Dear future children,
It’s strange writing something for someone who doesn’t exist yet. You are almost definitely not even conceived yet unless I end up adopting (in which case, who knows?), so at this point I don’t have any idea what kind of world you’re going to be born into. The world as it is right now, and has been for the past year (or the past four years or for the past eight years, depending on where you start counting from), hasn’t exactly been the greatest, and it’s probably not going to be great until after you’re born, if at all. Your mother isn’t exactly an optimist when it comes to the world. There is one thing that does make me an optimist, though, and that thing is you.
You’re going to grow up with a mother who isn’t a woman and who uses different pronouns from the mothers of your friends. A mother who is passable as straight to some degree but couldn’t get that much queerer if they tried. A mother who is passably abled but is most definitely disabled. A mother who has a master’s degree but sometimes forgets to eat or sleep. A mother who isn’t exactly well-loved by the rest of the world, but is still here working away at this weird thing called life. As much as I wish it weren’t so, though, these things are probably going to make things harder for you for a while, and that’s why I’m here writing to you before you even exist.
I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s a story that involves a gift that I started for you back when I was a child.
As of right now in late November 2017, your mother owns 1,276 books, according to LibraryThing (will that still be around? Who knows?! I hope so). A solid third of those are kids’ books, many of which I read and owned when I was a child. Many of these books were my absolute favorite ones to read, and I can tell you which of my elementary school teachers I read them with and how I felt while reading them.
Many of these books are also deeply, deeply problematic.
You see, I went to an elementary school through the ’00s that was very poor and had little money for new library books at any given time. Because of this, a very large number of those books were from around the ’50s-70s — books so old that they didn’t all consistently have barcodes or ISBN numbers. After I left high school the library finally started getting some money to replace those books, and so they began to be weeded from the library. These old books had to go somewhere, though, and the library technician apparently had a really hard time just throwing them out. Your grandmother still worked at that elementary school at the time, and that library technician knew that I collected books. So, instead of throwing them out, the library technician gave boxes and boxes of books to your grandmother to give to me.
And that’s how I ended up with a collection of extremely problematic children’s books.
I still have all of them, though, as problematic as they may be. Many of them I’m going to read with you. I’ll tell you why: you’re almost certainly going to grow up privileged to some degree. You’re probably going to be white, and you might be cisgender, straight, allosexual, abled, and quite possibly well-off financially; all of these things can make it more difficult to understand the hardships of the marginalized peoples you’ll see in your life. You’re not going to grow up understanding their lives because you won’t have the same experiences. And that’s okay. But we’re going to try something with these problematic books that I didn’t get the chance to do as a child: we’re going to read them, and we’re going to talk about why they’re problematic together.
Problematic books drive me up the wall. And you know what? This is actually a good thing. If a problematic book is able to drive me up the wall, it means that I’m recognizing why the content of the book is problematic, and being able to identify problematic things in books can be a really important step to learning how to identify problematic things in real life. I want to teach you how to identify problematic things in the world so that you can do so on your own and hopefully address them in real life. You are my hope for the future, and I want you to have the best set of tools available to you so that you can be a good advocate and a good ally to those who don’t have as much privilege as you.
Does this make reading sound like work? Please don’t worry! Though I have quite the collection of problematic books, I also have a solid collection of great books, especially diverse books, that you can read and enjoy. Be critical, but remember that you can have fun while reading, too. Not everything has to be a lesson. If you want to grow up to be a reader, I promise you I’ll have a great selection of books for you to pick from, and if you don’t see the book you want in our collection then we’ll go straight to the library to get it.
Remember, too, that it’s okay to like books that are problematic — just make sure that you acknowledge that there are issues present. You can enjoy a problematic book without ignoring the problems it has.
You’re going to grow up in a strange time with a strange family in a strange world. As I said, though, you are my hope for the future, and I hope that once I’ve given you the tools you’ll need to navigate it you’ll be able to make it just a little bit brighter.
P.S. Here’s Coco back when your mother only had one cat.