A few weeks after I arrived to spend a year with a German family in Berlin, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. They gave me two books: The Diary of Anne Frank and Cry, the Beloved Country. These two books informed my life as no other books have.
Until then I had no knowledge of the Holocaust, no idea that the Nazis had murdered six million Jews. As a Southern girl who rode the city bus to school, sat while Black women and men who’d worked all day stood at the back, I’d given no thought to American racism and knew absolutely nothing about South Africa. Both books were hard to read, not because of vocabulary or complex sentences, but because they burst my bubble of innocence.
Did I feel guilt, as some parents and school boards fear their children will react? No. I felt empathy. I cried over a girl my age being killed because she was a Jew. I ached because Black characters I knew by name suffered under apartheid in South Africa. I began to wonder about the lives of Jewish kids in my school back home. I thought about tensions related to racial integration in American schools.
WHY do we read? I read to better understand my own experience. Anne Tyler’s and Margaret Atwood’s books about women come to mind. They show me that I’m not alone in how I feel. In Well-Read Black Girl, Black women writers tell what it meant to them as girls to discover the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
I also read to better understand unfamiliar people and cultures. To learn about Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, I have read authors such as Khaled Hosseini. To better understand the experiences of Black women I have read books by Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison.
What else are parents and school boards objecting to? Profanity. Have they listened to their children in conversation with friends? Violence and sex. Have these parents organized protests against film and television producers who “entertain” their children? Are they monitoring the video games their children play?
I see no easy solutions to the pervasiveness of sex and violence in our culture. But I trust teachers and librarians to steer our youth toward books that broaden their worldview.
And that foster an understanding of Other,