Let them read the books

by Kerri Jackson Case ([email protected]) 1,093 views 

I spent a lot of time growing up in the school library. For reasons smacking of irony, that was 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 a wide berth to read whatever captured my attention. This is not to say I lived without boundaries. But I’m GenX. There was no such thing as helicopter parenting.

When my parents were getting divorced, a very kind school librarian quietly directed me to a book about a kid whose parents were getting divorced. I felt seen. I felt a little better.

In middle school, there was a series in the library, that for lack of a better term were the “disease books.” The main characters all got life threatening or life altering diagnoses. For a few what I presume were both amusing and exhausting months for the adults around us, a group of girls tore through that series and self diagnosed all kinds of terrible ailments. We were worse than first year medical students. Spoiler: it was never a tumor. It was middle school drama. And it passed. It did however make me more empathetic to others and how they felt when they really did get a diagnosis that seemed scary. That part lasted.

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

My LGBTQ friends tell me of the absolute glee of finding themselves in book characters, not a quirky sidekick, just a person who happened to be gay living a life. Black and Jewish friends rejoice when their stories are told honestly in books for their children to read. More than one friend who had a traumatic life experience found comfort and help from fiction and nonfiction books.

Blessedly, in the decades since I fought with my locker combination, more school libraries are stocking books that are not solely written for and by white, Christian, cisgender people. The trained professionals running libraries are making sure books written by and for all kinds of people are represented, often stretching limited budgets further than imaginable.

Frustratingly, there is also a small, but vocal group of parents who want to cancel anything that doesn’t fit their view of the world. They aren’t just in Tennessee banning “Maus” or in Texas banning everything from “New Kid” to the autobiography of Ruby Bridges. There are vocal groups popping up in Conway, Northwest Arkansas and Jonesboro.

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

That means it’s up to the rest of us to hold the line and support access to diverse books for all kids. We have to support our school librarians as the professionals they are. It’s not because we’re woke or deal pornography. It’s because the center has to hold.

Here’s the thing. There are LGBTQ students in every school in America. And they have a right to a proper education, free of shame and fear. They have right to educational books to address what straight sex ed curriculum leaves out, which is an awful lot. And they deserve books where characters make them feel seen and a little bit better too.

Additionally, every single parenting guide tells me the white nationalists, or whatever name the Nazis are using these days, are coming for white, middle class teenage boys. Kids like mine, which is terrifying. They don’t start with swastikas and photos of Hitler. They don’t begin with lynch mobs. They’re far more subtle than that. So if he’s old enough to get 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 still … the most impactful conversations he’s had happened in classrooms where he read “New Kid” and “The Hate You Give.” He heard from his peers. In junior high, his school had a virtual book club with the author of “New Kid,” Jerry Craft. Hearing from the writer made a lasting impression.

The book banners often say they don’t want their children to feel bad for other people’s past sins. In our family’s experience, I’ve never heard the white kids we know express personal guilt for anyone else’s behavior. I’ve heard my son and his friends express empathy and understanding for people who’ve had different lived experiences than them. Isn’t that the very heart of what education is supposed to be?

Kids don’t get diabetes or turn gay from 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 antisemitic. They do become kinder and more empathetic when they read other people’s stories and then they talk about those stories with their peers, teachers and parents. They learn to see leadership in many forms when the heroes aren’t always straight, white dudes.

The kids are alright. Let them read.

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