Oh, The Harm!

Every single time I mail a package at the post office, I’m asked, “Does this parcel contain anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous.” I’ve checked and even though I always want to respond, “Yes! there are books in this box!” but, the US Postal Service doesn’t recognize any harm in books. To too many, the harmfulness of thoughts, knowledge and ideas is real.

In many jurisdictions around the US, it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read quite simply because it’s easier to control people who aren’t trained to think, reason or question. (I believe this is also why our schools are allowed to dysfunction.) In more modern times, we’ve found that Blacks, Asians, Latinx and Native Americans have lacked representation in books. This was publicly justified through claims that ‘they can’t read’ and that ‘they can’t write’. But, if a group is ostracized from the reading and writing process then their threat to the existing power structures is diminished. Is it possible to also see the lack of books that tell the stories of Black people as a way to silence whatever they have to say and to alienate them from the reading/learning process; as a way to continually disempower?

A few weeks ago, I had the fortune to be part of a recording for the upcoming NCTE conference that included Dr. Jung Kim; David and Nicola Yoon and John Cho. Quite often, when we’re talking about race in children’s books, we use Sims Bishop’s analogy of windows and mirrors. But, when Cho talked about books as mirrors, he refers to a study, I believe by Rochat. This researcher found that using mirrors, we can identify 5 stages of self-awareness in babies. They come to recognize themselves; they begin to see how they’re situated in their environment; they will reach for a mark on their body rather than on the mirror because they can distinguish themselves from their image and their self-concept develops. Now, think of stories as mirrors. They don’t just help us see ourselves, but they important to the development of our self-concept.

“Reading and discussing books is one of the most effective ways to get teens to think through and learn about the challenges of adolescence”. ~Laurie Halse Anderson source

When you’re trying to place limits on a person or a group of people, anything that stunts their development will affect the amount of control that can be placed on them. There are those who don’t want children exposed to ideas about gender identity or sexual orientation because… why?? Ideas are dangerous!

“Even those of us who do make it through bear scars. And when queer/trans books are challenged and banned, it says to young people that they are not welcome to be who they are. It tells them to hide and to isolate—a road to mental health disasters.” Alex Gino source

At the core of this is power, right? Rather than rely on one’s skill as a parent to influence their child’s choices, it becomes easier to control to what they’re exposed. This is couched in talk of the common good, critical race theory, making White children feel bad and In protecting them.

What I’ve learned is that people don’t read books that don’t interest them. If you do a diversity audit of my reviews, you’ll see how rarely I read speculative fiction. I can get away with not reading it for my personal reading, to a lesser extent as a blogger (I don’t ever read spec fic unless I’m reviewing it) and not at all as a librarian. As an academic librarian, I acquire as many books for 0-18 year olds across all genres that I can afford on my $2000 budget. I keep A Fine Dessert on my shelf because my library also functions as a research library. My collection isn’t about my personal tastes. Librarians have to know how their collection is used; who their patrons are. We have books for a multitude of users. Librarians hold up mirrors for people who don’t get to see themselves in media too often. Our U.S. constitution gives us the right to do that.

“What you can see with book bannings is that they are tied to whatever is causing anxiety in society,” says Emily Knox, author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America. source

There are very organized groups out there who are mobilized to remove books from shelves, to eradicate ideas of equality and of Blackness, of queerness and other ways of being. It’s confusing that there are efforts to ban books that tell stories of people who are learning to love themselves or to love others, but they’re OK with books about murder and violence. These are the mirrors they’re fine with.

I find the energy put into this attempt at removal alarming because of the dishonest way they’re going abou it. I don’t know if these groups are afraid of the increased backlash there would be if they admitted they don’t want their children reading books by and about Blacks or if they think we’re too ignorant to see behind the veiled misuse of critical race theory. They clearly don’t understand this framework (and by the way, here’s an excellent podcast to help you with it https://overcast.fm/+bnBs7IgZ8) but, I really think our work needs to focus more on the real and imminent threat of book banning.

Tomorrow, I’m attending PEN America’s “Educational Gag Orders: A Virtual Roundtable”.

Check to see if your state has passed or has considered passing ‘harmful materials’ legislation that makes it a felony for schools and libraries to disseminate harmful materials to children. School board members in Florida are using this type of legislation to sue schools. I don’t think they’ll be using the USPS’s definition of harmful materials here.

“Adults don’t want to have complicated conversations with their children,” Jason Reynolds said. source

If you’re lost on all this and have no idea how far reaching these efforts have become, go pick up a copy of Jerry Craft’s Newbery Award winner New Kid or Kelly Yang’s Front Desk from you library and read it. These books have been banned in Katy, Texas. You can go out and buy all the books as we consumers typically do when a book is challenged but, this does nothing to protect the book. I think this increase in purchasing my give publishers a disincentive to worry about bans and challenges because theire profits increase from the rise in sales You could however, buy books and donate them to the young people who are doing the front line work. You could attend school board meetings and pay close attention to whom you’re voting onto the boards.

It’s the young people who are doing the leg work to reverse these bans.

These mirrors that our children need, that our LGBTQIA+, disabled, Native, Black, Asian American, Pacific Island American, Jewish American  and Muslim American children need are also the windows that are needed so they can be seen and to loved.