These Milwaukeeans think children need diverse stories, including 'banned' books
Early in 2022, Barbara Cerda was doing what she does every day — scouring used bookstores and websites to find books she can resell from La Revo, the online bookstore she and her sister Valeria started on the south side of Milwaukee in March of 2021.
She came across a book she had never seen before, but that seemed to fit the mission of La Revo — to curate books by authors from different perspectives and backgrounds that challenge readers to think about how those perspectives affect their own identity.
The book was "Maus" — a graphic novel, in which author Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father's experience during the Holocaust.
Cerda bought the book and added it to her store's list of used books. A few weeks later, she heard that the graphic novel had been removed from the eighth grade literature curriculum of a school district in Tennessee.
According to school board members, the book was removed due to inappropriate language and nudity (although it should be noted that the graphic novel depicts its characters as mice and cats, so the nudity in question is not human), as well as depictions of death and suicide.
But critics of the ban point out that the book depicts the reality of an ugly time in history in a way that's understandable and relatable to children, and that students need to learn those realities in a supportive environment.
The "Maus" book ban comes during a time in which there have been many high-profile book bans and challenges throughout the country, a trend noted by the American Library Association, which has "documented a 'dramatic uptick' in challenges to books in libraries' collections."
Kids want to learn the truth about racism in American history
Reggie Jackson has educated both adults and children in Milwaukee for years in his roles as a Milwaukee teacher, a griot at America's Black Holocaust Museum and a speaker through his organization Nurturing Diversity Partners.
In his experience, kids are rarely uncomfortable about confronting difficult topics.
"It's the adults who are uncomfortable," Jackson said. He remembers an exhibit related to lynching in the "old" Black Holocaust Museum — the museum was recently remodeled and reopened after being closed for several years — that featured graphic images of lynchings that have taken place in American history.
People often asked Jackson if they should bring children to the museum or if the exhibits would be too difficult for them to handle. He always reassured people that their groups of fourth- or fifth-graders would be able to handle the museum.
"When I gave the tours, the adults would walk through really quickly, would glance at the images and then walk on to the next part. It was too hard for them to look at," Jackson said. "But the kids always spent time looking and then asking lots of questions. They would ask me, 'These aren't real, right? People didn't really do this, right?'"
When Jackson told students lynchings really did happen to Black people in the United States, they would ask even more questions, looking for context for why and how those atrocities occurred, and asking what happened to the people who committed them.
"The same thing has happened as I've traveled around Wisconsin and talked to students about these things that happened in American history," said Jackson. "Their level of inquiry about these things is on a whole other level than in adults. They feel like they've been cheated by not learning about these things, and they're trying to make up for it by asking probing questions."
Jackson is concerned that limits placed on how issues like racism are taught in schools — and bans on books that confront difficult topics — exacerbate an existing ignorance of the reality of history, especially when the stories of marginalized groups and people are silenced or ignored.
The power of storytelling: Who gets to tell the stories we all learn?
During this year's Black History Month, Jackson conducted a workshop with fourth- and fifth- graders focused on the power of storytelling. He asked the children if they had heard of Ruby Bridges, who became famous in the fight for school desegregation at the age of 6 in 1960 when she was the first Black student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana.
"They all knew who she is, everybody talks about her during Black History Month," noted Jackson. But then Jackson started naming other children in other schools during the Jim Crow era, other children who had been the first to desegregate their own schools. Neither the children nor their teachers had heard of them.
"So I shared the stories of those other children, showed them pictures, talked about their experiences," said Jackson. "Then I asked the kids, 'What do you think about the fact that you don't learn about them? Is that fair?'"
Jackson was inspired to teach this workshop after reading "How The Word Is Passed" and interviewing the book's author, Clint Smith.
Smith wrote about his travel to several places in the United States to learn about the impact of slavery on America's past and present — including Thomas Jefferson's plantation Monticello, a Confederate cemetery and the site of slave auctions in Manhattan.
In his book, Smith relates his experience at a Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas, where several children made presentations about slavery, the culmination of a summer program focused on teaching young people about their own relationship to history.
"People sometimes believe that if they talk to Black youth about the historical legacy of slavery — and the intergenerational iterations of systemic racism that followed — young people will feel overwhelmed and shut down," Smith wrote. "But there is enormous value in providing young people with the language, the history, and the framework to identify why their society looks the way it does… I dreamed of what it might mean if we could extend these lessons to every child. How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what has happened here?"
Smith's book resonates with Jackson because it tells the stories of "normal, everyday" people, a focus Jackson has used in lessons with children for years because he believes children feel passionate about history and empowered in their own lives when they learn about the power of regular people throughout history.
It's why two of his favorite books are James Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" and Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." Both books de-emphasize the stories of traditional leaders and elites that are typically taught in school in favor of everyday people's stories.
"Reading Howard Zinn's book was eye-opening to me," said Jackson. "Too many historians want to talk about the famous people, but there are plenty of average, everyday Americans who have stories worth telling and knowing about."
The power of books to introduce new perspectives
Barbara Cerda — who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants — also understands the power of books to tell other perspectives of American history that haven't been given enough attention.
