The importance of reading and letting young people have access to diverse books [editorial] | Our Opinion

The importance of reading and letting young people have access to diverse books [editorial] | Our Opinion

THE ISSUE: Today’s Perspective section offers a slew of summer book recommendations. This annual Opinion tradition is a favorite because there is no joy quite like escaping into a book. Unfortunately, a movement aimed at banning books from school libraries and even public libraries has gathered steam in recent years. According to the anti-censorship organization PEN America, there were nearly 1,500 instances of individual books being banned in the first half of the 2022-23 school year, “affecting 874 unique titles,” an increase of 28% compared to the prior six months. A Washington Post analysis found that the majority of school book challenges nationwide were filed by just 11 people. The right-wing group Moms for Liberty was behind many of the challenges. Nearly half of filings — 43% — targeted titles with LGBTQ+ characters or themes, while 36% targeted titles “featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism,” the Post analysis found.

“Once you learn to read, you’ll be forever free,” wrote the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1845, and how true that is.

Reading enlightens us, amuses us, challenges us, calms us, moves us, awakens us, comforts us. To hold a book in one’s hands is to hold another world, another lifetime, a window into an unfamiliar universe.

The freedom to read is an essential democratic value, which is why we defend it so fiercely.

“Reading is fundamental” is both the tagline and the name of a venerable reading advocacy organization whose public service announcements extolled the joys of reading. It was brilliant not just because it’s simple and catchy, but because it’s true: Reading is fundamental; it’s essential to not just success in education but to survival in our language-saturated world.

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Which is why from a young age children need to be able to read books that interest them. Of course, parents should be involved in determining which books are appropriate for their own children, but it’s dangerous for parents to eliminate reading options for other parents’ children. One child might discover he actually loves to read when he discovers a copy of “Captain Underpants” on the school library shelves, while another might prefer “Anne of Green Gables.” It’s important for school libraries to offer plenty of books from which children of varying reading abilities and interests can choose.

This becomes ever more important as children grow older and their interests, their needs and their worlds become more diverse and more complex.

The book “Identical” by Ellen Hopkins was recently challenged in the Manheim Township School District. A young adult novel written in free verse, Kirkus Reviews called it “sharp and stunning,” and noted that it’s a “portrait of splintered identical twins” and the sexual abuse, fatal car accident and violent alcoholism that “have wrecked their family.”

These are difficult themes, to be sure, but they are not just abstractions for some students.

The school district’s committee — which comprises the assistant superintendent, director of curriculum and instruction, supervisor of English language arts, middle school librarian, high school guidance counselor, library content specialist and high school principal — “drafted a thorough report suggesting the book be left in the high school library for any students wishing to sign it out,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Ashley Stalnecker reported this month.

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The committee pointed out that any parent or guardian can contact a building librarian to restrict their child’s access to any particular library book or resource material. This is exactly the right response.

The push to ban books — particularly those with LGBTQ+ themes — has gotten so intense in Lancaster County and across the nation that the Biden administration announced earlier this month that the Department of Education will appoint a new coordinator to address the growing threat that book bans pose for the civil rights of students.

We want every individual to be able to recognize oneself in the pages of a book. For someone who feels alone, that can be life-changing — even lifesaving.

Consider a letter to the editor published in the May 28 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline. James Hahn, now of Quincy, Massachusetts, wrote of feeling isolated at Hempfield High School in the early 1980s because he knew from an early age that he is gay. “I had no one to turn to and kept my thoughts to myself,” he wrote. “This created severe anxiety.”

Afraid to check out books on gay topics from the school library, he went to Lancaster Public Library and used “the good old card catalog,” finding a book about two male runners in love that offered him hope (“The Front Runner” by Patricia Nell Warren).

“A book provided a silent and private means for me to think,” Hahn recalled.

We read books for all kinds of reasons: to learn something new, to get inspired, to pass the time, to soothe our worries, to scare the heck out of ourselves for fun, to ponder mysteries that can be explained in 400 pages or fewer.

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The important thing is to read — and to encourage children to read. This is one reason we’re elated by the opening earlier this month of the new Lancaster Public Library in Ewell Plaza.

The two-story, 43,000-square-foot space at 151 N. Queen St. in downtown Lancaster will hold its grand-opening event from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

It’s a glorious space in which to discover the joys of reading, and we hope people from all over Lancaster County make full use of it — as well as the public libraries in their own communities. Libraries need our support financially, too, so, if you can, attend their fundraisers, make donations or urge your municipal officials to fund them.

Defend the freedom to read. And urge your school board to defend it, too. 

  • June 25, 2023