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Should 8-Year-Olds Be Reading Stories That Glorify Rape?

After her 2nd grader was assigned a story that glorifies rape and extols whiteness as the standard for beauty, a mother tackles bias in elementary school literature head on.
 
 
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Last spring, my 2nd-grade daughter came home with an extra assignment—a worksheet she hadn’t completed in class for a story called “The Selkie Girl.” She brought the book home, too, and it was one I’d never seen before, a Junior Great Books anthology (Series 3, Book 1), published by the nonprofit Great Books Foundation.

As we settled in, I asked my daughter to tell me about “The Selkie Girl.” Her rendition gave me pause, so I asked her to do her other homework first. She turned to a worksheet, and I cracked the book open.

“The Selkie Girl” is essentially about a magical seal-woman who is kidnapped and raped repeatedly during her long captivity. The man who holds her hostage proclaims early on that “I am in love” and “I want her to be my wife.” When he kidnapped her, “She was crying bitterly, but she followed him.” Later, the narrative tells us, “Because he was gentle and loving, she no longer wept. When their first child was born, he saw her smile.” When her means of escape is discovered, however, she explains quite bluntly to the children she bore: “For I was brought here against my will, 20 years past.”

It’s like the modern-day reality of Jaycee Dugard (who was kidnapped at age 11 in California and held captive with her two children for 18 years), told in folklore for the consumption of young children.

The white beauty norms in the story do not help, either:

He went to look and, in wonder and delight, he saw three beautiful girls sitting on the rocks, naked, combing their hair. One of the girls had fair hair, one red, and one black. The fair-haired girl was singing. She was the most beautiful of the three, and Donallan could not take his eyes from her. He gazed and gazed at her gleaming white body and her long-lashed dark eyes.

When I asked our daughter about the “messages” of the story, she pointed to this passage and the accompanying illustrations as support for the idea that she—an African American girl—is “not pretty.”

I was astonished, and I kept reading.

Not all of the book’s stories are horrible in an anti-bias sense, but the social norms conveyed by the text as a whole are. A third of the stories with human characters have female leads, but men—their virtue or their needs—actually dominate all of them. Further, nearly all women and girls are referred to as “wife,” “mother,” or “daughter,” and that is understood to be the genesis of their power, standing, or importance. Men and boys, meanwhile, are presented in a multitude of ways. Finally, the volume’s portrayals of poverty and its supposed causes—“[He] lived in the smallest hut of his village, and if he had been lazy he would have gone hungry at night”—are troubling, as is the recurring theme of obedience to the powerful.

Getting a Pass into Class

How could this book make its way into an early elementary classroom?

First, Junior Great Books easily pass the “research-based” test. On the publisher’s website, you’ll find a slew of studies about the series’ positive effects. As summarized on the Great Books Foundation’s 2011 990 tax return, “the K-12 program has significantly impacted reading levels in reading comprehension on state and national standardized tests.” A pedagogical approach called “shared inquiry” that directs the accompanying teachers’ guides also is backed by research: “Studies have also shown that the skills acquired by shared inquiry have transferred to other content areas, thus impacting achievement levels on tests in areas such as math and science.”