Front Porch: Books help children understand the world as it is

I’m trying to have conversations on thorny subjects with acquaintances of a mindset different than mine. It’s not going all that well.

It’s so much harder than I think it should be. For example, there’s the messiness that’s going on about the removal of some books from schools and the laws being passed prohibiting teaching or, apparently, even discussing topics contained in those books, in schools in general and at grade levels in particular. And even removing those books from public libraries.

What I see everywhere – out in the world and in conversations I am either part of or privy to – is the rapid abandonment of rational discussion and an immediate rush to the fringes of any argument – a place where no real communication can occur.

This is probably nowhere more evident than in another third-rail topic – women’s reproductive rights – where the furthest-out and rarest potential scenarios are the examples used to support a position.

Statements are hurled about, from near-full-term babies being “ripped” from the womb to stories of 12-year-old incest victims being forced to carry to term. None of these things is the mainstream or the preponderance of where most of the real-world realities live, where most women and girls are facing their own personal, immediate situations. But the extremes supercharge the debate and therefore stop any real communication or understanding.

I am saddened to see this kind of thing happening now with some of my favorite things in the world – books, which are all about learning, dreaming, exploring, imagining and questioning.

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal wrote a wonderful column last week about libraries, “dangerous” books and challenging the mind (especially of a child). He also wrote about laws seeking to censor libraries.

He described his going to his hometown library as a boy growing up in Idaho and how that widened his horizons and stimulated his brain. And, yes, sometimes what he read had notions different than his family’s or told stories that scared him.

I, too, spent hours in the library as a child, sitting there reading, and also checking out books for home reading. Such good memories. And such challenges, too, especially when I read above my level of understanding or experience.

I read every book about horses in the children’s section of the public library in Flushing, the neighborhood within greater New York City where I spent my earliest years, and also every book there about dogs. And I ventured into other books that just caught my eye.

I especially remember reading a story in which a girl was killed. It shocked me, and I was moved to think about it and ask about the time and place (Europe during World War II) or her death. And the fact that young people can get killed. The adults in my life gave me age-appropriate answers.

I was challenged, not triggered.

When the current do-not-read-that-book-toxicity hit its fevered pitch, my husband and I, in our own small way, have fought back by buying and reading or rereading banned books. “The Bluest Eye,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “Beloved,” “As I Lay Dying” more and more.

And we’re sharing them with friends.

Yes, I have an opinion on this subject and, clearly, am not a fan of modern-day book burning (which has never gone well in history). But I also understand parents’ protective natures and certainly their wanting material to be age appropriate – not to shield a child from his or her own nascent feelings or worries, but to receive information in an understandable way.

Today’s kids are online while pretty much still in diapers. Information is flowing into them faster and sooner certainly than when I was young, although I do remember when I was 6, wondering if black skin felt like white skin, so I reached out to touch the hand of an older Black woman near me – and , unsurprisingly, learned that it did.

Conversations at home are most important, of course. But all sorts of thoughts and curiosities are going on, and information (or misinformation) is being shared among our children and grandchildren and their friends at their play dates, just the same. Even among kindergartners out in the schoolyard (as my retired-teacher friends have told me).

How much better that material about all those things is found in books carefully selected by trained librarians and made available in educational environments where they can be talked about safely. And available for everyone in libraries. We can not prevent our children, even the really young ones, from hearing about things in the world that is (rather than the world some of us might prefer) – but hearing about them, they already are.

Let us please just stop yelling at each other and just really talk about how to be smart and honest and helpful about this. The children are watching us.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at [email protected]

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