Adam Tate and his wife, Meagan, took their three children — ages 4, 9 and 14 — to a recent O’Fallon Public Library event that he says is "exactly the kind of program" he likes his family to attend.
“It was extremely positive and action-based, values- and leadership-based,” Tate said.
However, the library has come under fire from a local conservative political group for its March 24 children's story time program, saying the event was attempting "social indoctrination" of the kids attending.
At issue was the library's book choice — "Justice Makes a Difference: The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire" — as well as how it promoted the event.
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"(The program) was totally inappropriate for two reasons: One, the venue, and two, the intended audience. Is this the age group of children to explore the ideas of 'social justice'? I don’t think so. The library should cater to an entire community, not just some factions within,” said Steve Springer, an O'Fallon District 90 School Board and Metro East Pachyderm Club member who showed up at the April 16 O'Fallon City Council meeting to protest the library event.
About the book
A summary of the book on Amazon.com states: “Through conversations with her grandma and their shared love of books, Justice learns about important men and women throughout history who have changed the world: Ella Baker, Shirley Chisholm, Charles Hamilton Houston, Dr. Wangari Maathai, Paul Robeson, and Ida B. Wells. Justice learns how each leader was a champion for advancing justice and improving the world, and she dreams of becoming a change maker, too — ‘Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire,’ a superhero with a law degree and an afro!"
The book has a five-star rating on the website.
The book's author, Dr. Artika Tyner, is an African-American woman educator, author, civil rights attorney and speaker. On her blog, she said her book is based on her own experiences and is dedicated to her grandmother.
"I learned from my grandmother about people throughout history that fought for social justice, worked to make the world a better place, and passes on that message in the book," Tyner wrote on her blog. "Children are often motivated to create change, but feel they’re too young or have no power. My book is designed to show young readers that they can make a difference no matter what their path in life may be and the importance of believing in themselves. The book amply demonstrates the value of literacy, education and cultural awareness, while promoting leadership development, diversity and inclusion."
The day in question
On its website, the library promoted the event, saying: "Join us as we read Dr. Artika Tyner's children's book entitled, 'Justice Makes a Difference.' Using fun games and activities we will explore ideas of justice and social responsibility. Facilitated by Annetta Works-Sallee, community social activist. Appropriate for children age 5 and up."
During the hour-long Saturday morning program, Works-Sallee sat on a rug and read the 30-page paperback to a group of children.
Library Director Molly Scanlan said about 24 youngsters of various ages and their parents attended.
"She asked them what they do to spread joy or make a difference in someone's life. They cut out handprints and footprints, and wrote on them what action they could take to make a positive influence in the world," Scanlan said.
Tate’s daughter, Emma, 9, wants to be a fashion designer. She wrote on her prints that she "wanted to use clothes to make a change."
"Emma said she liked the main character. She learned that she can make a difference, like the grown-ups around her," he said.
A message of inspiration or a political agenda?
The day before the program, Mary Gray, Metro East Pachyderm Club secretary and past president, sent emails to the library director, mayor and aldermen, as well as the Pachyderm Club mailing list, forwarding the program description, commenting: “Is this an appropriate use of taxpayer money?” The club is associated with the Republican Party.
Scanlan said she received complaints via email in what seemed to be an orchestrated campaign, beginning March 23. She said no one who wrote the letters attended the event or asked to see the book.
“They never came in, and nobody talked to me about it. It’s a very nice children’s book. It’s about helping out and standing up for yourself,” Scanlan said.
Scanlan took the book to the Library Board meeting, but no one who sent an email objecting it attended, she said. She said library trustees were fine with the book’s content.
As O’Fallon residents and taxpayers, Gray and Springer said they came to the council instead of the Library Board of Trustees because the council approves the library's tax levy.
"The library should present programs that represent and reflect the culture of the entire community, not just segments of it, and I want the council to take steps to ensure that that happens," Springer told the council.
Gray complained about the marquee promoting the event as "Social Justice for Kids."
The book's lead character is an African-American girl named Justice.
"Social justice is clearly a politically charged term," Gray said. "The wording was either an informed, purposeful decision or a very grave, uninformed error. Whatever the case, an accountable explanation is necessary."
Gray said that, in an email response, the youth services manager defended the book by saying it was about caring for others and overcoming obstacles.
"But she did not defend or address that the library promoted it as a 'social justice' event," she said. "I disagree that the book did not promote any political agenda."
Springer said the program "provided a platform for social indoctrination," and that the children were being "set up."
Tate said he was surprised to hear about the objections.
