KidLit & Other Children’s Lived Experiences

I love youth literature, from board books to young adult novels (and nonfiction)—I don’t think that’s any secret. I’ve also been rather legitimized in my love since becoming liaison to an education department, and working closely with faculty to build lists (and collections) that can help support multiple different curriculum standards. It’s great! I truly love it! It’s also pushed me to think, a whole lot more, about what we as a society consider “acceptable”—for our kids, for our futures. Whose experiences do we consider valid, or worthy of sharing? Because, boy, it sure isn’t everyone’s.

When I was in library school, taking a class about youth librarianship, I ran into the idea that all kids’ experiences are fundamentally the same, and also, nice kids from Good Neighborhoods™ don’t have Those Problems, whatever those problems might be. (I think they were talking about assault and abuse, which I’d hope everyone knows is categorically false—someone can be poor as dirt, and not abuse or assault their children, and someone can come from the best of Good Families™ and face abuse every day at home.) That class was alienating for a number of reasons, but hearing about how nobody from a good family faces abuse was definitely one of them. It also scared the daylights out of me: if a librarian or teacher can’t understand (or face) the realities lived by many of the children they serve, how can they actually be serving those young people at all?

As liaison to an education department, though, and as someone who builds a collection for once and future educators, questions of other kids’ experiences and whose voice is an acceptable voice have become increasingly urgent. I serve a diverse community: both my future educators and the students they will serve come from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, social classes, and religions. Their lived experiences are not mine: even if we come from similar ethnic backgrounds, even if our family history of education is much the same, we are different people, and have experienced the world in different ways. But even as the necessity of a plethora of voices and experiences has been made ever clearer to me, I still run into people whose instinct it is to censor—to tuck away works featuring other voices and other experiences into areas where they will not be found, to fight classifications that would make them more easily accessible to the people they were written to serve.

A few books (and conversations) are particularly vivid in my mind. Alex Gino’s George filed in young adult. (It’s middle grade.) A “discussion” about the placement of the middle grade novel My Jasper June, which features the death of a sibling (that’s kind of the catalyst, although it happens off-page) and discussions of child abuse. Police brutality? Must be an adult book. Censorship and bigotry masquerade as altruism: this covers such difficult topics; it can’t possibly be for the age range you say! And never mind that these books might be the lived experiences of our students, or of the students they will serve: they can’t possibly be for them, not really, they’re too young to understand such things—even though many of them live those things, every day, already.

One of the conversations that hangs most vivid in my mind was about representative books. Representative books are one of my great passions; they were among my passions as a public librarian, and remain so now that I am an academic librarian and an education liaison. Books like the Pigeon series, or Sandra Boynton‘s joyful animal stories, or Baby Monkey, Private Eye, are wonderful. They’re important. Our littles adore them, and we should, too, because they’re such glad marvels. But we live in a world where there are more animal protagonists in children’s literature than children of color. (I will be watching for the 2019 data, but doubt it will be much different.)

Claiming that representative literature, be it fiction or nonfiction, genre or literary, children’s or adult, has no impact and is unimportant—that itself is a mark of privilege, spoken from, I assume, a space in front of a mirror—but the mirror is books and media, showcasing ourselves back at us. I can easily enough find other white women in fiction—other youngish professional white women! White women with grad degrees! What I can’t find, and rarely find anywhere, are people with learning disabilities like mine, or people who live with the levels of pain and lung issues that define my life, whether I will it or no. The thing is, I’m still better represented than many of my students, or the young people they will serve. Seeing ourselves in our literature matters, a lot—but not just for us. It matters for everyone who’s never walked in our footsteps, too.

Pretending that some books aren’t for children because their topics are dark or sad or because they talk about the truths of people’s lives is inherently dangerous. It’s pernicious, it’s infuriating. It’s why books with LBGTQIA content end up challenged and censored. It’s why books about death or police brutality or lived experiences end up shelved in the wrong places, bigotry masquerading as altruism to keep “our kids” innocent—never mind that “our kids” and our future isn’t white, and certainly has no monolithic set of experiences. It’s why even liberals1 can claim that representation doesn’t matter, or that those books aren’t really written for kids. (I’d like to say that I am so inherently great that I’d never do this, but I have no idea—after all, as someone with a learning disability and chronic pain, as well as a history of assault, my lived experience dovetails into those that apparently don’t deserve to be told.)

We have two Children’s Book Weeks this year, which is pretty rad—the first is winding down, and the second will roll around in November. It’s why I finally sat down, in the midst of a pandemic, to write about soft censorship and the ways in which we all need to do better—but the truth is, none of us need to wait for Banned Books Week, or National Library Week, or Children’s Book Week, to speak out against the bigotry that denies our young people representative literature. If we are educators—and I do include library staffers of all stripes in that number—we need to ensure that young folks have access to books about their worlds. We need to work, those of us who are educators educating educators, to help future educators better understand the importance of representation, as well as to prepare them for inevitable challenges. But whether we are educators or not, we can push back against narratives claiming that representation doesn’t matter, or that those middle-grade novels can’t possibly be for ten-year-olds. It’s up to every one of us to do better. Tomorrow will come, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and we owe it to every kid who’s going to grow up to be our tomorrows.

1 Adam Serwar’s article about the American “racial contract” is about Covid-19, but its explanation of that contract goes a long way, I think, to explaining some of the reactions I’ve run into, and the fights I’ve had, even with people dear to me.