Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The ABCs of Book Banning

I recently watched the Academy Award nominated short documentary The ABCs of Book Banning, in which director Sheila Nevins, turns the camera on children between the ages of 8 and 16 who attend schools impacted by the wave of school book banning that has taken place in parts of the US.

In this public discourse, we've heard from parents, we've heard from policy makers, we've heard from the media, but this film is one of few efforts that strives to listen to children who have been directly effected by having certain books removed from their libraries and classrooms. And they have questions.

I've embedded the entire film below because the children's voices are far more persuasive than anything I could write. Of course, I'm not surprised at their clear-sightedness both about book banning as well as the subject matters being banned. As a preschool teacher I've read and discussed several of these banned books to and with young children and have been deeply moved by the compassion, insight, and thoughtfulness of the resulting age-appropriate conversations about race, gender, history, diversity, and identity.

Those who support these book bans argue that to broach these subjects in school is to violate their parental rights. They worry that their innocent children will be made to feel guilty for historic wrongs. They worry that their innocent children will be confused and upset to learn that other people have experiences and perspectives that differ from those of their own families. At the extreme, they worry that these books, if allowed to sit alongside the shelves and shelves of "approved" books, will somehow "brainwash" their innocent child. 

"Later," most of them say, but not now, not when they are so innocent. Innocent is another word for ignorant.

I don't recall a time when I wasn't aware of the Nazis. Some of my earliest drawings were elaborate war scenes in which the good guys were shooting Nazis. By the time I was in middle school I'd read The Diary of Anne Frank and knew enough about the Holocaust to fantasize about traveling back in time to, if not assassinate Hitler, at least, as the author of the book Monsters Clair Dederer puts it, "spritz (my) enlightened-ness all over the place." After all, the German people simply must not have known. They must not have known what was happening because if they did, of course, they would never have allowed such evil to occur.

"We imagine," writes Dederer, "we would've been that person, the one who would've written the letter, who would've spoken out, would've hidden the Jews, would've provided the stop on the Underground Railroad . . . We say this to ourselves as the world literally burns, as militarized police forces murder citizens, as children are held in camps at our own borders . . . The idea of time -- laden with the badness that came "before" -- and our apex at the top of it is a way of distancing ourselves from the negative aspects of humanity. The idea of the Past functions in the same way the word "monster" does -- it serves to separate us from all that is worst about humanity. We are the adults of the world. we have outgrown our worst behaviors. We are not monsters. That is not us. We cast history, and monsters, out from our enlightened circle."

Ultimately, this is what all of us do, not just book banners, especially when it comes to young children. Let them be innocent (ignorant) for awhile longer.

I get it. I shielded my own five-year-old daughter from 9/11, an effort that got me tearfully scolded by her when she learned about it as an eight-year-old: "You mean it happened when I was alive? You have to tell me these things!" I skipped the pages in my books that discussed the assassination of MLK because I wanted the kids to be inspired the man's work, not frightened that his work got him killed. I'm meticulous in listening to children's questions about "touchy" subjects so that I can be certain that I'm only answering, honestly, the questions they ask and not confuse or scare them with too much information.

The problem with arguments that rely on childhood innocence is that the children themselves do not want to be ignorant as the children in this documentary make clear. We are compelled by biology to grow and learn alongside loving adults. The books I read to preschoolers may not reveal the whole, unvarnished truth, but they do tend to answer the questions that we should all be asking:

Why are some people different from me?

Why is there pain?

Why are things so unfair?

These are questions we are born to ask, born to discuss, and born to seek to answer. When we "protect" children from considering these questions, from looking at the world from new perspectives, we seek to separate them from life itself, to tell them the myth (and they know it's a myth from the moment they emerge into a world that is too bright and too loud) that they live in a largely perfected world.

It's no wonder that so many children feel betrayed by adults as they grow up to learn the truths from which we, in our own ignorance, have attempted to protect them.

I've not read all the book mentioned in this documentary, but I've read enough of them to know that their focus is not on the worst of humanity, but rather on the triumphs of those who display the best of humanity in the face of horrors: courage, honesty, kindness, justice, and wisdom. These are stories of human goodness are every bit as true as the ones about evil. These are stories our children will need to know if they are going to be the ones who stand up to evil, not in a time-travel fantasy of spritzing their enlightened-ness all over the place, but rather to be the heroes of today, who write the letters, speak out, hide the Jews, and provide stops on the Underground Railroad. After all, now is the only time that virtue has any value.

I watched this documentary with teary eyes, moved by these children who are already so much wiser than many of their elders. I imagine you will feel the same way.



Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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