the world.

If anything, IndyKids is more “balanced” than most news publications for children because, in many articles, it states the mainstream point of view and also presents alternative perspectives.

Mainstream publications pretend to have no political leanings at all. But corporate publications for children present a view that is overwhelmingly favorable to the U.S. government and corporations, while ignoring the opinions and actions of common people.

For example, a Scholastic News story dated Feb. 11, 2011, on the forced resignation of Hosni Mubarak asks “What’s Next for Egypt?” It quotes crowds chanting “Leave! Leave!” and unnamed Egyptian officials, but then focuses on President Obama’s remarks. The article makes no mention of long-standing U.S. government financial support to the Mubarak regime. In contrast, an IndyKids article on the subject presents the perspectives of nine Egyptian kids, aged 10 to 13, who offer their opinions on events in Egypt and describe their participation in the uprising. It also contains information on U.S. aid to Egypt, shining light on the historic relationship between the two countries.

Or consider another current events issue of ongoing significance: WikiLeaks. When the story first broke, Scholastic News Online covered it in an article titled “U.S. Military Secrets Leaked, Details in Internet Postings Cause Concern” (July 27, 2010), which focused on the author’s “concern” for the “Afghan war effort,” not for the Afghan civilians who have been killed or how the U.S. public has been misled about the war. The article quoted only a U.S. Defense Department spokesman and portrayed WikiLeaks as an internet phenomenon that “think[s] it will protect others if they share secret information that, in their opinion, is covering up the truth.” Scholastic News assumed the legitimacy of the war and focused the debate on the benefits and drawbacks of the internet.

In covering the same issue, IndyKids quoted a U.S. national security advisor on why he opposed release of the documents, the founder of WikiLeaks on why he released the documents, and the president of Veterans for Peace on why he thinks the war is being waged in the first place. IndyKids also offered a short list of the key revelations from the leaked documents.

Information on current events that is accessible and interesting to kids is hard to find, particularly substantive national and world news. The vast majority of periodicals for kids encourage readers to embrace fashion and sports, and avoid news of any significance. For example, a recent look at the top 20 past news stories on the Time for Kids website turns up seven entertainment and sports stories, three of them promoting Disney products. Three articles are about the weather. The others include an interview with the CEO of Ford Motor Co., a story about the British royal wedding, and one about a miniature horse with a prosthetic limb. Just one article can be considered to be hard political news: “A Strike Against Terror,” which cheers the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden, quoting only Obama and CIA director Leon Panetta.

Then there’s the online news site Tween Tribune (www.tweentribune.com). It boasts 46,033 teachers who send their students to the site, which culls from the Associated Press what it calls the most “compelling news from a tween’s perspective.” An article about the Washington State Potato Commission executive director’s vow to eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days garnered 1,253 comments from readers. A “top world news” story on the world’s largest chocolate bar, found in Armenia, received 3,869 comments.

Kids Need a Free Press, Too

A major underlying issue in IndyKids’ struggle to enter public libraries is children’s right to access accurate and broad information. A common criticism of IndyKids by adults is that the news?which includes civilian deaths, torture, government spying?is too frightening for kids. Adults, including librarians, parents, and teachers, feel they must protect kids from violence, injustice, and bias. Kids will get enough of the horrors of the real world when they grow up, they reason.

But not all kids want to live in ignorance, as IndyKids’ growing readership shows. Julian Rocha, age 10, wrote to IndyKids: “Every time I watch the news or read the newspaper, the way that they explain it is so complicated. IndyKids is great for me because I want to learn about different things happening around the world.” Libraries should give kids that opportunity.

Amanda Vender is one of the founders and editors of IndyKids (www.indykids.org). She is completing her master’s degree in education at Hunter College, City University of New York.

This article originally appeared in Rethinking Schools.

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