Writing our future together
ON LEARNING of the National Library Board's (NLB's) withdrawal of certain children's titles, I felt compelled to co-organise Let's Read Together! with a fellow parent.
On Sunday, children, their parents and caregivers, and well-wishers settled down outside the National Library to share books - including two of the withdrawn titles.
Books were the foundation of my childhood universe. Fiction and non-fiction narratives showed me different ways of understanding my life and the people around me. When I felt alienated, as young people frequently do, the printed word - a turn of phrase or a scrap of dialogue - often gave me hope for my place in the world.
Lego supplies kids with physical pieces to tinker with in three-dimensional space. Books do the same in emotional, social and philosophical space. They populate our imaginations with possibilities for relating to other people, things and ideas. With these blocks, we build ourselves. A greater breadth of books expands who we can become.
It is no coincidence that in one chapter of my novel, A Certain Exposure, every child character has a relationship with books. What they read varies - from brainteasers to self-help to fantasy to the Bible - but they all read. The novel itself grew out of my lifelong love of text.
NLB's move shrank the imaginative potential available to children. Let's Read Together! was a grassroots effort to restore that potential, if just for one afternoon: to host a people's library.
Unfortunately, we were hampered by the fact that one title, White Swan Express, is out of print. This makes the NLB's destruction of its physical copies especially poignant, as it is hastening the total extinction of a creative work and its communicative possibilities.
Those are my stakes, as a writer and a parent, in making diverse children's books available. But ultimately, my stakes are secondary to those of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people.
Book lovers are understandably sentimental about covers, pages and spines. Many recall the chilling role of book burning in the history of fascism. But the heart of the matter is not, as a queer friend of mine quipped, "the sacred physicality of books". Books only matter because people matter.
The real question is this: will we continue to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people the right to exist in public space? Must we persist in treating them as lesser members of society? NLB, a public institution meant to serve all without prejudice, appears to have responded to this with "yes".
After all, if mere images of same-sex relationships are "age-inappropriate" for children, what of real human beings? Must the gay uncle never bring his boyfriend to a family picnic? Should a lesbian godmother censor all reference to cooking with her partner over the weekend? It is hard to see how these barriers strengthen family ties.
Perhaps we are "only" asking lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people to live in eternal consciousness that their emotional intimacies are unacceptable - to treat as squalid every gesture of affection or term of endearment that heterosexual people take for granted or even publicly celebrate.
Then there is the painful matter of the queer child who never simply sees herself reflected in a book without judgment. What does it mean for human beings, who are inherently social creatures, if they are never allowed to exist socially? For many, this question has already been answered: it means ostracism, depression, self-harm and even suicide.
A few children's books offered us a small chance to change this outcome. NLB has missed the opportunity. I hope the rest of us can still write ourselves a better, more inclusive future.
The writer is a senior manager for programmes and communications at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). She wrote this column in her personal capacity.