What If Reading Were Forbidden?

Edwidge Danticat delivered the keynote address at the Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York in 2016. She spoke of “…how in Haiti she sees kids who desperately want to read but don’t have any books, and in the United States she sees kids who have plenty of books but who don’t want to read” (Jennifer De Leon, Poets and Writers).

I see this, too. It’s almost a badge of honor for some of my students, particularly boys, to say, “I don’t like to read.”

Perhaps we should share with our privileged public school students the stories of young people who will risk almost anything to have what they take for granted.

When I taught middle school and high school English, I read aloud Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen every year. Imagine being whipped for learning the letters. Even worse punishment was meted out for teaching slaves to read. Now, imagine escaping to freedom only to return to teach.

I have found two fine picture books that will introduce younger students to this dark period. Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret, is written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome.

How could teachers illustrate the pit schools where slaves learned in secret? Shoebox projects? A class terrarium that includes a stem-covered pit?

I follow the Ransome book with Steamboat School, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Ron Husband.

James hates learning by candlelight in a dark basement until even that is taken away by an 1847 Missouri law. Steamboat School is based on the real life’s work of John Berry Meachum. Students will recognize how something gains value when it is taken away.

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