As someone whose understanding of social justice issues comes mostly from having to seek out information on my own, I think it's awesome whenever schools try to start teachings kids about some of this stuff early. Not everyone agrees, however. Parents in Wake County, North Carolina are apparently upset that an elementary school assigned books addressing racism and "ethnic class struggles" as part of a 4th grade book club. Because how dare anyone hint to 9- and 10-year-old children that the world isn't always fair or perfect.
The two books in question are Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, a story set during the Great Depression in which a once wealthy girl from Mexico is forced to move to Southern California with her mother, and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, in which three sisters spend a summer with the mother who abandoned them and attend a day camp run by the Black Panthers in the 1960s. Both books are award winners, and are intended for ages 9–12. (And as someone who read Esperanza Rising at around that age, I can certify that it's a fantastic book).
So what's the problem?
Some parents didn't consider the books appropriate, and rather than reaching out to the school, contacted Stop Common Core NC, a website run by the conservative Civitas Institute.
“These are difficult contentious topics even when age appropriate,” Bob Luebke, a senior policy analyst with Civitas, told the New Observer. “Nine years old is not appropriate for topics like this.”
In other words, children should be kept in a protective bubble for as long as possible and never even know that injustice even exists in the world. Because that is certainly setting them up well to deal with reality. I'm not saying that we need to hit kids over the head with the true horrors of injustice that are out there — although it's also worth noting that young children, especially children of color, are by no means exempt from experiencing these issues first hand. But there is a difference between trying to ease kids into certain concepts and trying to keep them ignorant of the world around them.
Letting children read novels geared towards their age group in a structured, school setting where adults are equipped to answer questions and provide context for any difficult topics is the very definition of responsible teaching.
Though, given that a statement put out by the Civitas Institute also decalres that "Wake County Public Schools have a responsibility to educate our children with materials that are not only age-appropriate but also reflect the values and standards of the surrounding community," I have a sneaking suspicion at least part of their issue is with the way in which these novels disrupt the status quo and challenge various aspects of white supremacy. But of course I could be wrong. It's fairly outrageous either way.
Fortunately, the school does not seem to be caving to pressure.
"Both of these books are widely-acclaimed titles," Rusty Taylor, who is with Wake County Public Schools Library Services, told ABC11. "They are both award winners." He added, "Kids today see a world that is rapidly changing. One of the things they want to know most is that there is somebody who will give them support through difficult times. ... And that's what happens to these two kids in these books."
The principal, Dr. Tanner Gamble, has also stated that he's disappointed parents didn't come to him first, and that the school can of course provide alternate titles for parents who feel strongly. But he gave no indication that the books in question will be withdrawn.
That's great, because in a multicultural world and an increasingly multicultural, pluralistic country, keeping children in the dark about other cultures and perspectives does no one — including the children themselves — any favors.