A few months ago, a long-awaited moment in my life happened: my 8-year-old daughter reluctantly let me read an excerpt from my favorite childhood book, Harriet the spy. When I opened my original copy, now faded, yellowed and torn, and started reading about this judged tomboy who is determined to be a writer, I had butterflies in my stomach. But they stop a few pages later, when Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, introduces Harriet to Ole Golly’s mother, who is obese. For several pages, Harriet keeps recalling Ms Golly’s physique, describing her as a ‘mountain’, bursting out of her clothes, with ‘ham hands’. She suffers from some sort of mental disability, possibly dementia. “That fat lady wasn’t very smart,” thinks Harriet.
When I finished the chapter, I closed the book and reminded my daughter that people come in all sizes and it’s not okay to make a fuss about someone’s appearance. . And I talked about his grandfather, my father, who had dementia all his life — he had a problem with his brain, I said, which wasn’t his fault.
We have these conversations a lot about older books. The girl in The Secret garden was born in India and is downright cruel to the locals who work for her family, calling them “pigs”. Stuart Little is kind of a sexist jerk. The babysitters club The series has modern moments, but the books shouldn’t always call Claudia a “terrible student” when she struggles with math and reading, but seems clearly destined for a successful career in art or fashion. And as the only Asian character, she’s consistently portrayed exotically, with “beautiful almond-shaped black eyes” and “jet-black hair.”
“Stuart Little is kind of a sexist moron.”
I do not have to forbid one of these books; they are still sitting on my child’s shelf. But I would prefer her to read them with me so that we can talk about the many harsh asides they contain.
Not all children’s books should be set in a politically correct utopia where difference is celebrated and everyone is sweet and kind. There’s a reason schools teach lord of the flies and The Merchant of Venice, though cruelty is rampant in both. It is important for children to learn that life is not a computer utopia and to develop tools to think about and deal with it.
That said, I also think it makes sense to revisit some of the books we consider classics and ask ourselves if the moments they depict are truly teachable or just plain cruel. If the latter, perhaps they should be part of a classroom, not the library, so teachers can talk to kids about what they’re reading and help them put it into a modern context.
But we seem unable to have rational conversations about books in school, mostly because of fear. On one side of the conversation, adults who want children to have access to books by various authors and subjects are afraid of being called “groomers” who seek to “make” all children gay or trans; on the other side, we have adults who are afraid of exposing children to ugly moments in history or to different kinds of people with compassion. But those conversations matter, especially since Central Bucks adopted a new ban on books with “sexualized content”, and Pennsylvania has the second highest number of book bans of any state (after Texas).
So let me start. I believe we should revisit some older books that may make some children feel hurt or unwelcome in the world. (This is revisitnot to forbid.) But the books I suggest reviewing are not the books that are likely to be banned by Central Bucks and other school districts in the state, that target books that include LGBTQ characters, or that deal with race or of racism. I want my daughter to read the often banned books The bluest eye and Gender Queer: A Memoireven though she’s not LGBTQ herself — I want to open her mind and heart to people who are different from her.
READ MORE: Why I’m taking my kid to Philly Pride
One of my favorite days of the year is Philly Pride, and I take my kid whenever I can. This year, the children’s area included a section of books with author dedications, and she begged me to buy her a book called When Aidan became a brother, about a trans boy, and how he and his family learn from his experience as they welcome a new sibling. “You taught us how important it is to love someone for exactly who they are,” Aidan’s mother tells him.
My daughter loves this book, and so do I. It’s a great story about family, acceptance, and a kid just trying to be himself. I hope reading Aidan will help give my daughter the the courage to be herself, to know that she deserves to feel loved and accepted no matter what.
And I hope she always remembers the inscription that author Kyle Lukoff (who is also trans) included for her when we asked her to sign her copy. “Thank you for being a part of this world,” he wrote.
Alison McCook is an associate opinion editor at The Inquirer.