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Don’t be frightened, it’s just a book

UlannCoutts freshman Lane Tech holds up book 'Persepolis' written by Marjane Satrapiprotest Friday banning book by Chicago Public Schools.

Ulanna Coutts, a freshman at Lane Tech, holds up the book "Persepolis," written by Marjane Satrapi,at a protest Friday to the banning of the book by Chicago Public Schools. | Ting Shen~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 21, 2013 6:28AM



Can children be hurt by books?

I’m not talking about the lifelong lower back problems, herniated discs and such, that no doubt will come from dragging around those text-crammed 35-pound backpacks. Sometimes I go to relocate a backpack belonging to one of our boys from the center of the living room floor, and it’s like trying to pick up a fire hydrant.

I mean in the sense — always unspoken, always just assumed to be true — behind every book-banning controversy, such as the still-smoldering brush fire set off when the Chicago Public Schools booted Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” off its seventh-grade curriculum.

Could reading a certain book hurt a child?

“Research does not show any kind of direct connection between what is in a book and any kind of harm to a child,” said Barbara Jones, executive director of the Freedom To Read Foundation of the American Library Association. “There really is none.”

A child encountering a supposedly “inappropriate” book will, she said, more likely just read over the alleged offensive parts.

“The research shows when a child doesn’t understand a particular part of a book, they’re likely to skip over it,” Jones said.

Given that Chicago is a city crawling with academics examining precisely how children learn, I figured it would be easy to find experts on this. It was. I turned to the Erikson Institute, probably the nation’s top graduate school teaching childhood development.

“The important thing about a book is that it invites lots of discussion and debate,” said Professor Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at Erikson.

Can’t some difficult books jar sensitive kids?

“Life experiences just don’t come at us that way,” McNamee said. “If we go see a movie, encounter a book, no one thing in life damages us. We might wish we hadn’t seen it or hadn’t read it. I remember reading “The Jungle” and just being furious and upset by it. Did it hurt me? Yes. But that was the power of the experience.”

Of course, keeping children from powerful experiences, from the pain of discovering stark truths, is the principle behind these controversies. It’s the hangover from the Victorian era — childhood as a secret garden of fairies and flowers where scary real life must never intrude. Who still holds that view?

“I’ve come to believe people mean well, they want to make a difference in world,” said Jones. “In the case of ‘Persepolis,’ torture is on the minds of all Americans. People want it to go away, and they think that by taking the book away, it’s an easy way to solve the problem. Only it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t solve the problem.”

McNamee wondered if the people who decided to remove “Persepolis” from the seventh-grade curriculum even understand what the kids have been studying up to that point.

“They’ve studied slavery in America by then,” she said. “They’ve encountered and chewed on some unhappy circumstances, both in their lives and in history. We’ve obviously heard about war. Hard times and brutal experiences are not unknown to them.”

The ironic thing is, stark moments in literature, rather than somehow scarring children, instead help them overcome the actual troubles in their real lives.

“Understand the power of fairy tales,” McNamee said. “You have these wrenching situations — ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ the Number One favorite story of generations. That’s a pretty bleak story. The mother sends her pigs away — two of the three get eaten. That’s exactly how we feel every day — two out of three times we get chewed up. But we rebound and learn to build an inner house that has some stability. We learn we can protect ourselves from the wolves. When you get these juicy stories, we open up and get distance from our own experience so we can start processing it. We ought not to be saying that book is going to jar somebody, when the whole point of literature is to wake us up and give us some space for a conversation.”

She noted the CPS comment that teachers may not be ready to deal with the book.

“That’s their job,” she said. “Our schools are filled with children who are vulnerable but might feel healed and stronger and wiser because we had a great discussion about a powerful book. Instead, they’re worried that this might upset somebody.”

Teachers should be worried, not about kids possibly being shocked by a sentence or a drawing, but about them instead being bored by pabulum guaranteed not to offend.

“The biggest threat is students who are not engaged,” McNamee said. “Not talking about what they’re hearing, reading, seeing. Ironically, what state standards now want is students who are able to get inside a book and wrestle and argue and debate about it, using text-based evidence. If young people are reading bland literature and things that aren’t engaging them, that’s really a problem.”



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