“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents,” says author Emilie Buchwald. That’s a nice cuddly sort of sentiment, isn’t it? But she’s right. Most of us with children do read to them, almost from birth. It’s one of the best tools we have to introduce them to the vast new world around them.
We read to teach colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and textures. To teach them about animals and flowers, babies, and brothers and sisters, mommies and daddies. We read to teach them about themselves and living among others, about their world and their place in it. We read to help them learn to think. And in the process, we fervently hope – in fact it’s our duty – that we spark in them a sense of curiosity and a love of words, both so powerful that they will learn and love to read and to seek out answers on their own.
There’s an old joke about bringing up kids that goes something like this: We spend the first two years of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk. Then we spend the next sixteen trying to get them to sit down and shut up. Isn’t it more or less the same thing when, after we teach and encourage our children to explore the world through reading, we allow a book to be removed from a school curriculum or public library shelf because a vocal parent or small group in some way objects to its contents?
It happens more often that you might think. Every year, for the past thirty years, the American Library Association has recorded all reported challenges and bans of books in schools and public libraries in the United States. That’s hundreds of challenges every year. And those are only the reported ones. The ALA estimates that four out of five challenges go unreported. Most of the challenges come from well-intentioned parents trying to protect their children from some difficult idea or information. And that would be within their rights if they were protecting their children. The problem, however, is that challenges and bans might also deprive other children whose parents don’t share the same objections.
The challenging or banning of a book is akin to pulling the reading rug right out from under our kids. Take a look at the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books of the 21st century. You’ll see that along with the usual characters – Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on – are a host of children’s and young adult books, the very books that we should be thrilled that our children are reading.
Reading is an active process of discovery. Our children will encounter new ideas and new ways of thinking; it’s bound to happen more and more as advances in technology continue to shrink our world and move us ever closer to true globalization. If as responsible parents we embrace such encounters as teachable moments, helping our kids “enter into a dialogue” with what they are reading, instead of saying, emphatically, “NO, you can’t read that,” we will teach our children to truly think for themselves, to consider the tough questions of our world, to make it a better and more accepting place.
In a nation that bemoans the fact that our educational system and student performances are lagging behind those of other developed nations, why would we ever even consider, if we hope to regain the intellectual edge, denying our children the opportunity to think by preventing them from exploring through reading? It may not sound quite as cuddly as what Emilie Buchwald says, but what a world of good we could do if we made our children thinking “readers on the laps of their parents,” and then let them read to their hearts’ content.
The American Library Association’s 30th Anniversary Banned Books Week observance is September 30-October 6. Join your Howard County neighbors and supporters of your First Amendment rights. Celebrate your freedom to read by reading a banned book – or by sharing one with your children.
Assistant Professor of English
Howard Community College