"I don't understand how they can argue about something for children that is about what they can do to create a better world, what they can do to make their communities better?" he said, adding that he ended up buying the book.
"I thought the program was very light on real issues, so not to step on toes. It was sensitive," he said.
Gray and Springer criticized the library saying the age level suited for the book was 5 and up.
"In my research, it was not recommended on any recommended reading list for second- and third-graders, such as commoncore.com or education.com. So, it's evident the book is neither appropriate for kindergarten or first-graders. Perhaps that is why the event facilitator was a 'community social activist.' The book is possibly more relatable to older children and adults. This is a stretch to believe that young children would be independently attracted to it," she said.
Springer said the age level of 5 "set off a lot of red flags" for him.
Tate said his 4-year-old, Lincoln, enjoyed it.
"It was 100 percent appropriate for him," he said. "Everything about it was positive. There was nothing objectionable at all. This is ridiculous. This makes no sense."
Larry Morrison, who has been on the Library Board for 25 years, said this is the first time he can recall a library program has been criticized publicly. He did recall that, years ago, someone wanted to ban Mark Twain’s "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but the library refused.
Morrison said that "Justice Makes a Difference" had a positive message that children can also change the world for the better, not just adults.
"I see nothing wrong with the point of view expressed in the book," he said. "I see absolutely nothing wrong with the book or the program. The program was open to anyone who wished to attend. It was not limited to a special group."
Morrison did acknowledge that "social justice" can be a negative term to some people.
"Anyone objecting, all they had to do was attend, and not judge the program by what was on the marquee in the front," Morrison said.
Scanlan said the library offers a wide range of events.
"We have all kinds of programs. We keep a wide assortment to meet the needs of all in our community. Children like to see themselves in books," she said. "I could not exactly understand what they (the protesters) wanted."
Neither could Shirley Allen, an O’Fallon resident and retired special education teacher. She was on the Pachyderm mailing list after attending a political debate and received the email complaint.
"I wrote her (Gray) back and asked, what did she object to? I asked her about eight to 10 questions. Was she upset the book cost $10 on Amazon, and that was too much to spend on a book?" Allen said. "I bought the Kindle edition for $6. You can read it in 10 minutes. It’s about as inoffensive a book as there is. It’s about that little girls can do anything. They can be president. Is that what she’s objecting to, she doesn’t think girls can be president? I have no clue. She did not respond. And I am no longer on the mailing list."
Mayor Herb Roach said he received a copy of the book from Scanlan and made the book available to all the aldermen.
"I have read the book and read about author, who is vice president of diversity at St. Thomas University in Minnesota. I have not received any feedback from council members," Roach said.
Group says they were denied access for being 'too political'
Gray urged the council to review the library’s "poor decisions," referencing her group not being able to reserve a room under the library’s changed policy as well.
Gray complained to the council that they should look into changing the library’s current policy on reservations for the large room.
The library has three smaller rooms that they reserve on a first-come, first-served basis, but the large room is now primarily used for library programs and not available to outside groups. The library limited usage to non-partisan groups as well.
Gray said she used to reserve the room for her club meetings.
"The political nature of this event reminded me that years ago, multiple library staff told me that an organization I belonged to could no longer use one of the rooms because our group was too political," she said.
Scanlan explained the policy was changed four years ago because of the increased amount of programs the library offered.
"We sometimes have 1,400 people come to a program. We don’t have enough space," Scanlan said. "We used to open it up to organizations, but we couldn’t do all the programs we do. We used the term non-partisan for groups wanting to use the library."
Gray expressed dissatisfaction with the uncertainty of getting a study room.
"It’s an awkward and obvious inconvenience to impose on a group of taxpayers to appear at the library desk in hopes of securing a room," she said. "I would like the council to review the recent poor decisions by the library staff, because my concern is that a tax-funded facility is politically biased and made possibly discriminatory decisions by prohibiting its use by taxpayers to secure space."
Roach said the room policy is fair to everyone and administered fairly.
He explained that, according to statute, the Library Board oversees the governance of the library.
"They do not report to the city administrator or to me. The mayor appoints the Library Board, and they are approved by the City Council. The current Library Board was approved by a previous administration," he said. "They should take their concerns to the Library Board."
Read the book yourself
Teri Rankin, youth services manager, said the book will be available at the Children’s Help Desk for a short time for anyone who wants to read it.
“After that, we will catalog it and anyone can check it out or request it, but our loan period is three weeks, so it would take awhile at that rate,” Scanlan said.