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'It opened my eyes to all of it': the Power of Children's Literature

Writing by Ece Kucuk. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.

‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit’em, but remember it is a sin to kill a mockingbird’ – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I was seven years old the first time I read that line - a mere shadow of the person I am today. Until that moment, I did not know that mockingbirds were even a type of bird, much less a title of a book. At the time, my knowledge of racism was limited. I only knew what I would hear my older relatives say and the hushed whispers of people in my class towards people with attributes that looked different than theirs.

I grew up in a small town in a low-income neighbourhood with a single mother. My community had plenty of diversity and unfortunately, a fair share of the problems and tensions that sometimes come with it. No one took the time to explain to us as children what went on. It often felt as though the world was muddled in a fog you couldn’t quite explain, and it was hard to see anything around you, much less to look ahead.

To Kill a Mockingbird was the book that opened my eyes to all of it and allowed me to understand the tragedies I saw happening around me. It was the book that made me take a second look when reading or watching the news, when I would hear a story about someone, or when the police in my town decided to arrest my neighbour, a young Black man, falsely accusing him of dealing drugs and having a gun. It was not until I stepped into the feet of Jean-Louise Finch that I understood why the world around me was the way it was.

In many ways, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of every young child who is shielded from the injustices and terrors society can produce. It is a story that every young child should have the pleasure to read; it should not be the only one of a few such books they get to read. 

Identity - what is in a name, as Shakespeare would say? For most children, it is a drop into a dark abyss as they try to understand who they are and the way they fit into our warped mess of a society. They are a demographic often penalized - as in literature - due to society’s need to protect the innocence of the young. 

They ban books, they discipline kids for speaking out of turn - all in the effort to protect something that does not need to be protected. What most adults do not realize is that by treating children in this way, they are marginalizing the next generation who will one day grow up and be in charge of our world. 

The value of children’s literature goes beyond our general expectations and is currently lacking in ways in which it could be more beneficial to the younger generations. The world we live in is ever-changing, and at times hard to keep up with. Most importantly, there are still issues that need attention, people that need to be heard; it is not only the adults that need to hear. Children should be allowed to weigh in and be a part of the conversation - not taken out of it. 

No one, not even a child, is privy to a life without suffering or tragedy. Most children experience difficult situations at a young age where they don’t necessarily understand what is happening. However, it is not a favour to keep them in the dark. As adults, parents, and educators - we should be prepared to offer them the knowledge to understand the context beyond the things they may experience or witness.

Claims of children being uncomfortable and not being able to understand are how parents and teachers explain away the lack of knowledge they choose to afford them. A better explanation would be that they do not wish to take the time and effort to explain issues of such extreme importance and they don’t feel that children are capable of handling it.

Instead, books such as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison are still being banned or are refused to be taught in schools. Writers such as Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, and Alice Walker, to name a few, have written novels of great significance; novels that children should be exposed to. These are instances where children could be exposed to societal issues and injustices and be able to make sense of the issues they face in their own lives. The ability to learn and discuss issues such as racial injustice is no small feat and it is essential that we begin teaching these skills early.

There are still hundreds of books that are not available to children because they contain material that is offensive or because they simply mention racism. Books that could help our children identify problems within our society at earlier ages and could even help eradicate them in the future. Censorship is never a solution to a problem - it is simply the act of putting a band-aid on a cut that has not healed. Themes such as race, gender, and sexuality are ever-present in 2020 and yet these are issues that most kids growing up are not made aware of until they reach an age where their parents deem that they can handle it. 

As Plutarch said, 'The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.' Indeed, education through literature often leads the way. 

It is not enough to merely protect children. It is up to us to give them the resources to understand the world in which they live and to come to their own conclusions. In the end, a child who never learns to think on their own will repeat the same process to their kids; the cycle of oppression will continue. They have the capability to understand if we give them that chance.

If we continue to claim that children are our future, then we must be the ones to give them the tools and resources to ensure them the best future that they can imagine.  

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