December 11, 2021 — I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. I was read to as a child, and I witnessed two parents reading every day, from the weekly and daily newspapers we received to their respective alumni magazines and books that reflected their own interests. My mom took my brother and me to the library weekly. When I was old enough, I could go on my own. My mother and grandmother were in “literary” sororities, and our family was often engaged in whatever book each of them was to present that year.
I know that I was extremely fortunate to come from a family of readers. Even my paternal grandmother, who left school in the fourth grade, made a weekly trip to the library. My parents were both teachers, and reading was sacrosanct in our home.
After moving to the country in 1966, I lost my town playmates. As a result, I became even more of a serious reader. I rode my bike into town, and the big basket held four or five books. I liked reading current fiction, history, and especially biography. I particularly liked the books by Arthur Hailey. So when I checked out the novel “Hotel,” the librarian called my mom to suggest Hailey was inappropriate reading for me. I think I was about 12 or 13. The librarian — you can’t make this up — was named Marian. I am not kidding. She was a dear person who started the literary sororities in our little town in the 1930s. (When I wrote my first book and did a well-attended book signing at my hometown library, I stopped by her nursing home to give her a copy of the book.)
But here’s the most important aspect of the Arthur Hailey story. My parents felt I could handle the book and allowed me to read it. Before my father taught agriculture, he taught biology, and difficult subjects weren’t hidden from us. I can’t for the life of me remember what the objectionable part of the book was, but I know I enjoyed “Airport,” “Hotel,” and other Hailey books. I doubt seriously that my parents would have let me read pornography; in fact, I’m sure of it. But they had been guiding what I read and heard from before the time I could read.
Not every book is appropriate for every child. My husband is a librarian and made a summer reading list for our son when he was young. I didn’t always agree with every book (Jackie Collins), but I trusted my husband. We also discussed almost everything you can imagine in our house. Our son still is a huge reader in his spare time and doesn’t seem to have ill effects from reading great literature like Huck Finn in junior high or that blasted Collins book. And why? Because he had parents and teachers and other family members who were readers and talked to him about what he read.
In reading, we can learn not to fear what we don’t understand. One comment from the New York Times article really stood out to me, “Mr. Krause, who compiled the list of 850 books that might “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” because of race or sex, did not respond to interview requests. Nor did his aides explain why he drew up the list, which includes a book on gay teenagers and book banning, “The Year They Burned the Books” by Nancy Garden; “Quinceañera,” a study of the Latina coming-of-age ritual by the Mexican Jewish academic Ilan Stavans; and a particularly puzzling choice, “Cynical Theories” by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, which is deeply critical of leftist academic theorizing, including critical race theory.”
Feeling discomfort, guilt, and anguish? When I read that, my mind went immediately to Colin Craven, the frail hero of my favorite childhood book, “The Secret Garden.” Reading about Colin for the first time in the late 1960s, I remember feeling “discomfort, guilt, and anguish.” Colin was alone most of the time; he had no friends. My life was so different. Yet “The Secret Garden” was such a profound book for me as a child and taught me so much. Here’s something else shocking. I was reading Philip Roth fairly early. I will note that I liked “Goodbye, Columbus” better than “Portnoy’s Complaint.” (And if you haven’t read, “The Plot Against America,” well, you should.)
I suspect any child reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will feel many emotions about Jim, the enslaved man. How can we hide that enslaved people built our country? Children need to know these things. For children below high school age, parents need to engage in and understand what their children are reading. I do not support a random school board telling the librarians what to buy and teaching the teachers.
When I was in high school seven thousand years ago, I worked as a writer for my high school newspaper. During my junior or senior year, the high school moved to a “Phase Elective English” program. Rather than teaching literature the way it had been taught in Indiana for a hundred years, classes were offered by topic, Shakespeare, Love Stories, Poetry of Relevance, etc. One of the sections was the “Man Series.” Unfortunately, I cannot remember anything about it and could not find any references on Google.
I remember that the high school administration, school board, and community members felt it was inappropriate for high school juniors and seniors and pulled it off the schedule. Our high school paper editor wanted to tackle this in the newspaper, but the advisor did not allow him to do so. They compromised by his putting out a “mimeographed” (oh, remember the pervasive, mind-altering odor of mimeo fluid?) opinion that this class and subsequent books should not be banned.
The phase elective class I took was the best class I had in high school. I kept the books (one for each semester). This book compared current (the late sixties) poems with current songs. We studied Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I am Waiting.” We studied the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” This class dragged me into loving classic poetry by showing me the parallels with modern music. Today these books are on my desk, dog-eared and beloved, along with my Helen Ferris’ anthology of famous poems and volumes by Dickinson, Yeats, Kipling, and others. I’m so glad that wasn’t tagged with the same brush as the will-never-see Man Series.
If you are a parent or grandparent, don’t give up your rights to random strangers. Trust teachers and librarians. They are not trying to indoctrinate your children. On the contrary, this group has trained to help children understand our complex world. As the daughter of teachers and the wife of a college librarian and faculty member, I can assure you that people don’t become teachers for any reason other than loving children and teaching. It sure is not for the money or the glamour.
You do your children no favors by hiding them from the reality of slavery or carnage European immigrants heaped upon indigenous peoples. Sometimes cliches fit the bill, and this one does, “Those of us who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.”
Please share on your social media. Indie writers need love, also. Cross-posted on Medium.
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