You know about the book bans and the growing number of challenges to children’s and YA titles. You know that there are two main strands of attacks on kid lit. The first strand makes specious claims about the power of books with queer characters to somehow corrupt children. The second strand argues that exposing white children, in particular, to the history and reality of racism, colonialism, and genocide will fill them with a traumatizing sense of guilt and self-loathing. At the heart of both strands is a simple idea: children’s books are dangerous because they have the potential to change us.
And you know what? Children’s books are dangerous. They do change us. They just don’t change us in the ways that far-right conservatives suggest.
For one thing, we don’t become the characters we encounter in narratives. If we did, we would need to worry, because—as I write this—one of the top streaming series on Netflix is about Jeffrey Dahmer.
Likewise, novels that confront racism do not undermine the psyches of white children. But surprise! Research supports the idea that such stories might actually make white readers feel a little bit guilty. In a study by Dutch scholars, a group of high schoolers read a short passage about either Holland’s participation in the African slave trade or its treatment of Jews during World War II. The students were then asked to imagine themselves in the place of slaves or Jews. After the experiment, some students did feel guilty about their country’s past actions. But that guilt didn’t scar them. Instead, it made them more inclined to support such things as reparations. And even those students who did not report feeling guilty did develop a greater sense of compassion towards the people they imagined being.
And right there is why children’s books are so dangerous—to haters. At the least, they teach compassion. At the most, they inspire a desire for change.
Imagine a computer simulation that allows you to take on the internal thoughts and feelings of others. And imagine, now, that this simulation is so effective that when you are done you better understand what it’s like to be someone else; you’ve developed empathy. Scientists describe literature as that simulation.
Literature helps us develop two kinds of empathy. The first kind is affective empathy. Affective empathy gives us the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions, and it is exactly what the computer-simulation-like gift of reading triggers. It’s why we are so devastated when Charlotte the spider dies, even though we know that she never existed and—even if she did—she would have been unable to save the life of a pig.
The second kind of empathy that literature helps us develop is cognitive empathy, which helps us understand another person’s perspective. It is so important to decision making and creativity that pre-professional programs now incorporate fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir into coursework. The teachers of future doctors, nurses, managers, social workers, criminologists, engineers, and educators get it. Successful professionals need to understand the different perspectives and goals of the people they serve, and this skill needs cultivating.
Other research suggests that literature has the ability to weaken cognitive closure, which is the desire to reach a quick conclusion or make a fast decision. Cognitive closure is not all bad. It keeps us from freezing when survival depends upon immediate action. But cognitive closure also shuts us down emotionally and intellectually. When we’re in the throes of cognitive closure, the best argument, data, and facts are superfluous. We have taken a stand, and we are sticking to it. But—aha!—sneaky stories. They loosen the clamshell of the mind. In a 2013 study, for example, college students who read a short story reported less need for cognitive closure immediately after reading than students who had not. Because they were transported into this computer-like simulation, they didn’t feel compelled to resist new perspectives. Their empathy was beginning to blossom.
Literature truly does what Marcel Proust said of art: it “helps us emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.” And when you know what another person sees and feels, it is much harder to hate them, to dehumanize them, to call them “other.” And if people understand the perspectives of those around them, where will the haters be?
Toward the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag finds a group hiding—like him—from the totalitarian state that burns book. They are the readers, and in the dark of night, they whisper the strands of stories that they have memorized by heart.
Bradbury saw. You can destroy books. You can defund libraries. You can remove titles from schools. You can try and silence publishers and writers. But you can’t stop the stories. The stories are stronger than the haters. Ask Homer. Ask Shakespeare. Ask Anne Frank. The stories bind us. And if you take them away, we will whisper them to one another. Because the stories also see us, and we want to be seen. They take us out of the cave and into the light. And sunlight kills viruses.
Margaret Finnegan’s latest middle-grade novel is New Kids & Underdogs (Atheneum, Oct.)