Most of the time, I am very happy in the Book world. I am happy with an author I like gets a new book deal or sells the movie rights to their book. I am happy when an author I know is invited on a panel at a book conference. I am happy when authors I love get prestigious awards. I am happy when an author friend has an article posted in a national media outlet.
But there are a few things that happen in the bookish world that make me angry enough to bring out the "Valley" (as in Rio Grande, not southern California) in me, such as Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) verbally assaulting Jackie Woodson with a racist joke at the time she received the National Book Award or Jonathan Franzen insulting Jennifer Weiner's writing (and YA literature) though he has never read any of her books, and book banning.
Recently, the stunning award-winning, middle-grade novel, Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, (along with One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia) has been challenged by parents in a public North Carolina school. This news is a bit "old" as it happened last week, nevertheless I wanted to write about it because it is important, especially in light of the immigration issues affecting our country. I have not read Crazy Summer, though you can bet that it is now on my To Be Read list, so I will focus on Esperanza, particularly because this book is dear to my heart. Bustle wrote an article clarifying the details recently and you can also follow the details on the Stop Common Core website. Basically, the book was part of an enrichment activity for fourth graders, and a newsletter was sent home to the parents explaining the activity and listing the books.
Esperanza Rising follows the titular main character as she is forced to flee from her privileged life as part of the land-owner class in Mexico to southern California during the Great Depression era to work in the agricultural fields. There, she faces racism, poverty, and loss, but also finds the true meaning of love, family, and standing up for what is right. As most middle grade books, the ending is uplifting and hopeful.
These are the many reasons I am bothered by the parents challenging this book, beginning with the fact that the parents took their concerns to Civitas, a conservative organization that hosts the blog "Stop Common Core" instead of bringing up their concerns with the teachers or school administration. One of the first rule of conflict resolution I teach my children (and when I was working as an academic pediatric hospitalist, my residents, medical students, junior faculty), is that when you have a problem with someone, address it with them directly before involving a third party. That is Being a Grown-Up 101. The other irritating features of this case are:
1) The parents via Civitas claim that Esperanza Rising is not age-appropriate. The publisher, Scholastic, lists the book as appropriate for ages 8 and up. I read this book to my children about one year ago, when Tristan was 7 and Kara was 12. They both loved it. Kara and Tristan loved the book. After we read it, we also had great, age-appropriate discussions about racism, immigration, class in the United States, and courage in the face of adversity.
So let's be honest for a moment and call their claim a total lie. The parents are not concerned about whether or not the book is age-appropriate. They are concerned that their children will be exposed to ideas that (quoted from the Stop Common Core website) "do not reflect the values and standards the surrounding community." In other words, Esperanza does not jive with the idyllic life in Wake County and the parents are using the "age-appropriate" argument as a smokescreen.
Apparently, the concerned parents of Wake County in North Carolina do not want their impressionable fourth graders (ages 9-10 for the most part), exposed to the "ethnic class struggles" and books that talk about the US deporting US citizens. Civitas, the conservative organization fighting the fight for the NC parents, has several blog posts on their website about the controversy. Reading through the posts, I feel like I am reading something out of the 1950s:
"Did you know 4th graders read US Citizens can be deported? Children also read negative views of wealthy people, negative views of immigration officials, pro union views, income inequality, broken families, and other mature immigration matters. These children are young and impressionable; they are being introduced to topics that I suspect many parents feel are inappropriate for this age group."
Heaven forbid that children learn that there is poverty and injustice in the United States. The "repatriation" that happened during the Great Depression was a fact and Mexican-American citizens and documented residents were sent "back" to Mexico simply because they looked Mexican.
Based on the Civitas' website rhetoric, the concern is that they don't want fourth graders to be aware of the plight of Mexican immigrants and their terrible treatment before Cesar Chavez took on the fight on their behalf. The Wake County kids may actually start feeling empathy towards this marginalized group. We certainly cannot have that happen!
I would totally sympathize with the NC parents if their concerns about the "age-appropriateness" of Esperanza Rising stemmed from content related to sexuality or graphic violence. But it is not. The parents just don't want their children to learn about social issues that are foreign to Wake County. They might learn something that expands their world view and that is a bad thing! I also think these parents and Civitas are underestimating fourth graders if they think children this age have never noticed that there are broken families and inequality in the world. Children are not stupid. Are we to believe that there are no single-parent homes in Wake County? Is everyone the exact same socio-economic class? Am I to believe none of these children have heard the news about Obama's immigration executive order last November and the subsequent decision of a Texas judge to block it? Immigration reform is a very important topic right now and Esperanza provides a great way for parents to begin dialogue with their kids about their views on the issue.
As a mother and a pediatrician and children's book writer, I think this age group is perfect to begin dialogues about injustice, cultural differences, and class inequality. If not, children will grow up with such a narrow world view that will be difficult to expand later on.
Books like The Great Gilly Hopkins and Where the Red Fern Grows are in the same age category as Esperanza. I read these books in fifth grade growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. I read Red Fern to my kids when they were in kinder and fifth grade. Both books beautifully deal with the universality of loss, racism, broken families (Gilly), poverty, death (Fern), and class inequality. For my childhood self, white people growing up in the South or northern US were as foreign to me as Martians. I honestly believe reading books like this made me a more empathetic person. The fact Wake County parents want to rob their children of the experience of reading about a Mexican main character who is the hero in the story angers me. They claim the issues in the book are not age appropriate for fourth graders but I bet they would have no problem with Gilly or Red Fern.
2) Civitas is criticizing the school for not providing an "opt-out" choice in participating in the enrichment assignment. The demand for "opt-out" causes the hairs to raise in the back of my neck. First of all, by doing so, the school is unnecessarily putting parents on high alert about the content of a book. Furthermore, this also undermines the literary and historical importance of the book's content. In other words, before the kids read the book, the school is telling parents that they may feel uncomfortable with the topics, themes, or characters featured in the book. And guess which books are going to get the "opt-out" sticker? Books like Esperanza Rising, One Crazy Summer, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and other books about marginalized groups by authors who are members of a marginalized group.
Would Civitas expect the school to send an "opt-out" form to parents when children at school read The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Book Thief, or Where the Red Fern Grows? For the record, these are some of my favorite books, but the fact is that book challenging tends to target authors of color. I completely agree that parents should know what their children are reading in and out of the classroom. I totally agree that providing a reading list to parents is appropriate. But to provide "opt-out", especially for only "certain" books, is a cultural disaster waiting to happen.
To end my rant, I encourage all of you to read Esperanza Rising for yourself or with your children. Don't be afraid of the issues. Tristan was in first grade when we read the book together and his ears did not fall off.
What do you think about the Wake County book controversy? Let me know in the comments!
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