Curating a Library Based on Kindness, Respect, and Commonality

By Julie Mountcastle, Head of School
February 28, 2019

What is the purpose of a collection of books, and how does it determine the course of the education of a cohort? These are important questions that I had never had creative control to consider and implement. Yet every day at Slate School, the creation of our library and the importance of our book policy has become ever more clear. We say that we never want a child to be introduced to the unkindness of the world through a book if they have never experienced it in the world. It’s a daunting task. Over the years, children’s literature has become a wonderfully thriving industry. There are books for every occasion, at every grade level, and in every language. This, for the most part, is a wonderful advance. Books though have great power, and what may be a healing tool for one child is the introduction to the concept of bullying to another. One might think that this is a reasonable tradeoff, or that children need to know that unkindness is sadly a fact of life. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If no example of unkindness is given, children grow with a confidence that allows them to take risks, to make mistakes, to give back willingly, to share, and to expect that kindness prevails.

As an educator, I was shocked to see the unfortunate messages of familiar and sometimes beloved books through this new lens. For example, Chrysanthemum, a book widely used in Kindergarten and First Grade to teach tolerance, and often connected with the writing and appreciation of a child’s name, is sadly a devastating introduction to the world of bullying. How could I have not seen the potential for injury in a book that depicts one child making fun of another child’s name? And yet, many educators rely on this book, and several others of an otherwise wonderful repertoire of Kevin Henkes books, to teach children how to get along in the world. The final message of the book is even unkind in its relishing of the bully’s comeuppance. It would, of course, be better to teach the children that all names are beautiful, and it would certainly encourage a kinder world to respond to an unkind interaction with a sympathetic and compassionate reply.

With so many options for high quality fiction, it’s easy to find something kinder. The book Door, a wordless masterpiece by JiHyeon Lee, takes a child through a door into a magical land filled with unusual creatures. The child is at first unsure of what to make of the colorful and unusual character who he meets, but soon is completely enveloped in this strange new and beautiful land. With literature like this, it is hard to mourn the loss of books like Chrysanthemum.

I am always eager to share our book policy with families and educators, and I am heartened by their response. They, like me, never thought so much about the subtle messages, and once their eyes are opened, I can almost see them hurrying to head back to their own libraries to look again with a new lens at their books. It is not that I think that these books should disappear. Many are very high quality literature and can mend hurt feelings, or give insight into injustice that for the right child or age group can begin a conversation that changes the world. Some, however, seem to be written with little care or concern about the impact of subtle messages. When repeatedly heard, these messages can influence young minds to believe that stealing and lying are commonplace because they are the acceptable traits of beloved anthropomorphized characters.

It becomes the responsibility of the educator, in constant collaboration with parents and vigilant observation of children, who must decide when and what book is appropriate. It is for this reason that we strongly encourage families to consider choosing books reviewed for their kindness, quality, and responsible messaging. Parents should also use their discretion to edit and amend stories to eliminate unnecessary instances of unkindness whenever possible. Even more seductive are the characters brought to life on the screen, and these require extra vigilance as their impact is felt nearly immediately in the behaviors of children.