Πέμπτη, 10 Ιουλίου 2014

Green Eggs and Politics

When the film “Sarafina!” was released years ago, a well-intentioned friend advised me not to take my sons to see it. The scenes of violent racial oppression in apartheid South Africa would be too much for a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old, he warned. I thanked him for his concerns — and promptly headed to the cinema with my sons.
The scenes he’d mentioned were indeed disturbing, but I knew my boys could take it. What’s more, I regarded bearing witness to them as a necessary part of their education. To be responsible citizens, they needed to know about injustice and how people struggled against it in the United States, as well as other parts of the world. The same is true of books.
Some parents may decide that books that address complicated subjects, like race and gender, are better suited for teenagers and young adults. I respect their choice. But those kinds of books should also be made available for parents like me, who prefer to expose their children to tough issues early in their lives. The sooner my children and grandchildren — all African-American — can learn about what it means to be black in a society still riven by racist attitudes and the uneven application of justice, the better equipped they’ll be to navigate it.
Of course, it is entirely possible for children to develop general knowledge of the world without seeing themselves reflected in the books they read. After all, I did and so did many readers of color in my generation. But that doesn’t make it right. Opportunities to encounter storybook characters that even faintly resembled me were so rare that I remember those discoveries to this day. If not for books like “Two Is A Team” by Lorraine and Jerrold Beim and “Oh, Lord, I Wish I Was A Buzzard” by Polly Greenberg, my first-grade experiences would have been dishearteningly monochromatic. Instead of just becoming a reader, I became someone who loved reading. The difference can be substantial and have far-reaching consequences in our increasingly multicultural society.
 "Ra-JAHN!" I joined the chorus pronouncing our classmate's name to the teacher, who stumbled and tripped over this foreign moniker on her attendance list of white students. I preferred the color of his skin over my own, and I adored hearing about his family in India, but it never would have occurred to me that Rajan was, in some way, different, if some teachers hadn’t pointed it out by mispronouncing his name on a daily basis.

That memory came to mind when I sat down recently with my daughters. Considering the question of whether children's literature should be more political, I decided the ideal starting point was my own kids. As good children of a left-leaning mommy, I anticipated a resounding "Yes!"
But my 10-year-old looked at me as though I had five heads. "Why do I need to read books about that?"
"Because not everyone is white. Not everyone grows up and gets married to a person of the opposite sex," I replied.
My 7-year-old fixed me with a patronizing stare. "What difference does that make?"
Lately, they are obsessed with Rick Riordan's novels. So I asked, "Well, what if Annabeth wasn't in love with Percy? What if she was in love with Hazel Levesque instead?"
"Then the love story is about Annabeth and Hazel. It's still a great story," my oldest patiently explained.
I reminded them of picture books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King that we'd read. I thought I was teaching them not to be little bigots. Truthfully, I was teaching them about overcoming the past cruelties of grown-ups. Do kids need more political literature? No. They naturally understand how to be kind and accepting, until a grown-up teaches them something different. It is not children who need lessons to set aside their prejudices. It is the grown-ups who are reading to them. And a child’s picture books might be the only place where some grown-ups will start learning.
Δημοσίευση σχολίου