Book bans are making the news with upsetting regularity lately. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before: Groups who are afraid of change want our culture to elevate only those stories that tell their own myths. Different perspectives and values are not welcome. Stories that threaten their own self-image as “the good guys” are not welcome. Those groups are usually in power, and often have the ability to do at least some harm, if not a great deal of lasting damage. I really don’t have anything new to say in that regard.
But I do want to respond to an article that was published on NBC News’s website last week. Here, take a look.
Nothing unexpected there, right? A large group of library and publishing industry professionals have signed a statement condemning book bans. The article does a nice job explaining why it’s important for children (people of any age, really) to be able to see their own experiences reflected in the stories they’re immersed in. The pithy quote “If you can see it, you can be it” gets thrown around quite a bit when we talk about why it’s important for Disney princesses to represent a range of skin colors and body types; why it’s important to see women and members of racial minorities, especially minority women, in the halls of government and the halls of the C-Suite; right down to why it’s important to have women teaching algebra and PE, and not just home ec. (One presumes it would also be important for boys to see men teaching home ec, but that doesn’t seem to have caught on.)
And I am not here to dispute the truth of the “if you can see it, you can be it” mantra. Representation does matter.
But the article misses a fundamental reason for ensuring access to all kinds of stories for all kinds of kids (and people of any age, really): It is also important for children (people of any age, really) to be able to see other people’s experience, especially if that experience is one that counters the dominate narrative of what life is, should, and can be.
There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of studies and articles demonstrating that reading about someone else’s experience helps build empathy for that person in particular, and people who might share characteristics with that person in general. Here’s one. Here’s another one. Also, there’s this one. Oh look, another one. (That last one is a YouTube video in case you’re tired of, you know, reading.)
I could literally throw studies at you all day, and they all come to similar conclusions: When children (people of any age, really) are exposed to stories of people who are not like them, they understand “those people” better. They are better able to take on the subject’s perspective, to understand why someone might make a decision or take an action that they themselves would not choose, might not even think possible.
In a word, they develop empathy.
And the thing that worries me is not that when all these books are removed from libraries, a young child who is discovering that she would rather play with Tonka trucks than baby dolls will not be able to see stories about children like her. It is not that some children will learn a classroom version of US history in which the Founders were flawless patriots and at home hear another version of history in which generations of their families and communities suffered unending trauma and death at the hands of the Founders and their descendants.
Actually, never mind, that worries me quite a bit.
But what worries me that no one in popular media seems to be talking about is that when these books are removed, the little girls who do like baby dolls and the little boys who do like trucks, not to mention the children who hear the same version of US history at home and at school–you know, the “regular” kids–will never have the chance to know that there are other stories that explain different ways of being in the world and of knowing what is true.
Those children (and people of any age, really) will be at a disadvantage. And they will be dangerous. Those children, and, yes, people of any age, really, will lose the opportunity to learn what it means to live in a community, to learn to care for their neighbors as they are rather than only on the condition of submission to uniformity. Humans are endlessly unique and no community in the history of ever has achieved true uniformity. But trying has been the death-knell for quite a lot of them.
Our libraries, particularly public and tax-funded libraries, need all kinds of books that hold all kinds of stories not just so children (people of any age, really) can find themselves represented but so that they can hear and learn the stories of people who are not like them. The health and survival of our community depends on it.
bell hooks died this week. A thousand bell hooks quotes have inundated my social media feeds and I have read and tried to take in every one of them. This one showed up today:
The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is–it’s to imagine what is possible.bell hooks, Outlaw Culture
Crowder, Travis. “Literacy and Democracy: Engaging Readers, Nudging Humanity.” Literacy Today 37 (1): 42-44.
Johnson, Doug. “Building Capacity for Empathy.” Library Media Connection 27 (4): 98.
Lavietes, Matt. “‘Attack on Books’: Over 600 Authors, Publishers, Groups Condemn Book Bans.” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-life-and-style/attack-books-600-authors-publishers-groups-condemn-book-bans-rcna7910.
McCreary, John J. and Gregory J. Marchant. “Reading and Empathy.” Reading Psychology 38 (2): 182-202.
Zuckerbrod, Nancy. “The Power of Stories.” Scholastic Teacher, March 1, 2019.