By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, February 12, 1989
It was a book. But I dumped it in the garbage anyway. I threw it out the way I would toss out a dead flashlight battery or a slab of moldy cheddar.
It was a children’s book. One of the thousands of new children’s book titles published each year in the United States.
It was a carefully packaged, full-color book with a cover that glistened and cried out to be rescued from its fate amidst the torn envelopes and empty coffee cups.
My conscience, always the nit-picker and curmudgeon, promptly put me on notice.
“Hey,” it muttered. “The thoughtful person doesn’t throw books away. That’s what you do with potato peels and stale bubble gum. What is this anyway, some kind of witch hunt?”
I had taken high school civics. I knew all about the First Amendment. By throwing this book away, wasn’t I lining myself up with the great censors of the western world – Nero, Constantine, Pope Gregory IX, Henry VIII, the Soviets, the Nazis?
Wasn’t I closing my mind? My children’s minds? Getting in the way of the free circulation of ideas?
On the outside, the book was attractive enough. But inside was a different story.
There, three adorable mouse children fretted over their Mother’s Day gifts for mom. The book read like a greeting-card industry promotion for Mother’s Day. It was schmaltzy and boring at best, and guilt-provoking at worst.
It made me mad.
As the Tribune’s children’s book reviewer, I receive dozens of terrible books – along with dozens of very good books – each year. The bad books crowd my bookshelves. There is the one about the unbearable smarty-pants who counts to 100 on the first day of kindergarten. There is the bunny rabbit book written in sing-song verse.
There are the books that scare small children. There are the books that belittle small children. There are the books that go way over their heads.
What am I to do with these books that so offend me? Use them as teaching tools with my own children? Present them as bad examples? That works for one reading. Then what?
Reading – if the children I see are at all typical – comes as naturally to kids as climbing trees and eating popcorn.
At first, they struggle and stumble over every word. It is painful to watch. It seems that this small person will never master what looks to be a very adult, very sophisticated skill.
Then, one day, somewhere between age 4 and age 8, somewhere between the first missing tooth and the last wet bed, little Zachary reads.
And he reads. He reads the cereal boxes. He reads his mail. He reads the instructions to his Monopoly game.
It’s a miracle.
He is only 7 years old, but he takes a flashlight to bed and studies a book about football for sixth graders. He reads as naturally as Kareem skyhooks to the basket.
But should I give him the mouse book?
And if I don’t, what do I do with it? Give it to a friend? Give it to a school? A library? A daycare center?
If I give the mouse book away, mightn’t it wind up in the hands of someone young and impressionable?
At last, I became fed up with moving that book from one place to another on my desk. I threw it in the garbage.
Minutes later, the book was gone. A coworker had rescued it.
There is something about a book – however worn, however boring, however incompetent, however racist, sexist, schmaltzy or guilt-provoking – that forbids it to be thrown away.
For those of us who read, a new book holds out the hope that a new idea lies within.
That new idea might be an insight into the life of George Bush or Mary Queen of Scots. It might be a new way to filet a fish. But it is an idea, and not something to be put in the garbage with the junk mail and the avocado pits.
My co-worker approached me, holding the mouse book.
“You don’t want this?” he exclaimed.
“No. It’s no good.”
“But it’s so beautiful. I’m going to give it to my sister. She’s a children’s librarian.”
A few weeks later, the book was back on my desk. The librarian didn’t want it either.
Nor did she have the heart to throw it away.
And now, neither do I. It still sits there on my desk, getting in the way.
Used by permission of The Oakland Tribune
Epilogue: I’m pretty sure that book wound up in the trash. I couldn’t bear to inflict it on a real child, mine or anyone else’s. And I couldn’t stand the sight of it on my desk at work. No doubt I took that book home and slipped it into our household garbage can. Maybe I wrapped it in a plain brown wrapper first so that Jon and the kids wouldn’t see it and be tempted to rescue the adorable mousies from the cruel jaws of the garbage truck.
And fyi: This was a book, mind you, that came into my possession. Its fate was my responsibility. No way would I have prevented anyone else from owning such a book.
PS: *The photo of the book in the trash can is a mock-up I did for this post. And, yes, I also had a terrible time throwing this “book” away.