Read and grow

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

There are a great many things in life that only reveal their true strangeness when we really stop to think about them. One of these strange things is the fact that we can have vivid memories of people – how they act, what they like, their manner of speaking – who in reality never existed. Fictional characters occupy a large space in our hearts and minds… and much of that starts when we are very young.

During my recent trip to the bookstore with my daughter, she requested to buy another comic book about Harley Quinn, her favorite character. She sometimes talks about Harley Quinn as though she were a real person and she often narrates stories in the books she reads as though they were real events. For a child just learning to read, story books are a double portal – not only a passage to the new world of the story, but a passage to the new world of the written word, where those marks on the page suddenly make sense. For those of us who are older or those who have fallen out of the habit of reading, it may be hard to remember, but usually all it takes is to see a child absorbed in a book for – the expression on their face, the rapture in their eyes – to remember those feelings.

Most of us who had the privilege to have access to story books as a child will have at least one favorite, a character that we considered to be a friend, whose adventures we believed were somehow our own as well, escapades that we ourselves took part in. Experts such as the philosopher Walter Benjamin have written about how children cross over into story worlds, what’s also been called “mimetic imagination” or the capability of entering into a fictional world and feeling as if it were real. This is why, as Professor Maria Tatar has written: “Encounters with books leave memories so powerful that readers constantly seek outlets for preserving them and sharing them with others.” For some parents, this will seem very familiar, your child talking your ear off about their favorite book after having read it for the fourth time (that day). For slightly older readers, this experience is core to the birth of fandoms, of the communities that are formed around a love of stories and the characters within them.

There was a time when the idea of children reading was actually frowned upon – a constant refrain when it comes to both new (at the time) technology, and when it came to empowering a marginalized class of persons. It was seen as a corrupting influence, a path towards escapism when children could be learning “useful” skills. Of course, nowadays reading a book is placed on a pedestal, the new conservative bastion in the face of YouTube and video games. Setting aside the accuracy of the arguments against new media (many of which, it should be pointed out, were the same arguments used against reading books in the past), it’s important not to be dismissive of the importance of “escape” for a child.

Again, it may be hard to remember for adults, but the world of most children is very small. Children have very little control over their lives – over where they are, or what they have to do, or how to use their time. They are subject to the orders and dictates of their parents and teachers, and the fact that many of these impositions are for their own good does not mean that children have the capacity to understand these reasons, or that the validity of reasons would in any way impact their feelings of frustration and helplessness.

But with a book – ah, with a book! – a child can choose to be anywhere, be anyone. The shackles fall off and the spirit wanders, with heroic companions at their side, off to have adventures where their actions make a real impact in the world around them, where they can encounter bad and dangerous things and emerge triumphant, where they can be free to be who they want to be. The limitations placed with children, coupled with their mimetic imagination, means that many children first encounter important concepts and principles – justice and villainy, love and betrayal, prejudice and redemption, not to mention types of people that are very different from those in their home – within the pages of books. For all the moaning about the detrimental nature of “escapism,” a widely read child, who has a loving adult to help them process and reflect on new information, is much better prepared to deal with the real world than a similarly situated child who has read no stories. The more diversity there is in the books available to a child, the more freedom they have to follow their passions and inclinations, the healthier the child’s mental life will be.

But there are many that see the power in books and are terrified of it. This year has seen a book banning spree of “unparalleled intensity” in school districts in the United States, an attempt by certain groups to erase books that address racial inequality or center the existence of LGBTQ+ people. The proponents of these bans often couch their campaign around the idea that they are “protecting” children – when what they are doing is exactly the opposite. They would prefer their children blinded to realities that they (the campaigners) find offensive or upsetting, to control what children read and, in so doing, control the kind of adults they grow up to be.

It’s important to remind ourselves that children are not property – not of their parents, and certainly not of “well meaning” adults. Children do not exist to be controlled or to be made carbon copies of their elders… for the world that they live in will not be ours, it will be theirs, made by their own hands. Our duty as their elders is to guide them yes, but not the way one would guide a horse by forcing it to only look in one direction. Instead, we make their worlds as broad as we can, their hearts as large as we can, so that they can hopefully make a kinder, more diverse and more accepting world than the one we live in. We do not fetter our youth… instead, we give them the fertile soil they need to grow. And there are not many more fertile than that provided by books.

Let your children read. Let your children grow.


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