FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — As a child, Bernadette Chimner was a precocious reader. She said that when she was in elementary school, she asked her school librarian “for more books like ‘Anne of Green Gables'”.
The librarian brought her a stack of books from the high school library. Chimner took one and read a few pages.
It took her a few minutes to digest what she was reading, but it was a description of sex she hadn’t been prepared for. She put the book back in the pile, returned all the books to the librarian, and stayed away from the high school library after that.
Chimner doesn’t remember the name of the book that upset her, but said it had “a chilling effect on her reading” and she remembers sticking to juvenile fiction for a while.
“I come from a conservative small town and I know that the librarian who gave me this book didn’t give it to me knowing this passage,” she said.
When the issue of “explicit sexual content” in public school libraries erupted in Spotsylvania County last fall, Chimner recognized the fear behind parents’ worries about pulling books from shelves.
“The fear that we all really have as parents is that my child goes to the library and I have no way of knowing what he’s checking out when he’s there,” she said. “They might be checking out something pretty intense and worth a few conversations, and I have no way of knowing.”
But Chimner also doesn’t want to see the books taken off the shelves so no one can look at them.
“I never want to deny a child a book,” she said. “I want to find ways for parents to know what’s in a book and make that information really easy to see and more engaging.”
Parents can let school librarians know that their children are not allowed to borrow books with certain content, and librarians can note this request in the child’s library account.
“The problem is that no librarian can know what’s in all the books in the library,” Chimner said. “Book lists and reviews are not helpful because there is a diverse community of concerns. This is where this website comes from. Let’s come to a situation where we can evaluate the book – something that is outsourced, for parents and specific to our county.
The website developed by Chimner, located at bipartisanbookclub.com, allows parents and community members to search for a specific book by title and rate its content based on intensity of sex, violence, language, drug use, alcohol use and smoking or tobacco use. .
It also allows users to add tags to flag some more specific content, such as “gun violence tolerated” or “adult sexual encounter”. Users can see how many times others have added that specific flag and also indicate if they disagree with that tag.
There is a section for adding notes and asking “reading guide” type questions to student readers.
For example, in Chimner’s review of Judy Blume’s “Forever” – a book about adolescent sexuality that was on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990 to 2000 – she asks students to think about the fact that the book was published in 1975, before the AIDS epidemic, and that it depicts a sexual relationship in which the partners decide not to use a condom because the woman started birth control.
The website’s rating feature also contains a section for rating pages or chapters that the reviewer thinks a reader might want to skip.
Chimner said she hopes the website can be a tool for parents, students and librarians to increase their knowledge of what’s in the school library and help the community feel more invested in the school library.
Chimner, who has a degree in peace and conflict resolution from American University, has also started a bipartisan book club that meets semi-regularly to discuss some of the books that have been challenged by parents across the country these last months.
Book club discussed Adam Rapp’s ’33 Snowfish’ – the book a Riverbend High School student’s parents challenged last fall – and will discuss George Johnson’s memoir ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue “, which has been the subject of several censorship campaigns this month.
Chimner said she learned from book club and discussions with several community groups that all parents have concerns about what their children are reading.
Some parents worry about “overly descriptive” sexual content, Chimner said, while other parents worry about gun violence or want to make sure any sexual encounter their child reads is clearly consensual.
Anyone can view the website and view the ratings, but only Spotsylvania residents can rate the books. They’ll need to enable their browser’s location beacon before they can assess, Chimner said.
This is because Chimner envisions the site as being by Spotsylvania parents for Spotsylvania students.
His hope is that he keeps the books on the shelves.
“We don’t want to pull things,” she said. “We want to find ways for parents to know (what’s in the books) and make that information really easy to see.”