CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — I was one of those kids who learned to read — probably by osmosis — long before I started school. It took my own children a lot more time to get started, but the result was the same: we were all readers.
In the backyard, in tree houses, under blankets, on planes and trains, at the table, we’ve always read everything we could get our hands on, from cereal boxes to the classics, from children’s shows to Moby Dick.
This summer’s news tells us that parents and school board members in numerous communities are on the rise, literally and figuratively, determined to restrict access to books in classrooms and school libraries. Sometimes I’m upset; sometimes confused and sometimes sad.
When I was seven years old and in the second grade, my mother and my little brother died in a car accident. Because I read a lot and constantly, I didn’t let this event get me down. I’ve learned from characters like Heidi, like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, like Nancy Drew and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, that motherless girls are resourceful, determined, creative, and independent.
Without these fictional friends, would I have developed the strengths I had as a young girl?
I was the only girl in my elementary school without a mother, but books opened up a much wider world of experiences, guides, and role models.
What I haven’t read is also significant.
I lived in a rural area populated almost exclusively by white Christians. I was introduced to George Washington Carver and Sacagawea through the Childhoods of Famous Americans series that sat on my grandmother’s hallway bookshelf, but educators in my time and place did not intentionally give elementary school-age children books about life in different cultures or contexts. They did not consider adding reading material on racial, gender, or multi-religious issues.
It wasn’t about fragile childish minds; It was simply because in my type of community, few people even thought about these things.
I’m sure people belonging to different minorities felt frustrated and upset that their people were missing from children’s books, but in my little world we didn’t know that. We needed books about others to know who they were and what their lives and concerns were about.
We live in a different world today.
I live in a diverse suburban area and my granddaughter is a mix of races and nationalities, so I’m always on the lookout for books that will elevate black and brown girls and women to be leaders and achievers. I was grateful when one of her aunts sent along some brown dollhouse figurines and another a basket full of dolls from different backgrounds.
When she learns to read herself and starts exploring the world through books, I suspect we will have many conversations over dinner about the conflicts and controversies on this planet. I do not expect her to despair at the thought of evils done by some peoples to others. I hope she will ask many questions and suggest numerous topics for discussion for all of us.
I dream that she will grow into a strong, powerful and compassionate seeker of justice.
So, yes, I am mostly sad when I read (!) and hear about books being removed from school and library shelves.
Perhaps parents believe they can protect their little ones from the realities of this world. Protection from violence and fear is certainly appropriate when it comes to small children.
But as children grow older and more inquisitive, it is crucial that they are also encouraged to develop their understanding and ability to engage with the wider world of which they are a part.
Rev. Mary Robin Craig is a retired Presbyterian pastor and forever mother, grandmother and governor.
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