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What’s so dangerous about books?

When was the last time a child died from reading a book?

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When Grandpa Pete died in November 2011, I was in a car full of family members as we drove from the funeral service to the cemetery when someone said, “I’ve never read more than three pages in any book.” This 40-something college graduate went on to tell us that any book worth reading would be made into a movie, and why would anyone in their right mind spend days reading a book when they could watch the movie in two hours?

I remember not bothering to respond, because how do you even begin to argue with ignorance like that?

I thought about this person’s logic, or lack thereof, as I listened to Kentucky GOP legislators last week trying to explain why certain kinds of books should not be available to students in a classroom or school library.

Senate Bill 5, which is sponsored by Sen. Jason Howell, passed 29–4 and now heads to the House. The bill aims to formalize a complaint process for schools to filter materials that parents consider inappropriate for their children.

Obvious questions arise: What happens when a kid who is banned from checking out a book has a friend check it out for them? What are the consequences? And do those consequences apply to the kid, the friend, and the teacher? What happens when one teacher handles this one way, and a teacher down the hall handles it differently?

What if a kid needs to read a banned book to write a paper? Does this mean the teacher has to carefully assign different books for the same assignment? And what happens when the kids who have read and written about the banned book read their papers aloud in class in front of the kid who was not allowed to read the book?

I am reminded of schools where lunch still costs money and kids whose accounts are in arrears are handed a separate “free” lunch. I see an adult in the cafeteria pulling the child aside to say, possibly in front of other students, “You are not allowed to have the same nourishment that everyone else is having.”

Is the fear truly that a child might read a book containing subject-matter they are not prepared for — about race, sex, gender, religion, abuse, substance abuse, etc — or that they might read these books and begin to think and ask hard questions of the adults in their lives about the environment that they, their friends, and their family members are living in?

And then there is this. School children of all ages and their teachers are forced — they can’t opt out, can they? — to routinely practice active shooter drills in our schools. Where is the concern that practicing lockdown or how to escape a mass shooting or learning how to apply combat-level first aid might be harming our kids?

Hardly a week goes by without news of a child being shot. In October, a 12-year-old boy in Knott County fatally shot a 4‑year-old girl. There are so many reports about kids being shot to death (including in their classrooms) that it barely registers as breaking news anymore. “Thoughts and prayers” are often tweeted by Republican lawmakers while they use the power and influence of their offices to do absolutely nothing.

But books. Yes, right. Books are dangerous.

According to Dr. Sabrina Brown, associate professor and researcher at the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Injury Prevention Research Center, “The leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 19 is firearm related. … Children averaged 19 ER visits per year for unintentional firearm related injuries from 2016–2021, with a spike in 2020. Children ages 4 and under accounted for 34%; 5–7‑year-olds accounted for 31%; and 8–10-year-olds accounted for 35%.”

I listened last week as Sen. Stephen Meredith, who seems hellbent on pushing SB5, say, “I never imagined in my life we would have drag queen story hour at a library for children… What’s next? Do we bring prostitutes to school for career day?” and I felt the same as I did back in 2011, in the crowded family car on the way to the cemetery. What does any of this have to do with reading? And yet, how do you even begin to argue with a fundamental level of ignorance like this?

When was the last time Sen. Meredith and his GOP colleagues read more than three pages of a book? Have any of them fully read — other than a few excerpts — the books they support banning?

And unlike the massive number of American children who die every year by firearm, when was the last documented account of a child reading a book that contained information about the human body — a woman’s breasts, masturbation, buttocks, same-sex parenting  — that resulted in the death of that child?

The answer is: never.

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Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.



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Teri Carter

Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Washington Post, and The Daily Yonder. She lives in Anderson County.

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