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Battle of the Books

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more you will grow.

By Featured, Literature

Illustration by Shu Yin (Kitty) Lai

Growing up, I devoured books like candy. Dr. Seuss taught me the alphabet. I identified with Lily the mouse and her purple plastic purse. I pictured myself solving mysteries alongside the Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew. In middle school, I was an active and willing participant of a competition called Battle of the Books, where my team of four equally nerdy friends read a list of books and answered trivia questions about them for a prize. If you haven’t caught on by now, I really liked books when I was a kid. 

As a grown-up preschool teacher, my appreciation for books continued to flourish. Books were the seeds I used to plant new ideas in my little students’ heads, and I built lesson plans around them. Whether my baby besties were sad or happy or sleepy or cranky or hungry or all of the above, books were always the answer. When I couldn’t find the perfect book to read to my favorite little humans, I started creating my own. 

“OK!” you’re probably musing now, “This lady loves books. Why do I care?” I’m reflecting on my obsession with literature because the United States has (once again) entered a “Battle of the Books” in the form of book bans. If you read the news or you’ve been to the United States’ basement (otherwise known as Florida) you’ve probably noticed an effort in some communities to remove books from libraries that are deemed “inappropriate” for children. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of this in schools all over the U.S. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the attempted number of book bans reached an all record high of 1,269, which is double the attempts in 2021.

Groups like Moms for Liberty claim to focus on excluding content that is sexually explicit, violent, or disturbing. Predictably, the forbidden titles are disproportionately about race or queerness. Katy Waldman notes in her article What Are We Protecting Children From by Banning Books?, that two of the most widely “criminalized” titles are Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. Other books frequently subtracted from school libraries include, but are not limited to: Multiple works by Toni Morrison; Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth; and  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which is about a Black girl growing up in a predominantly white community.

 Right about now you must be asking yourself, “Why does this girl’s opinion on book bans matter so much?” (I know, I’m a mind reader AND an avid book reader.) Well, I’m inclined to agree with you. Luckily, after teaching for five years and human-ing for over thirty, I know some pretty amazing teachers, and a few of them graciously agreed to let me to share their thoughts on book bans as well.

 

Vicar Vica-Etta Steel was a beloved educator in Madison, Wisconsin for decades (and my teacher for kindergarten and first grade!) before she made the decision to fully transition in her fifties. She is currently pursuing a second career within the faith community. “Representation matters,” Vica replied when I asked her about the importance of including books with gender- nonconforming characters, “I spent decades believing women like me were not supposed to exist. I wonder, if I’d seen girls like me growing up, could I have avoided the irreversible changes of a puberty that was not meant for me? Our children, under attacks telling them that they do not belong, striving to make them undergo the irreversible changes of unchecked puberties, need to see that they are not alone and that we who fight for our existence in this world also belong.”

 I’m also not the only educator-plus-author out there: Two of the most magical teachers I know recently published children’s books centering Black characters and stories. I met Alexis “Mr. Alexis” Dean through the Schools of Hope AmeriCorps project. (Where he won service member of the year!) A teacher, writer, and clean hip hop artist, Alexis is also the author of “Finding Me,” a musical book for kids. “ ‘Finding Me’ was the first book I’ve ever written,” Alexis says, “and it’s about a child trying to find a place where he feels he belongs. Belonging is an important feeling for a child, but many schools fail at this for Black children. I wanted to write a book which demonstrates how a school can be a welcoming and loving environment. A child having access to books like this can give a child hope.”

Haley Graack is another incredible educator, artist, and now author of the children’s book, “City Walk.” “As a preschool teacher and mother,” Haley said, “I quickly recognized which books attract children and why, but also how many of them missed the mark in the representation of my students as well as my own child. Children want and need books that inspire them and give them doors and windows to the world.”

To echo my colleagues’ statements, representation matters. I was obsessed with bookish female characters not only because I wanted to be them, but because I recognized myself in them. When we find ourselves in a book, we find sanctuary there. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of adult Americans haven’t read a single book in the past year. That’s a pretty scary statistic. Books challenge ideas, open minds, and make space for people’s hearts to grow. Kids deserve to build a lifetime bond with reading, and seeing themselves on library shelves will motivate them to start turning pages. 

While wandering around Brooklyn during SAIC spring break, I serendipitously stumbled upon a store called Books Are Magic. I quickly found myself in the children’s section holding a copy of A Kids Book About Banned Books in my hand. The introduction reads, “Books raise questions, especially about unfamiliar ideas and situations. We think that’s wonderful, and that questions which start conversations are always a good thing.” Here’s the thing: Books are magic. Book bans, in contrast, are unethical, bigoted, and antithetical to democracy. 

Sadly, weaponizing the “safety” of women and children to rationalize the oppression of marginalized groups is not original. Politicians hiding behind “protection” as a justification for bigotry is as American as apple pie. It wasn’t about water fountains in the 1950’s, or bathrooms in the 2000’s, and it’s not really about books now: This literary satanic panic is a red herring meant to evoke an emotional response and distract people from having real conversations about systemic racism, income inequality, and human rights. Ultimately, if children are old enough to experience racism, oppression, or queerness, then all children are old enough to read about it in books.  

More books I’d Recommend to Teachers, parents, kids at heart, or pretty much anyone:

  1. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
  2. Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder
  3. Stamped by Ibram X Kendi and Jason Reynolds
  4. City Walk by Haley Graack (Contact Haley at [email protected] to order a copy) 
  5. Finding Me by Alexis Dean (@1lexdateacher on Instagram, find him on Spotify at L.E.X.)
  6. Yoko by Rosemary Wells
  7. Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer
  8. All Are Welcome by Alexa Penfold
  9. Pink is For Boys by Robb Pearlman 
  10. My Own Way: Celebrating Gender Freedom for kids by Joana Estrela 

Finally, find more resources via Embrace Race, and follow Vicar Vica Etta Steel on Tik Tok and Instagram @vicavsteel. 

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