I could be standing behind the glass-front counter at my retail comic shop job, or behind the formica circulation desk the library where I serve as assistant manager, young adult services coordinator, and overseer of graphic novel collection development, but the parent will always be the same: looking at their phone, occasionally glancing over the top of their child’s head. The child will be holding three volumes of The Walking Dead, or a fistful of Deadpool, and will be looking at me with the same pleading expression: “don’t sell me out, lady! They don’t know!”
It might seem like a no-brainer to anyone familiar with the world of comic books that The Walking Dead might not be a great choice for a reader younger than, say, sixteen. But for many parents, especially those with no life experience regarding comics past Archie, any book with pictures = book for children. So, the next logical step is to inform them, right? To quietly, without embarrassing the child, let them know that this series is very violent, not only with gore but also with sexual assault (strong language and overall traumatic theme aside). Of course, if the parent is aware of the content and chooses to let their childspawn consume it anyway, that’s 100% on them and I am cleared of any responsibility.
Here’s where it gets tricky, as a librarian. If I were at the comic book shop, I might do exactly what I suggested above and offer to lead them to another, all-ages friendly, title. At the library, I may not, legally, do that.
The American Library Association has very strict rules on library patrons’ right to privacy, and the librarian’s role is, as the ALA puts it, to possess a “long-standing commitment to an ethic of facilitating, not monitoring, access to information.” We may assist people in research, navigating the library, or with what is called “Reader’s Advisory” (suggestion of books based on a patron’s expressed likes and dislikes) — but only if prompted first. For a non-comics example: if someone checks out a stack of books on Italian cooking, I can’t say to them “are you learning to cook Italian?” or “Wow, you must love pasta!” (the second one might be kind of weird to say anyway), because I would be infringing on their right to privacy. I have no way of knowing their motivation for checking out those books, even if it might seem totally obvious, and therefore, cannot do anything that might influence their decision to access certain information. However, if you, Mario Batali wannabe, approach me and say: “I’m looking to cook Italian!”, I’m free and clear to go off about the best pasta I ever had at Nona’s in Portland, Oregon. Confusing, right? The ALA sums it up pretty succinctly on their official website on Library Rights:
“In all areas of librarianship, best practice leaves the user in control of as many choices as possible. These include decisions about the selection of, access to, and use of information. Lack of privacy and confidentiality has a chilling effect on users’ choices. All users have a right to be free from any unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their lawful library use.”
So, my comment of “this Punisher by Garth Ennis might not be appropriate for your first grader” actually counts as “unreasonable intrusion or surveillance.”
With comics, we enter an even stickier debate: censorship. As a proud member of the CBLDF, I do my best to stock our graphic novel section with a variety of books that represent a diverse selection of lived experiences — superheroes and graphic memoirs and everything in between. But that means that Are You My Mother?, a gripping and beautiful memoir by Alison Bechdel, that is decidedly not for children, is within grabbing distance of Ultimate Spider-Man. Because I know I cannot comment on what a younger reader might be checking out, I’m often put in a position of having to decide if I should order more questionable materials in the first place. If I am restricting what I order for our comics section (and I mean, I’m obviously not ordering Crossed), am I subtly restricting our patrons right to information?
This recent case at a Hertfordshire Library (covered on WWAC by Sarah!) involved a direct restriction of information, as teens and kids were limited on what they were allowed to take out. While American libraries, under the ALA rules, may not label comics as “explicit” or limit their check out by patrons, some libraries do choose to separate the kid-friendly books from the “adult” ones — even mine does, to a certain extent, with books like the Avatar series downstairs in our children’s department. That does not stop a child from wandering up the stairs and checking out Saga.
Now, it does happen that every so often, a parent takes a look through the Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe that their six-year-old checked out and comes back in a rage. There’s another uncomfortable situation for you: having to explain to a grown adult that you can’t act In Loco Parentis for them and maybe they should pay even the smallest amount of attention to their kid. Oof.
No matter where you stand on the censorship debate, the rules currently in place are clear: you have the right to check out whatever you want, and none of us can stop you. So, go ahead, go nuts. Get Walking Dead for your local kindergarten class. It’s your right.