I grew up in a family that did not restrict my access to books. I read whatever I wanted to read, no matter how "adult," no matter how strange. In that way, I read some pretty scary stuff a little earlier than I probably should have. But, in doing so, I also learned about life experiences that I would never have including reading about the lives of people who were unfairly incarcerated, the lives of refugees, as well as the lives of astronauts and Olympic athletes. I read books about the Holocaust and books about people falling in love for the first time and books about how loyal dogs could be, and I'd like to make an argument that, with guidance, children can actually handle a lot more in their literature than parents tend to expect.
While I understand parents' worries about age-appropriate books for their children, I think that these conversations can become sticky fairly quickly. I read an article this week in the LA Times about a K-6 (kindergarten to sixth grade) school local to me called Wilson Elementary. A parent came across Flamer, a graphic novel by Mike Curato about a gay teenager who is bullied at Boy Scout camp, in the school library. This parent read it and found it "terrifying." Since then, parents in the district have spoken up in school board meetings against Flamer, and the school has taken action to close the library for the rest of the semester to do a thorough investigation for the book and other books that they deem "potentially troubling."
While I'm not going to speculate on what "potentially troubling" means for Wilson Elementary, I can look to other districts across the United States who consider any texts that speak about racism, homophobia, or even queer people at all as dangerous and worthy of banning. Most recently, we're getting news from libraries in Nesconset, NY that they are being ordered to take down their Pride displays and remove all LGBTQ+ books from any Children's sections. I'm talking about books that are specifically meant for children that have no cursing or nudity or any sort of adult content like Raina Telgemeier's Drama and Trung Le Nguyen's The Magic Fish as well as books that have more mature themes that are being banned from high schools. What troubles me about these bannings isn't that parents and the community are getting involved in what happens in their children's education, but how they're getting involved.
Many of these arguments are simply rejecting these books because they have themes related to race and gender and gender expression. Other arguments isolate single pages out of the context of a book and hold those pages up as examples of why the book shouldn't be read by young people. One example of this that made the nationwide press was Maus being banned from a school district for a page that features a mouse figure without clothing on. Similarly, in nearby in Orange County, pages from Flamer have been shared at school board meetings as well in a local Facebook group. While it can be easy to react to an image that seems intense, I think it's important to understand the context of those images.
Flamer isn't its most intense parts. And its intense parts shouldn't disqualify it from being read. Flamer is a book about a very real experience of bullying and dealing with issues around self-worth that many teens have, and it's an honest one. Now I am absolutely not making an argument that elementary school libraries should carry every type of literature without consideration for appropriateness. But I do want to make an argument about what we consider appropriate for children. When I studied literature for children and young adults in graduate school, one issue we often discussed was whether or not children could deal with heavy topics like death in their stories. But then a professor pointed out to me that children deal with death in their lives. Children face violence and bullying and illness. If there is a child out there dealing with something, they should be allowed to read about it, in a context and format appropriate for them.
School is about learning, and learning isn't just about math equations and vocabulary definitions (though those are important too). I, as a citizen and erstwhile educator and writer, hope that our school system can create rounded individuals prepared to join society and treat their neighbors well. And to do so, we need to acknowledge that as soon as a kid can be harmed or harm people (which is younger than we like to think), they should read about the impact of bullying.
Life can be terrifying. Talk to any child right now and ask them if they ever worry about school shootings, about Covid, about violence. They do. I was younger than 12 when I first heard a queer slur at school. I'd be surprised if that wasn't the same for most kids now. These books provide a context, a story, an experience that isn't just valuable, but can be lifesaving. I don't think art is meant to serve any one specific purpose (it can serve many). But one of those purposes that is so useful, especially for children, is to provide different ways to approach life and a way to learn about what life might have in store for you.
I understand wanting to protect your children. But books are actually a really safe way for children to deal with tough issues in a controlled environment. Books can help them create the tools with which they can face life. And remember that, while we may not like it, young people do go through trauma of all sorts. The best we can do is not to shield them from representations of the trauma, but to prepare them for it.
I don't think the book should be taken from the library, but instead managed by (amazing) school librarians by age range.While I don't think that Flamer should be given to a second grader, I think there are many sixth graders who would benefit from reading a story about a 14-year-old who gets bullied at Boy Scout camp and doesn't feel like he fits in. I don't think the book should be taken from the library, but instead managed by (amazing) school librarians by age range (as most school libraries are—you won't see picture books shelved next to books for sixth graders).
Banning these books from school libraries does not protect children. It isolates children from useful narratives, giving them no space to see their realities reflected in story and giving them no protection, no guide on how to deal with their realities. Oftentimes, it is because of the realities these books depict that they are banned. Drama by Raina Telgemeier is often banned because of the "sexual content" of two middle school boys sharing a kiss. The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is banned because of its gay protagonist. Flamer is being considered for a ban because of harsh language and a gay protagonist. But these are all realities of life.
Instead of looking at how these books might be scary, I'd like to challenge you to consider how their perspectives and stories can be uniquely helpful and challenging (in a good way) to children, even beyond representation (though that is also important). Drama holds a lot of lessons about friendship and love. The Magic Fish is not just about coming out but also about finding ways to connect with your parents. Flamer is about going through a tough environment and finding yourself.
I don't think education should be about limiting young people's access to different lives and perspectives but about broadening them. If you think reading about a homophobic slur in a literary context is going to corrupt your child, I challenge you to spend a day listening to how students talk. And wonder if it's better for children to see how that language is harmful or if it's better for them to learn how to perpetuate it without considering their impact (because they will). If you think a young person speaking about their depression and dark thoughts is going to be too heavy for your child, I'd ask you to talk to a child who is going through that right now, because you probably have one in your life.
Sometimes, after reading these books, your children will come to you with questions. But there's nothing wrong with questions. We want children to be curious learners. We want them to be thinking about who they want to be in the world and how they should interact with it. We want to be having these conversations that are a core part of their education and growth. We want them to feel challenged and pushed to think (and ask) about the world.
We must remember that we should prepare our children for (and not shield them from) life.
Most importantly, in this discussion, we need to acknowledge that education-related decisions should never be reactionary. We should think about education proactively and keep these conversations going. Continue to read the books your children are reading— and read ones that they aren't reading too. Read the books in their entirety and see what the authors are trying to say, look for what children can learn and gain from these books. Passion about your children's education is wonderful and should be nourished, but we should not let our fears and worries about individual pages from books keep us from understanding the big picture of what they are and can do, lest we let ourselves limit our children from being the best people they can be. We must remember that we should prepare our children for (and not shield them from) life.
If you're looking for some great LGBTQ+ reads this Pride, check out Popverse's guide to queer graphic novels for comics fans of all ages.