Front Porch: Books help children understand the world as it is


I try to have conversations about tough topics with acquaintances of a different mindset than mine. All is not well.

It’s so much harder than I think. For example, there is the mess that is going on about the removal of certain books from schools and the laws passed prohibiting the teaching or, apparently, even the discussion of subjects contained in these books, in schools in general and at the levels schools in particular. And even remove these books from public libraries.

What I see everywhere – in the world and in the conversations I am part of or aware of – is the rapid abandonment of rational discussion and an immediate rush to the margins of all discussion – a place where no real communication cannot take place.

This is probably nowhere more evident than in another third rail topic – women’s reproductive rights – where the most remote and rare potential scenarios are the examples used to support a position.

Statements are thrown around, ranging from near-term babies “ripped” from the womb to stories of 12-year-old incest victims forced to carry to term. None of these things are the mainstream or the preponderance of where most real-world realities live, where most women and girls face their own personal and immediate situations. But extremes fuel debate and therefore stop any real communication or understanding.

It saddens me to see this kind of thing happening now with some of my favorite things in the world – books, all of which are about learning, dreaming, exploring, imagining and questioning.

The magazine’s spokesperson columnist Shawn Vestal wrote a wonderful column last week about libraries, “dangerous” books and challenges to the mind (especially of a child). He has also written about laws to censor libraries.

He described his time at his hometown library as a boy growing up in Idaho and how it broadened his horizons and challenged his brain. And, yes, sometimes what he read had different notions than his family or told stories that frightened him.

I too spent hours in the library as a kid, sitting there reading and also reading books at home. What good memories. And such challenges too, especially when I read above my level of understanding or experience.

I read all the horse books in the children’s section of the public library in Flushing, the part of big New York City where I spent my early years, and all the dog books. And I ventured into other books that caught my eye.

I especially remember reading a story in which a girl was killed. It shocked me and I was moved to think about it and ask him the time and place (Europe during WWII) of his death. And the fact that young people can be killed. The adults in my life gave me answers appropriate to my age.

I was arrested, not triggered.

When the current toxicity of not reading this book peaked, my husband and I, on our small scale, retaliated by buying and reading or re-reading banned books. “The Bluest Eye”, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, “Beloved”, “As I Lay Dying”… and more.

And we share them with friends.

Yes, I have an opinion on this and clearly I’m not a fan of modern book burning (which never did well in history). But I also understand the protective nature of parents and certainly their desire for material to be age appropriate – not to shield a child from their own emerging feelings or concerns, but to receive information in an understandable way.

Today’s kids are online while still wearing diapers. Information comes to them faster and certainly earlier than when I was young, although I remember when I was 6 years old I wondered if black skin was like white skin, so I reached out to touching the hand of an older black woman near me – and, unsurprisingly, learned that it was.

Conversations at home are the most important, of course. But all sorts of thoughts and curiosities are going on, and information (or misinformation) is being shared between our children and grandchildren and their friends on their play dates, all the same. Even among kindergartners in the schoolyard (as my retired teacher friends told me).

How much better is this material on all of these things to be found in books carefully selected by trained librarians and made available in educational environments where it can be safely discussed. And accessible to all in libraries. We can’t stop our children, even very young ones, from hearing about things in the world that is (rather than the world some of us might prefer) – but by hearing they already are.

Let’s stop yelling at each other and really talk about how to be smart, honest, and helpful about it. The children are watching us.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at [email protected]


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