By Censoring School Books, Library Shelves Prevent Children From Discovering the Wider World: Mary Robin Craig

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — I was one of those kids who learned to read – probably by osmosis – long before I started school. My own children took much longer to get started, but the result was the same: we were all readers.

In the garden, in the treehouses, under the blankets, on planes and trains, at the table, we always read everything that came to hand, from cereal boxes to classics, from children’s series to Moby-Dick.

From this summer’s stories we learn that populations of parents and school board members in many communities are on the march, literally and metaphorically, determined to limit access to books in classrooms and school libraries. Sometimes I’m angry; sometimes confused and sometimes sad.

Especially sad.

Reverend Mary Robin Craig is a retired Presbyterian minister and still a mother, grandmother and educator.

When I was seven years old and in CE1, my mother and my little brother were killed in a car accident. Because I read constantly and widely, I was not defeated by this event. I learned from characters like Heidi, like Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden,” like Nancy Drew, and like Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” that girls who grow up without a mother are resourceful, determined, creative, and independent.

Would I have developed the strengths I had as a young girl without these fictional friends?

I was the only girl in my primary school without a mother, but in the books a much wider world of experiences as well as guides and role models opened up for me.

What I haven’t read is also significant.

I lived in a rural area populated almost entirely by white Christians. I was introduced to George Washington Carver and Sacagawea by the Childhoods of Famous Americans series sitting on my grandmother’s hallway shelves, but the educators of my time and place intentionally did not provide children with elementary age of books about lives lived in different cultures or contexts. They didn’t think to add reading material on racial, gender, or multi-faith issues.

It wasn’t about worrying about the fragile minds of children; it was just that few people in my kind of community cared about these issues.

I’m sure people who were members of various minority groups were frustrated and angered by the absence of their people from children’s books, but in my little world, we didn’t know that. We would have needed books about other people to know who they were and what their lives and concerns were about.

We live in a different world today.

I live in a diverse suburb and my granddaughter is a mix of colors and nationalities, so I’m always on the lookout for books that uplift black and brown girls and women as leaders and accomplished people. I was grateful when one of her aunts sent brown dollhouse figurines and another sent a basket full of dolls representing different walks of life.

As she learns to read on her own and begins to explore the world through books, I suspect we will engage in many dinnertime conversations about the conflicts and controversies on this planet. I don’t expect her to wither at the thought of the evils that have been perpetrated by some peoples upon others. I hope she will ask lots of questions and come up with lots of discussion topics for all of us.

I dream that she will become a strong, powerful and compassionate seeker of justice.

So, yes, I am mostly saddened when I read (!) and hear about books taken off the shelves of schools and libraries.

Maybe parents believe they can shield their little ones from the realities of this world. Certainly protection against violence and fear is appropriate when it comes to young children.

But as children grow in age and curiosity, it is crucial that they are also encouraged to develop their understanding and ability to engage with the larger world of which they are a part.

Reverend Mary Robin Craig is a retired Presbyterian minister and still a mother, grandmother and educator.

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