let them read the books

I spent a lot of time growing up in the school library. For ironic reasons, that’s where they sent girls who “talked too much” in class. So I read a lot of books. If my parents put rules on what books I was allowed to read, they weren’t formal.

I had ample room to read anything that caught my eye. This does not mean that I lived without borders. But I am GenX. Helicopter parenting did not exist.

When my parents were about to divorce, a very nice school librarian quietly directed me to a book about a child whose parents were about to divorce. I felt seen. I felt a little better.

In college, there was a series in the library, which, for lack of a better term, was “disease books.” The main characters have all received life-threatening or life-altering diagnoses. For a few months, which I presume was both fun and exhausting for the adults around us, a group of girls went through this series and self-diagnosed all sorts of terrible ailments. We were worse than first-year medical students. Spoiler: it was never a tumor. It was a drama in college. And it passed. It did, however, make me more empathetic towards others and how they felt when they really received a diagnosis that seemed scary. This part lasted.

I am a straight, cisgender woman. It’s not hard to find myself in the books. Still, I was a grown woman before I saw a woman as the lead superhero in a major studio movie. And yes, it was important for young girls to see a woman like the one who saves the day. It was also important for my son to see that. For boys, seeing a woman leading the charge means they aren’t always the hero of the story. It’s not necessarily up to them to fix everything.

My LGBTQ friends tell me about the absolute joy of finding themselves in book characters, not some quirky sidekick, just someone who happens to be gay and living a life. Black and Jewish friends rejoice when their stories are told honestly in books their children can read. Many a friend who has had a traumatic life experience has found comfort and help in fiction and non-fiction books.

Fortunately, in the decades since I struggled with my locker combination, more and more school libraries are stocking books that aren’t solely written for and by white, Christian, and cisgender people. The trained professionals who run the libraries ensure that books written by and for all kinds of people are represented, often stretching limited budgets farther than imagined.

Frustratingly, there’s also a small group of parents speaking out who want to undo anything that doesn’t fit their worldview. They’re not just Tennessee banning “Maus” or Texas banning everything from “New Kid” to Ruby Bridges’ autobiography. Vocal groups appear in Conway, northwest Arkansas, and Jonesboro.

They often say things like, “I just want to raise my kids the way I think I’m the best.” But they don’t want that. They want to raise all of our children in the way they think is best. They don’t just want to limit the books their children read. They don’t want children to have access to it. And it’s too far.

This means it’s up to all of us to hold the line and support access to diverse books for all children. We need to support our school librarians as the professionals they are. It’s not because we’re awake or selling pornography. This is because the center must hold.

Here’s the thing. There are LGBTQ students in every school in America. And they have the right to a good education, without shame or fear. They are entitled to educational books to respond to what the straight sex education program leaves out, which is a lot. And they deserve books where the characters make them feel seen and a little better too.

Plus, every parenting guide tells me that white nationalists, or whatever name the Nazis use these days, come for middle-class white teens. Children like mine, which is terrifying. They don’t start with swastikas and pictures of Hitler. They don’t start with lynch mobs. They are much more subtle than that. So if he’s old enough to be recruited by the bad guys, he’s old enough to know why they’re bad.

We talk to him. We monitor his media consumption online and in real life. And yet… the most impactful conversations he had took place in classrooms where he read “New Kid” and “The Hate You Give”. He heard about his peers. In middle school, her school had a virtual book club with the author of “New”, Jerry Craft. The writer’s audition made a lasting impression.

Book banners often say that they don’t want their children to feel bad for the past sins of others. In our family’s experience, I have never heard white children we know express personal guilt for someone else’s behavior. I have heard my son and his friends express their empathy and understanding for people who have had experiences different from theirs. Isn’t that the very heart of what education is supposed to be?

Children don’t get diabetes or become gay by reading about it. They don’t consider suicide because someone wrote openly and honestly about it. They don’t hate themselves because other people were racist or anti-Semitic. They become kinder and more empathetic when they read other people’s stories and then share them with their peers, teachers, and parents. They learn to see leadership in many forms when the heroes aren’t always straight, white guys.

The children are doing well. Let them read.

Editor’s note: Kerri Jackson Case is a freelance journalist who lives in Little Rock with her husband, son, and two bratty dogs here. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

About Stuart M. McFarland

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