Let's discuss books, not ban them
with a review of Behind Rebel Lines, a book that tells an important story but requires caveats
I do a lot of book reviews on Bookstagram… I’d like to do them all here and have them live on a place on the internet that’s mine and not Meta’s, but I still love the Bookstagram community dearly, and honestly, it’s harder for me to sit down and write newsletters. I want to do it more though (more often then every 2-3 months anyway!). And sometimes, a book just requires more than a simple insta review.
In February I read a middle grade book along with my 6th-grade daughter because it was part of her history curriculum. (My daughter is the last of my children to still be part of a homeschool-hybrid charter school so I'm still pretty involved in a lot of her lessons. I also just like to follow along with school reading with my kids whenever I can so that I can be part of the discussion with them. I read a lot of MG books after all anyway 😉). After we read it, both her teacher and I realized it required some major content warnings (her teacher had read it a few years ago and upon re-reading, immediately realized she needed to add the more-specific warnings to her lesson plans).
The book is called Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit (random trivia/fact: he is the creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost! 👻), and was first published 35 years ago. It is a fascinating story of a young woman who masqueraded as a man to work as a spy for the Union army, reminiscent of Deborah Sampson from the Revolutionary War. I love unexpected stories of women in history and this one was an exciting adventure featuring a brave and plucky heroine in an inspiring story.
But as with some other historical books, Behind Rebel Lines contains language representative of the time. And by that, I mean racial slurs, overt ones. Emma also employs blackface makeup in one of her disguises. Thankfully, I read this along with my daughter so we were easily able to have discussions about the offensive language, and about the history of blackface.
The author is no longer living and I’m not sure how he would feel about children reading the book if he were living in the modern era. I personally do not think this book should shunned or taken out of our history curriculum. The story is based in history and worth telling. But I do wish that Clarion Books put a content warning in the front of the book stating that the language is offensive and that it contains some racist ideology. This might be obvious since it takes place during the Civil War but I think content warnings can go a long way in prompting discussions when it comes to reading historical books with children.
While I’m at it, let me be clear that I also don’t think we should just take a red pen to books published in the past. Obviously, I’m referencing the recent issues with Roald Dahl’s books and what the publishers have tried to do to his words. I think many librarians would agree with me that conversations can be the best solution to approaching historical book content. If more parents, teachers, and librarians will brave having difficult conversations with kids about book content, I think we will all be better off in the long run.
To broaden this concept one step further, I will say what I think (and hope) is becoming the general consensus among those in the library field. Banning books is not the answer when we don’t like the content of books. I am in favor of reading material being age-appropriate but ultimately I believe that parents are ones who should make the final decision about what is the best reading material for their kids. Not governments.
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I’m new to my library job but I have been a parent of young readers for over a decade and a reader of children’s book my whole life. After discussing our collection with other librarians in my district and my principal, there are some books in my school library that I put a 6th grade label on because they have some kind of “mature” content and I want parents to have the power to allow their younger children to read them. I don’t want to be the one to make that decision. (I empower students to ask their parents and then when they bring in a note, I let them check these books out). As I review and research books, I sometimes decide a book would be better suited for a middle-school library than our K-6 library. I often defer to teachers as well about whether books are age- or reading-level-appropriate for their students. Classroom readalouds are another great place for children to get to have discussions about issues that come up in books with trusted adults. This a nuanced process overall.
Books are windows and mirrors after all. Sometimes they are going to reflect and show things that we don’t personally like about ourselves, our society, history, or the world. We can’t just pretend those words and issues don’t exist or never did exist. But we can discuss them, and use our position as adults reading children’s literature as a tool to help enlighten and empower kids to move forward to be more empathetic and caring individuals.
And let’s be honest, there are more important things we should be considering banning right now than books.
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