This week, the New York Times had a 'debate' that wasn't really much of a debate at all. The editors posed the question: "Along with books about numbers and colours and how to say please and thank you are an increasing number that address politics, race, gender, sexual orientation and other issues. Should they?"
The answer, for just about anyone who works on or researches children's literature or who has any understanding of children at all, is: Duh.
Children's books aren't just there to impart lessons to children - i.e. all that stuff about "numbers and colors and how to say please and thank you". Sure, that's important, but children can also learn about those things from their parents or in school or in any of a number of other ways, and not just from books.
Literature does much more than teach basic facts or social rules.
Children, like adults, have the right to see books that reflect the world around them, and the broader world, too. That means, yes, featuring different races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, classes, ages, and so on, and also exploring political, moral, physical, and emotional issues. Children need to see both themselves and other people in the books they read.
Children are naturally curious and open - it tends to be adults who are more narrow-minded, closed, and prejudiced - and children want to learn about life and about a wide variety of people. If adults think kids can't cope with differences or shouldn't have to consider potentially difficult issues, that probably says more about adults than kids. Adults have a sad tendency to underestimate children in general, and to underestimate their intelligence and curiosity in particular.
In the New York Times, six different people wrote a response to the question posed by the editors. They didn't seem to disagree with one another in any substantial way, which again suggests that this supposed debate is really anything but. The one concern seemed to be avoiding propaganda literature that tries to brainwash children, and that's a sensible thing to be aware of, for readers of all ages. But no book is truly neutral in any case.
Literature is not only a source of entertainment and real pleasure, but it can also serve as an important tool. For some children, books may be their only chance to experience life beyond their own neighbourhood or culture. Books let them meet and begin thinking about other people, other perspectives, other lives. If a book raises a challenging topic, that just allows the child an opportunity to think about it, and to talk to adults about it or to do further research on it.
Kids aren't as delicate as adults like to think, and they aren't ignorant of what's happening around them. They don't need to be protected from reality. They don't only need books that teach them about manners and colours.
Children have a right to see all sorts of topics represented in the books they read. Don't underestimate children, and don't underestimate the importance of offering young readers diverse and open children's literature.