In my memory, my elementary school was small and standard for a poorer, rural Mississippi town. The brick was the color of an old scab. There were three buildings: an auditorium with classrooms, a newer structure with squat ceilings and cinder-block walls, and an ancient cafeteria that had been there since my mother’s time. She was one of the first Black students to attend the school when it was integrated in the ’60s. I’d imagine 20 years later, as I ate my packed lunch in the cafeteria, that slant-walled building looked much the same as it did back then: all peeling, sun-bleached wood, with box fans going strong in the windows because it had no central air or heat.
Even though it was old and dingy, I loved my school. I loved the tiny square playground where I spent most of my recess hours, surrounded by tall pine trees in an amphi-theater of living green. I spent long moments looking up at their crowned heads, trying to discern some dialogue in the way they swayed in the wind or nodded in the breeze. I loved the small courtyard near the cafeteria. It was where I first learned that if I stood very still and studied the sky, the clouds would move like great boats overhead, casting their cool shadows on the concrete and grass.
"Every story was a subsummation."
But I discovered real metaphor and imagery in the tiny library. Allowing myself to fall into a book felt effortless and immersive, like jumping off a downed tree trunk into a brown, swiftly moving river. Every story was a subsummation.
I snuck through the streets of New York with Harriet the Spy, eavesdropping in dumbwaiters. I searched the seas with Pippi Longstocking to find her missing, maybe dead, father. I rode an old, lame horse with a lonely girl named Aerin, who mourns her absent father and dead mother while she hunts dragons in The Hero and the Crown. In all my reading, I muddled along with the characters as they weathered loss and disorientation—weighty subjects for any child. But I always felt safe in the cradle of the story. The care the authors put into their storytelling made me feel that way, even as they enlarged my sense of wonder and witness.
"I wanted to read about Black girls who subverted the will of this world"
By the time I was 10 years old, I’d made my way through hundreds of books, but I also understood that I was searching for something. I wanted some glimpse of someone who resembled me. In all my reading, I’d come across only two Black girl main characters: Cassie Logan, the nine-year-old trying to make sense of life in Jim Crow–era Mississippi in Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Jennifer, who fiercely pretends to be a witch in E.L.Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. Both novels reflected two important aspects of my life—my Blackness and my girlhood—and I loved them for it. But they were only two. I was frustrated. I didn’t need everything I read to mirror my own identity and experience, but I wanted more. I wanted more of the people I read about to struggle with racial violence or poverty and to also be independent and adventurous, unbound by the restrictions of reality. I wanted to read about Black girls who subverted the will of this world—a world that said that when I grew up, I could expect to work as a housekeeper or a nursing-home aide or a hotel maid or on an assembly line in a factory if I was lucky but that I could never be a writer like Harriet or an explorer like Pippi or a warrior like Aerin. I hungered for affirmation, possibility, but all I got was erasure, and it tasted like air.
The Reagan '80s were particularly grim for children. We saw images every day of kids our age who were struggling to survive famine and destitution. The space shuttle Challenger blew up on live TV as we watched in the school auditorium. Some days, we did drills where we hid under our desks or laced our fingers behind our necks and knelt in hallways, trying to protect the tenderest parts of our bodies from nuclear assault and tornadoes. I always felt in peril, devoid of agency, and doomed. To see people like me in the books I read might have alleviated some of that feeling—or at least taught me that people like me could embrace adventure, could thrive. Perhaps I would have learned that life was more than the threat of loss, but I never discovered that. Instead,I empathized with Cassie and Jennifer, grateful not only for the temporary relief from exploded shuttles and nuclear blasts, from WIC raisins and powdered milk, but also for the near experience of witness they gave me.
When we weren’t finding new things to read in the library, we watched films like The NeverEnding Story or Bridge to Terabithia. These movies, like the books upon which they were based, were all devastating. On movie days, my whole class would sob in horror at the terrible, unexpected death of a magical horse or a young girl. Literary films, like books, did not coddle; they challenged us and expanded our perspectives. People die, they said. Those you love will leave you, they said, but you will continue on in your life until one day, you don’t.
Other days, we watched a TV show called Tomes & Talismans. Years later, I learned that Mississippi Public Broadcasting, then called Mississippi ETV, produced the series. It was set in an apocalyptic future where most of humanity has been relocated to another star system, but a small band of survivors remains on Earth. A librarian, Ms.Bookheart, leads these survivors as they attempt to complete a library containing all human knowledge. Ms. Bookheart and her little band are the Users, and their missions taught me and my schoolmates how to understand the Dewey decimal system and about the wealth of information we could find in encyclopedias. Meanwhile, the Wipers, hostile aliens, have settled on Earth and are determined to eradicate all human knowledge by destroying books. In the show, the Wipers raid dilapidated libraries covered in ivy and the crumpled snowfall of old paper, ripping apart books and toppling card-catalog cabinets. They are feral and wild-eyed, without sense or reason. Even as a child, I hated them. Their menace seemed real and unhinged. The Users’ lessons often felt ham-fisted and boring, but I still cheered for the librarians and the kids they led—the keepers of story. I inherently knew the value of reading and, even more so, of reading books that enlarged my view of the world and humanity, even if they didn’t center me.
"Children now must fight an even more difficult battle than the one I did"
I wonder if kids today view conservative parents and school boards in the same light; I wonder if they look at the adults who campaign against books and see people without sense or reason. I spent my entire childhood empathizing with characters who had little in common with me, relieved to escape to another world. When I became a young adult and found books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I was elated, but the child in me was angry. Later, I would learn that the Wipers were at work even as I perused the shelves of my elementary-school library, banning Harriet the Spy and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; I found those books in spite of them.
It seems that children now must fight an even more difficult battle than the one I did, especially in states like Florida, where a large number of books by and about people of color and 2SLGBTQIA+ people—books that will challenge and enlarge the perspectives of readers—have been banned. I hope that these kids will find Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue or Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give or Jewell Parker Rhodes’s GhostBoys or Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer or Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in spite of those who wield the hammer of censorship. This erasure of different voices feels as if it is pushing us ever closer to a more desolate tomorrow—one where even more kids feel unseen, where the magical and necessary work of story is stymied while the Wipers rend and gnash and deprive brave, deeply feeling, sensitive children of the stories they need the most.
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