I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood reading life these days. In the past few weeks I’ve read accounts on social media about librarians and school districts deciding not to give students access to books because of their desire to protect children from exposure to the situations described by the author in the story. I started reflecting on my own book choices as a young reader and the books that were available to me. I wondered if my choices had been limited in any way by the adults in my life–from family members to teachers and my librarian. (I say “my librarian” because I was blessed to have an amazing librarian who worked both in my school and at the public library. She certainly knew what I was checking out, and only limited me to what I could carry in one trip!)
After thinking through the ways in which I acquired books as a child, I came to realize that I was pretty much a free-range reader. My mom certainly supported my reading habit from a very young age by giving me books at every turn–both through school book orders and also buying books that she knew I would enjoy reading. She put books in my hands constantly, all of which are still on my bookshelves. My reputation in the family as an avid reader led others to give me books as well–on my birthday, for Christmas, and sometimes “just because”. One aunt, in particular, took care to send me books that she knew would be important for me to read, ones that I may not have tried on my own. All those books are on my bookshelves as well.
But besides the books that people gave me, I had the run of the library. I don’t remember anyone ever discouraging me from reading anything that I had chosen, and I checked out books by the pile. I was a pretty solitary reader, not really discussing my books with others, but I also don’t remember anyone ever checking to see what sorts of books I was taking home. Reading was encouraged, and as I think about it, my family placed a lot of trust in me as a reader.
It’s also important to say that I grew up in a very conservative family, in a very conservative Midwestern small town. If ever there were a place in which a child’s book choices would be monitored, that would have been it! In addition, I was (ok…still am) the poster child for being naive. I have always received my share of teasing for needing the obvious explained to me! My best example of this is the story of when a very pregnant eighth grader from another district joined my class and I didn’t understand why she didn’t participate in gym with us. We were in EIGHTH GRADE–I had to have been about 14 years old, for goodness sake–and she was heavily pregnant with TWINS! I just didn’t get it. In fact, it took me the whole day to figure it out, and when it occurred to me that this was the case, I had to ask my friends if they thought that such a thing could possibly be true. They just rolled their eyes at me…
So, as an example of the kind of child who others certainly would have wanted to “protect”, I just want to say how grateful I am that I had the ability to choose any book on any topic to read. I remember choosing books that confused me. I remember choosing books about topics WAY beyond my small town experiences. I also remember looking back at those books later in life (after I grew up a little bit) and untangling all that confusion with amazement at what I had missed. A lot of things went over my head! At that same time, I learned about the wider world through the stories I read. I learned about people, about situations, about tragedy and victory over tragedy. Books—their authors— were my teachers. I chose what I read wisely—I wasn’t interested in inappropriate things—but I was interested in stories about situations beyond my little world.
Now I am a teacher. And in my twenty-some years of teaching I have come across many, many situations. Many people. Many tragedies. I know that I have been better able to understand and handle the realities of life because of the stories that I have read. I have processed tough topics through the experiences of characters in books before I had to face them in real life. And in doing so, I hope that I am better equipped to be empathetic and supportive to the families that I meet who are in crisis. And, as the cherry on top, I am also able to direct kids to books and stories that may help them process the hard things that are happening in their lives and the lives of their classmates because I remember reading them myself.
In the end, as a teacher who loves sharing books with children, I know I will always take care when matching books to readers. When I lead a child to a book, I will do so in the context of the relationship that we have and what I know about that child as a reader. It is a precious privilege to share books with kids, and it comes with responsibility. But I also believe in the power of “found” books as well. When kids scan the bookshelves, looking for their next read, there is value in coming across a wide variety of books that give light to all kinds of topics. The books with the hard topics need to be on our shelves. It may be that some of the situations described may go over their heads, like they did with me. But most importantly, the characters in those books will lead to building an understanding with our kids. They will start making connections and learning about the hearts of others. In the overwhelming challenges facing our world today, there is not much that is more important than learning to understand each other, to make heart connections with people who are different from us. I learned (and continue to learn) those lessons from precious people–authors. Who better to give us those stories than those who have the gift of writing for children? The stories need to be told because they reflect the realities of life. Then the stories should be shared–read, talked about, read again and shared with others. They give us a window to understanding the experience of others in such a way that we grow in our own capacity to be of help to those around us. It is my hope that these conversations continue with the goal of books (even those with the tough topics) being shared and discussed with any reader who wants to open their covers and explore the world inside. We can trust our kids as readers–we need to let them explore, discover, ask questions, and grow. AND we can trust our authors to give them the stories that will lead the way.
This post was inspired by the debate around the book “The Seventh Wish” by Kate Messner. This book is written for middle grade children and describes a wonderful young character who in the course of the story discovers that her big sister is addicted to drugs. Since its publication, there have been some librarians who have expressed their reluctance to include this book on their shelves because they feel some of their younger readers should not be exposed to such a situation. I have not yet read “The Seventh Wish”, but it sounds right up my alley—as it would have been when I was a younger reader myself. I look forward to adding it to my TBR stack, and hope the discussions around it will lead to a better understanding of why we need books just like this in the hands of our kids.