Should bad words be read to children? This question surfaced last week when children’s author Dan Gutman posted his response to a parent letter on Facebook asking whether it was appropriate to use the N-word in books for young audiences.
Gutman rose to fame with his My Weird School series. The wacky volumes, beloved by many first and second grade boys (my own included), will sound familiar to many parents: Mr. Nick is a Lunatic, Mrs. Meyer is on Fire, Miss Daisy is Still Crazy. Gutman and his characters take having fun and disliking school seriously.
Gutman is also the author of a baseball time travel series: Babe & Me, Honus & Me, etc. A parent wrote to say that his ten-year old son “is learning a great deal and enjoying the experience” of reading Jackie & Me, about famed ballplayer Jackie Robinson. But the book prompted an unexpected question from the child to the parent:
Last night he told me that a word kept appearing in one of the books and he didn’t understand it. I told him to point it out to me the next time he saw it. Within a few moments, he showed me the word. . . I think you know where I am headed with this.
The parent pointed out that in other books, Gutman has used symbols to convey curse words instead of profanity. “Giving children a picture into the world and suffering of others is what empathy and learning is all about,” but the parent concluded that the use of the N-word for a child “is just simply not necessary to convey the message. . . a use of symbols here would seem to be appropriate.”
Gutman confessed that he “struggled with how to handle ‘the N word’” when he wrote the book eighteen years earlier. But upon reflection he felt
that leaving it out would be sugarcoating Jackie Robinson’s experience and not giving an accurate description of what he went through in 1947. In the end, I decided to leave it in, though I did limit the use of it to a few instances. . . . In the end, I haven’t regretted my decision. Thousands of kids have learned about race relations and the civil rights movement by reading Jackie & Me.
Gutman’s post comes after recent reports that a school district in Virginia temporarily suspended from its curriculum To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain because they contain racial slurs. The tradition of banning Huckleberry Finn dates back to Twain’s time. A couple of years ago, a publisher announced plans to release a cleaner version of the classic that used something “less hurtful, less controversial” than that dreaded word, a version more accepting in the “new classroom” of today.
The commonsense response—to Gutman’s post and efforts to eliminate from the curriculum of language that beckons to distinct historical periods—is that these are teachable moments for those parents who see teaching as a primary responsibility of parenthood.
When I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with my three oldest children, I remember coming to the first instance of the N-word. My eyes saw it looming on the page ahead and in a few dozen more syllables I was at the moment of “read or skip,” “truth or denial.” I paused in my reading and told the kids that the next word was a very bad word and not a word I would ever say. “It’s not a word I ever want you to say,” I told them. “But I will let you read it with your eyes so that you know the word and if you ever hear the word spoken you will remember that it is a powerfully offensive word.” One of my sons tried to sound it out. We all heard it. It sounded vile. Reading the word, of course, prompted questions about when the word was used, who used it, why they used it, and whether anyone would still use it today.
The last thing I want to teach my kids is hate, but spreading a shroud of compassion over past verses is not an act of compassion. It is an act of duplicity.
These words—and the fact that they appear in some of the most famous works of American literature, and that they have been spoken and sadly are still spoken in some quarters—are awakening moments.
If we shield our children from hearing evil or seeing the wrongs of the past, they will be deluded into thinking they live in a pristine world. Our job as parents is to teach them how to be righteous people in their own moment of history and how to prepare to teach righteousness to their own children. If literary volumes are scrubbed of language artifacts, if stained glass in old buildings displaying slavery is shattered, if dilapidated railroad tracks withering in the concentration camps are disassembled, there is no journey towards light because there is no reckoning with truth.
Writing in the New York Times Book Review last month, Christopher Buckley reviewed a new audiobook recording of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer performed by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and called the eight-hour recitation “a tonic.” Buckley noted that “[T]his is a novel many of us first heard before we read it. Tom Sawyer and its sequel Huckleberry Finn are arguably America’s ur-bedtime stories.” But Buckley also pointed out they may not be deemed appropriate by more recent generations of parents.
Twain’s story for children includes grave robbing and murder, homelessness, drunkenness, and a child slave. It also contains numerous references to the N-word. “Nostalgia can be a mixed bag,” Buckley concluded. Indeed, the same can be said for humanity.