Cerda — who is never reading only one book at a time — is currently reading "Hood Feminism." The book, written by Mikki Kendall, lays out the argument that feminism typically deals with the concerns of middle-class white women and ignores issues that impoverished women, women of color and other marginalized women face.
Cerda is also taking her time reading a book that her customers tell her "puts a name to a lot of experiences Latina women have faced for years."The book, "For Brown Girls With Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts," was written by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, who immigrated from Nicaragua as a young child. It is described as "a love letter to women of color" and addresses much of the marginalization Latinx people feel in the United States.
Children need to see people like themselves represented in literature
Cerda and her sister and business partner, Valeria Cerda, didn't feel they had the words to express a lot of those feelings growing up — largely because they didn't see them expressed in the books they read.
"I didn't know Latinx literature was a category until I was an adult, when I took a road trip to California with some friends," said Valeria.
On that trip, she discovered a wide variety of Latinx children's books in stores and bought several of them.
"Shopping for children's books when you're 18, that's a weird story to tell," said Valeria. "I read things like Curious George when I was a kid, which is fine, but it's different. I started wondering what my life would have been like if I had these other books when I was 6, not 18."
Barbara has taken that lesson to heart in sharing books with her own children. Two of her youngest daughter's favorites are picture books that center around Latin American history and culture.
"Child of the Flower-Song People" is a picture book written by Gloria Amescua, about Luz Jimenez, who was part of a Nahua family in Mexico. The book focuses on Jimenez' childhood and the tales, traditions and rituals of people in her village. Amescua tells the story of how Jimenez continued to embrace her culture even in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution when much of her people's culture was erased.
Barbara's daughter also enjoys "Separate is Never Equal," a picture book about Sylvia Mendez and her family, who fought for the desegregation of schools in California. Mendez was not allowed to attend the "white" school in her community because she and her family were of Mexican descent. The book is especially illuminating for people who know the stories of Ruby Bridges and have studied Brown v. Board of Education, but who were unaware that Latinx families faced the same discrimination.
"My youngest daughter definitely feels proud when we read those books every night. She sees people that look like her and can place herself in that culture," said Barbara. "My oldest daughter picks up a lot of the books we sell in the bookstore, and it's interesting seeing her journey as she does more of her own writing and sees these authors as role models."
Children need stories they can relate to
Jackson feels many students relate to the feelings of the Cerda sisters when they were young. He also feels that a lack of representation in literature damages children's education.
Jackson once spent several hours reading through an eighth-grade literature book. He described the textbook as a 500-600 page tome with short stories, poems and excerpts from novels and plays. Each selection included a page about the author.
"A lot of the readings were wonderful, but most of the authors wrote their works in the 1800s and early 1900s," said Jackson. "The problem is that kids are not relating to things that they're being expected to read. They're not getting joy out of reading when all these people wrote before any of these kids were even born."
Jennifer Kimmons relates to the experience Jackson describes. As a Black child growing up in Milwaukee, she struggled to find representation in the books she was introduced to.
"I feel like I had to find those books on my own because I wasn't really encouraged in my academic setting, which was predominantly white," said Kimmons.
Kimmons said she "stumbled across" several books at a Black-owned bookstore curated by the wife of her dad's barber.
There she found "Bud, not Buddy," a children's book by Christopher Paul Curtis about a 10-year-old who runs away from his foster home to find his father during the Depression. Bud is charming and funny with a realistic child-like voice who encounters racism as he travels throughout Jim Crow-era Michigan.
Kimmons also read the Bluford novels, a series of young adult books, each story told from the point of view of a high school student in an urban public school.
As Kimmons got older, she started reading books by Octavia E. Butler, a best-selling Black science fiction writer. In an interview about her book, "Parable of the Sower," Butler described why she was drawn to writing science fiction.
"I never told myself ordinary stories. I was never interested in fantasizing about the world I was stuck in. In fact, I fantasized to get away from that drab, limited world," said Butler. "I was a little 'colored' girl in that era of conformity and segregation, the 1950s, and no matter how much I dreamed about becoming a writer, I couldn't help seeing that my real future looked bleak."
When Kimmons discovered that Black-owned bookstore that featured authors, characters and stories she related to, she said she felt the joy of being seen.
"Representation is so important everywhere, especially in books," said Kimmons. "I remember feeling like our dad's barber was like family and being excited that there was a bookstore just for us."
It's the same feeling the Cerda sisters strive to evoke for Latinx people with their own bookstore. At the same time, Barbara Cerda also pointed out that their store is not meant to be exclusive. Rather, she and her sister want to spread awareness of the books they sell to all groups. They want to diversify the stories people hear and experience.
She remembers a pop-up event she attended in summer of 2021 when a man approached her to ask her about her store.
"I explained that our store specializes in books that are written by and for people of color," said Cerda. The man, who was white, told her, "Oh, then I'm not your audience."
Cerda said that experience crystallized for her the importance of reading stories from a variety of cultures.
"You don't have to be a person of color to read and enjoy our stories," said Cerda. "It's eye-opening to be able to share experiences across cultures, and to relate to other people you don't even know through stories is really beautiful."
Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Children of color need to see themselves in books, even 'banned" ones