Children's Historical Literature in a Cancel Culture World
This week, Slate.com’s parenting column, Care and Feeding, ran a letter from the concerned parent of a school-age child. The child’s majority-white class, led by a white teacher, had been reading Bound for Oregon as part of an Oregon Trail unit. This book, written in the ’90s, contains the N word. (From all indications, the parent and student are white, also).
The parent expressed concern because when they went to the teacher, she simply said she told the students the N word "is not a nice word," they did not have to say it (when reading aloud in small groups), and the class would discuss the word "later." However, the discussion had not happened, and the parent wondered whether to pull the child out of the class/school over the teacher’s response.
Unfortunately, Bound for Oregon is not the first historical kids’ or YA book to contain this word or other slurs, nor is it the first kids may be required to read in school. In 2020, what is the best way to handle this? Is there any historical kids’ and YA lit that stays true to its historical background without using slurs or outdated attitudes? Are those attitudes "necessary" or "object lessons"–in other words, would "cancelling" them deprive kids of so-called classics or needed info? Does the classroom makeup–the race of the students or teacher, orientations, ability levels, etc.–make a difference? If it does, at what point should related literature be introduced or handled (e.g., how should we handle Holocaust literature when the majority of a class is practicing Jewish? Should able-bodied students be required to read literature about disabled characters, when their school has a segregated special ed program)? Discuss.
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