Book bans: Navigating conversations with kids - MetroFamily Magazine
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Book bans: Navigating conversations with kids

by Christina Mushi-Brunt

Reading Time: 3 minutes 

I can distinctly remember the moment my eyes first spotted one particular word on the page of the literary classic novel my high school AP Literature class was assigned to read. A single word repeated more than 200 times out of the 109,571 words in this novel. It was jarring. My mind raced as I wondered whether or not the word would be read out loud during class spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The book was Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And to this day it remains one of my favorite tales about unlikely friendship and the journey to freedom. There were no heated school board meetings about how I felt as a 16-year-old and the only African American student in the class. In case you’re curious, I’ll let you in on that: I felt uncomfortable. But I was OK with that. Why? Because this literary work allowed me to put into context history and realize how much we had grown as a nation.

There’s a great deal of discussion and debate today about words and images in books. These conversations are happening at school board meetings and in Capitol buildings. What’s a parent to make of all of this oftentimes contentious debate? How do we talk to our kids about it, especially when it feels like we can’t make heads or tails out of it ourselves? I offer you some suggestions based on how I have navigated through this rocky terrain:

  1. Visit the school library. As a parent, you have always had the right to set up a meeting to talk with your child’s school librarian. From my experience, they are not keeping a secret stash of books hidden away to slip to your child. You can browse through the library and get a sense of what is available to your child. As a regular volunteer in my kids’ elementary school, I learned there is a specific shelf of books that is limited to sixth-grade students.
  2. Read the books. When I was curious about the books that my children had access to in the school library, their librarian invited me to create my own account to check out the books. I could read the books before my kiddos did. Then I knew what types of conversations I would need to have with my kiddo about the book when/if they read it. There were books that reflected their own experiences as children of color that weren’t part of the mainstream stories they would read in class. There were also books that told beautiful and sometimes heart-wrenching stories about different cultures and life experiences. These were all tales that I wanted to encourage my kids to explore to feel represented and to also develop empathy for others. Controversy over the merit of certain pieces of literature has and will likely always exist. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first banned (by librarians, no less) just one month after it was published! Read the book and decide for yourself!
  3. Talk to your kids. There are certain books I had no qualms about all of my kids reading at a certain age on their own and others that I’ve felt I would need to read alongside them. The types of discussions that I have with one child differs from the conversations I would have with another. You know your kiddos best. Keep an open line of communication with them and see how they are processing the books they are reading. Their understanding and perspective just might surprise you! Thirty years after I read it in high school, my own 16-year-old son read Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in his English class this year. The book has a history of being deemed as “pornographic and obscene,” yet it remains a mainstay of high school literature classes. The book opened up an opportunity for him and me to talk about how society views men and women.

Throughout my junior and senior years of AP Literature classes, I would encounter “the word” again in other pieces of literature including what became one of my favorite novels: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, one of my favorite quotes from this novel best describes why I encourage my children to read all types of stories:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Books give us a chance to see other points of view and understand others better. I am looking forward to when my own kids read this book and have meaningful, guided discussions with their teacher and classmates. And most of all, I look forward to the conversations I will get to have with them.

Christina is a former professor turned freelance writer and public health research consultant. She and her family transplanted from Indiana to Oklahoma in 2015. They reside in the Moore community. Among the various hats Christina wears, her favorite is basketball/dance mom to her and her husband’s three middle- & high-school-aged kids.

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