Infected With Old Books | Newberry

Infected With Old Books

Once upon a time, we had a volunteer among our Book Fair company who taught school. Always on the lookout for inexpensive classroom material, she would check the magazines we were throwing away. SHE didn’t care if the cover was ripped or pages were missing. What she wanted was pictures that could be cut out and pasted in a scrapbook which the teacher had assigned for “Things That Begin With L”. (She could—and did—talk for an hour on the intricacies of this assignment: should children use the same picture of a Football for things that begin with F AND things that begin with B—Ball? She THOUGHT about these things.)

Then, as now, a stalwart of our recycle bin was the National Geographic, but she passed these over. “I don’t want to expose my kids to that,” she said.

I of course chuckled about the topless natives that the Geographic was always getting criticized for. She had thought beyond this. “No,” she said, “Their writers treat native people in their own countries as some kind of exotic animal, and I don’t want to expose them to THAT.”

It’s a strong part of the conversation about children’s books, and children’s environments in general. Half of the people who like to argue it with me (while I’m trying to figure out whether a book on socket bayonets goes in Antiques or Military History) feel children should not be exposed to questionable opinions until they’re old enough to think them through (they tend to put this around the age of thirty-five) and while the other half say “Go on! Expose ‘em! How else will they build up an immunity?”

I actually prefer the second kind of people, though they take up just as much time arguing as the others, because they don’t try to tell me what I should and shouldn’t sell. People frequently come up to me at the Book Fair to ask whether I wouldn’t rather put this book in Literature, or History, or the trash rather than expose children to the dangers. These have included, over the years,

Little Women: “Too old-fashioned. Girls shouldn’t be exposed to nineteenth century role models and, anyway, kids today would just get bored with it.”

The Wizard of Oz: There are a few people who pull the Harry Potter argument—it’s wrong to show children nice characters using or benefiting from magic—but in the early days of the Book Fair, there was another issue. “All series books are trash. If you have continuing characters, you lose all the literary quality of suspense.” (It’s like science fiction author Harlan Ellison arguing that there was no suspense in a TV series like Star Trek because you KNEW they weren’t going to kill off Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock. It was only literature if any character could die at any time.”

Charlotte’s Web: “That promotes a vegetarian agenda. Besides, it made my daughter cry.”

Elsie Dinsmore: Elsie was a sweet little girl who learned her Scripture and applied it throughout her life. (She was a grandmother in the last books of the series.) In fact, if her father told her to do something, she had to stop and consider whether it fit with her vision of Scripture. It’s no crime to aspire to being a good Christian, but readers quickly realized this did NOT mean being a Roman Catholic, who are the losers in the series over and over, because they had it all wrong. In the old days, parents divided up pretty much along church membership on whether Elsie was worthy to be read or not; nowadays she’s considered well off center by most critics (although she IS being reprinted.)

The Hunger Games: “Way too depressing.”

Tom Sawyer teaches boys to misbehave, Heidi contains no characters of color (it IS set in rural nineteenth century Switzerland, prune pasta), Dr. Seuss did anti-Japanese cartoons during World War II, Maurice Sendak drew a naked boy as a naked boy…there are days when I think the whole Children’s section should be put up behind a barrier marked NSFW. (Not Safe For Wimps.)

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