Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) is a national non-profit organization that has provided more than 420 million books to children in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico since its founding in 1966. The literacy crisis that was identified decades ago, sadly, continues with today’s young generations, and RIF volunteers collect, and distribute, thousands of age-appropriate books to children in our community every year. The RIF table at Culmore Community Day at the Woodrow Wilson Library on Saturday was overrun by eager children ready to find their favorite author or character in the pages of hundreds of free donated books. Little eyes gleamed as they hugged the precious books to their chests, ready to dash home and settle in for new adventures via the printed word, limited only by their own imaginations.
The power of books and reading is enormous, and often taken for granted – until there is an effort to restrict what can be read and who can read it. Banning books long has been a technique used by those who express outrage about content, or seek to control the activities of other people. Perhaps the real issue is fear – instilling fear in others simply because they can, or fear of ideas, because they simply have none of their own. Curiously, some of the targeted books are popular classics: “The Kite Runner” and “A Lesson Before Dying” were among the ones selected for the “All Fairfax Reads” program a few years ago. Both highlight human struggles and relationships, albeit in vastly different realms; the former an inside look at Afghan history and culture, the latter a somewhat uncomfortable story about race, the American legal system in the post-World War II south, and eventual redemption. As with most books assigned in classrooms, both selections were accompanied by a discussion guide that provided context and opportunity for the reader, and enhanced the experience.
Parents have every right to monitor what their own children may read, but they shouldn’t have the right to restrict what other children may read. Growing up, I loved to read, even the time-honored practice of using a flashlight under the covers to read just a few more pages before sleep. Books could take me to countries and cultures around the world, into fairy tales, mythology, or Shakespeare. Looking back, those classics may have gender and situational issues that, today, could invoke the ire of parents and school boards alike, but cooler heads must prevail, allowing and encouraging youth to explore the many doors that books can open.
Math classes always challenged me as a kid, but I never considered that math books should be banned because of “modeling concepts” or “polynomials.” In removing a number of math texts from classrooms, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that he “wanted children to learn to think, and get the right answer.” I suspect that all teachers want their students to learn to think, and also to get the right answer. The right answer for an arithmetic problem is easy and straightforward, but solving algebra, calculus, and trigonometry problems takes more complex thought processes, something that may be lacking for Mr. DeSantis, despite his Harvard and Yale education.
Reading is fundamental – for everyone. There was a time, not so long ago, when most people (especially women) did not have the opportunity to learn to read. Fortunately, most Americans have access to a public school education where reading is valued and recognized as a basic necessity for everyday life. We cannot stand by, or sit back, when government officials try to restrict access to books – classroom texts, storybooks, scientific manuals, young adult graphic novels, or any other legitimate published materials. Some content may not be of interest, but defense of that content, and everyone’s right to read it, is a worthy, and winnable, fight.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.