It’s been a depressing week here in Indiana. The state legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the governor is set to sign it into law today. This new law means that businesses can choose not to serve gay people if it goes against their religious beliefs. It will also create a whole host of other potential problems. It’s sickening, it really is. So – if you’re thinking of coming to a conference in Indiana – don’t. If you’re thinking of vacationing here – don’t. Just boycott us and our backward ways all together. And then send an email to Governor Pence telling him why.
Of course, this isn’t really what I want to write about at all. But in a strange way, it’s related. I want to write about the importance of books in children’s lives – all books, any books. I know some parents will disagree with me. I’m hoping I can change their minds.
Would I let my third grade daughter (hypothetically – I don’t have a daughter) read “Fifty Shades of Grey”? Yes. Yes I would. Would I read that book? No. Life is too short for me at this point to read such trash. Why, then, let my daughter (or son) read it? For a number of reasons. I don’t want to censor them at all, because you never know what will spark a kid’s imagination. You never know what will get them hooked on books and learning. Even reading trash may do that. And will they understand everything they read? Maybe not, but they will get something from it. I would also argue that if they don’t find it engrossing in some way, they will put it down. Maybe, to your infinite relief, they will stop reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But censoring what books kids read sends a dangerous message – that learning should be controlled. It shouldn’t be.
I, myself, was a precocious reader. I read “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume in second grade. Did I understand it? You betcha. Was I too young? Maybe not. I would argue the messages young girls get from TV, video games, and movies are far more problematic. Even second graders are aware of looming adolescence, as I was, and it didn’t do any harm to learn about it.
I also read “Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel in fifth grade. It haunts me to this day. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. Yes, kids are incredibly impressionable. Little sponges. And yes I remember that book vividly unlike the book I read two weeks ago. But it sparked something in me. As literature should, it taught me something about the human condition, even in its primitive state.
Reading literature (here I mean literary fiction) teaches empathy, as several recent studies have shown. Here is where I relate what kids are reading to Indiana’s RFRA and Governor Pence – READING TEACHES EMPATHY. It teaches us to feel for other people, people who may be different from us. It gives us a sense of justice. Literature helps us to understand ourselves, and that is the beginning to understanding others and the world around us.
It was disheartening to me to hear about a friend of a friend complain that her son was being required to read one of the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She said, “What does that have to do with my son or his life?” It has everything to do with his life – because it might get him interested in something new, something that some day may take over his life in a good way. Might lead him to do great things. And, of course, it will teach him something about history, about hardship, about the lives of others and might make him a better human being.
It is dangerous and undermining to our very humanity to believe that only books that are “relatable” to our existence should be read. There was a very good article in The New Yorker about this, called “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”. It’s important stuff. (Thanks to Osvaldo for posting on Facebook!) We need to understand so much about the world, and reading about different people, cultures, histories etc. etc. is a good place to start.
I also want to argue that reading dark material to children is a good idea. An article by Jill Eisenberg in a blog called “The Open Book” – “Why I Love to Read Sad and Dark Books to Children (and You Should Too)” also makes this point. (Thanks Marah for posting this on Facebook!) I don’t subscribe to the view that everything around children should be happy happy joy joy. Children need to understand the sad stuff in life – so they are prepared to deal with things in a complex way. So they can be empathetic. So they don’t dismiss their own feelings. For so many reasons.
I want to see the new “Cinderella” movie. It’s gotten good reviews, and good for Kenneth Brannagh for making a movie that is genuine and not ironic, with a wink wink to the audience. I hate that shit. It is the same story as the Disney animated movie from the 1950s. Same happy ending. That’s fine. It’s Charles Perrault’s version as well. But there’s another version – the Brothers Grimm, where Cinderella does NOT forgive her stepmother or stepsisters, and where birds peck out their eyes at the end of the story. Children should read this version too. My problem with Disney is that it has a monopoly in our culture. It’s the ONLY version kids and their parents know. Did you know that the original The Little Mermaid does not have a happy ending? Kids need to know that there’s not always a happy ending, no prince in sight, and life might work out anyway. We need a greater understanding of how complicated life can be, how glorious, how wonderful, how miserable, how sad – we need it all, to make us better, to make us more fulfilled, to help our problem solving skills. We need to understand the dark as well as the light, and literature can do this for us and our children.
So read to your children, people! Please! And let them choose the books they want to read, whatever they may be.
Gee, I wish Governor Pence and his cronies had read more in childhood. I wish their parents had been better. We are all paying the price now.