For the past three years, I have served as the Book Fair chairperson at my children’s elementary school which serves grades K through 3. Working at the book fair has given me an outlet to my book obsession–smelling the new ink, flipping through crisp pages, and pouring over the illustrations, makes me think back to how exciting it was for me when I was that age, to explore and discover new books.
Kindergarten through 3 is a big range in age developmentally–kindergartners are just starting to read independently and third graders are preparing to leave and enter the middle school, independently reading chapter books that catch their eye.
Growing up, my parents did not discourage me from reading anything that I found interesting. We did not have premium cable or fancy vacations, but we went to the library religiously and I was given the run of the place to read whatever caught my attention. My love of books helped me succeed in college, helps me relate to many different people, and gives me a broader understanding of the world around me, all things I value as an adult, especially in this day and age.
My children (1st grade and third grade) helped me set up the fair last night and were able to do some browsing as they worked. Two books caught my 3rd grade son’s eye–my son does not share my love of reading yet and so when he is interested in a particular book, I tend to buy it and hope it catches on. The books he noticed were about WWII–a tough subject, but an important one to our world’s history. The first book was Making Bombs for Hitler and the second was Prisoner of War: A Novel. I told him to make sure to write them down on his wish list so that he could purchase them later in the fair and was excited to think he found two chapter books that really interested him.
This morning I opened the fair with other volunteers and was told that the faculty coordinator said we could not display these books because they were inappropriate for kindergartners through grade three. However, these books were displayed next to books about tornado disasters, about gross bodily functions, and fantasy books about zombies, vampires, and terrible beasts. All things that some people may choose not to read and may find unsettling.
I was completely taken aback by this statement about inappropriate books–in my mind, almost no book is inappropriate if oriented towards a child audience and all teach us something about history, about others and about critical thinking. Even books that espouse hatred still teach us about humanity and about thinking how to be better people and the opposite of those values.
This seems to be a slippery slope–who decides which books are inappropriate? Who is the arbiter of these values? How can we shield our children from these subjects when a news report will tell them about the evils there are in the world every day? How do our students learn that without good people standing up for what is right, that we cannot survive as a human race?
The Bible has talk of rape, violence, sex, gambling, and damnation yet this is considered by many as the most holy and important of books–at what age does this book become appropriate?
In shielding children from these terrible episodes in our history, I feel that we are also shielding them from the idea that good can triumph and that despite such a horrible time, we have survived, have learned, and many of us are striving every day to do better by people who are marginalized. In this day of political vitriol and hateful speech by many different groups, wouldn’t it be better to show students that this is not new human behavior? That we should not despair, but should work to be better people and show love in our everyday actions, like those who helped people escape the holocaust, like those who fought in court to make their interracial/same sex love stories legally recognized, and like those who continue to fight for love and understanding every day?
If we shield students from the bad, we can’t help but also shield them from all of the stories of hope and courage, too. There is great tragedy in our human history, but there are also amazing stories of triumph and the human spirit. By deciding that students shouldn’t have the right to read about these events, we limit their ability to know and understand how average people can work to save the world.