It was sad to read that my own county’s school board, Floyd, followed the recommendation of the superintendent to ditch their elementary level language arts curriculum in response to parent concerns. Two of the books specifically objected to were “The Story of Ruby Bridges ” and “Hatchet”. The former, is about the child who at age six was escorted by federal marshals past a vicious white mob to desegregate her New Orleans school. It is a true story of a very brave girl, cherished by new readers and used widely by teachers since 1995. Somehow, a parent conflated the book with critical race theory, which is taught in law school, not second grade, and took offense to a sentence in which Ruby sees “angry white faces”. The ugly truth the author doesn’t reveal is that Ruby saw and heard much more that shameful day in 1960. The federal marshals weren’t called out for nice moms bringing cupcakes.
The second book “Hatchet,” I enjoyed reading with a young relative. At ten, it was the first book he fell in love with. Just as a parent told the school board, it opens with a boy’s anger at his mother’s affair, a reference she feared would “rob her child’s innocence”. What she didn’t mention (spoiler alert) was that on the way to see his father, the boy finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness and survives hunger, injury and a terrifying encounter with a grizzly bear through his own grit and a gift from his mother, a hatchet. After his rescue, he realizes he has become his own person and forgives his mother. My young relative had just survived his own encounter with a grizzly, in the form of mom’s boyfriend, and the harsh coming-of-age story resonated with him in a way fantasy tales like “Harry Potter” never had.
It is understandable that the Floyd County School Board, which is made up of committed, serious-minded people, would give in to the demands of agitated parents amped up on Fox News and Facebook, so as to return to the thankless task of educating our county’s children without adequate funding in the midst of a global pandemic. But the cost of acquiescence is steep: Our kids have lost essential reading and useful tools have been taken from teachers. Now emboldened, the parent/censors will return, and not just to Floyd County. They are part of a national trend of online organizing which seems to have the unspoken objective of removing literature written by or about black and brown people, as well as any other work that doesn’t affirm their narrow world view, from our schools. Joe Pett’s Oct. 7 cartoon said it all, “Our kids shouldn’t be taught anything that we don’t already think we know!”
Parents and grandparents who want the children they love to be prepared to flourish in a complex, multiracial, multicultural society should support their teachers and school boards against such attacks. A kind and reasonable word to your school board representative could go a long way. And there is something else you can do: read with a kid. As you hear of children’s books that are trashed by the parent/censors, consider that, like “Ruby” and “Hatchet”, they may actually be treasures you and your child or grandchild could enjoy together. Make a trip to your library and as you explore the richly diverse world of children’s literature, don’t be surprised if your child isn’t the only one whose heart is opened.
Beverly May, RN, MSN, DrPH is a nurse epidemiologist and avid reader in Floyd County.