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February 1, 2018 by

When Your Child Brings a Sexist Book Home from Jewish Day School

The truth is that I don’t remember the name of the book. Something innocuous, something to do with sewing and the first flag and maybe even Betsy Ross. Something nicely Philadelphian and, given that she brought it home from the school library, something certainly age-appropriate for my kindergartener.

Age-appropriateness isn’t the only kind of appropriateness to be concerned about with kids’ media, but to be honest we’ve never heavily screened the books that our children read. For the younger ones, we still do the reading with them, so we can talk with them about the messages that make us uncomfortable or with which we disagree. Sometimes it’s even a good opportunity to explain our values or worldview and how it differs from the book, or to ask them what they think about how something is presented or plays out. It’s rare though: most of the books we get are pretty great, and the other ones tend to fall out of (read: be removed from) circulation fairly quickly.

Library day is every Wednesday for kindergartners at her Jewish Day School. My daughter is always really excited for me to read her the book she’s come home with. They’re usually fine; classic kids’ stories or something nicely historical designed to appeal to just her age group. This one was a little older, a little more battered, with well-loved pages and the marks of time.

Just like a lot of classic kids’ books. Just like nearly every book I own.

She was so excited for me to read it with her: a book about sewing (which she loves), featuring a young girl with siblings (just like her), set in her very own city (not far from her house). I certainly didn’t think to read it to myself first—it was coming from her school library, from the section designated specifically for kindergarteners, with all the markings of a book that has stood the test of time.

Time’s a funny thing though. The books of the (recent) past sometimes have very different subtle (or not so subtle!) messages than the books of the present. Especially books about girls and sewing and post-revolutionary Philadelphia.

She settled into my lap. (These book-reading lap-sitting times are becoming rarer. I was excited to read it to her too.) I started to read about this young girl (whose name I don’t remember) whose father was a carpenter. She wanted to use his tools. Ah! I thought. This will be a nice empowering message about how girls can work with their hands and build alongside boys. (That’s not about sewing flags. I didn’t notice.)

Nope. Her parents tell her she isn’t allowed to use them. Okay, I thought. Tools are dangerous. Adult supervision only.

Nope. She isn’t allowed to use them because they are for boys only. Uh-oh.

She uses them anyway. Okay, it’s a bit dicey that she’s directly going against her parents’ wishes, but she’s spunky! She’s rebellious! She’s challenging sexist social structures and will be rewarded for her refusal to adhere to these artificial divisions.

Nope. She can’t handle it on her own. She gets hurt. She causes damage to the house.

I’m still holding out hope that her parents will realize that she can and should be able to use the tools, and so they decide to teach her how to work with them properly, leading to a nice satisfying ending in which sexism is overturned while safety is championed.

Nope. Her mother scolds her, telling her (basically) to stay in her lane and do some sewing instead (which she is good at! Which is for girls! Which won’t cause damage to the house!). She agrees. She sews a nice flag and learns not to try to do something she shouldn’t.

The End.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

I mean, we’ve encountered some mildly sexist books before, where boys say that certain clothes or colors or activities are for girls, and girls won’t play boys’ games. We talk about where that comes from and why it probably doesn’t make sense in our lives and our house, even if they see it (all the damn time) in their lives. But usually it’s a line or two, which, though still insidious, still problematic, still very, very irritating, is not the central focus—the entire take-home message—of the book. And it’s usually a book that was sent to us or acquired randomly or somehow just snuck it’s way in to the house.

But this one was a book that she brought home from school! This was a book from her school library! This was a book that her school thought was okay for girls and boys to read!

It was not okay.

I was not okay with it.

I also know that there are (thank god, and for this we are very, very privileged) a lot of books in her school library. I know that her school has been around for over 60 years, and this particular book may well have been in the very first iteration of the school library. I know (or strongly suspect) that Jewish books are screened quite carefully for their gendered messages in her egalitarian, Jewishly progressive school. I know that teachers can’t possibly screen every book they have. I clearly don’t.

And yet.

I didn’t want to seem like I was censoring content. I remember my own mother being livid that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series was removed from my Jewish school library for its Christological structure. (Which…I barely knew what Christmas was. I certainly could not then decipher that Aslan was Jesus. I barely can now.) But in a world full of content, in a world full of wondrous, magical, life-changing, non-sexist content, maybe this one could be flagged.

So I flagged it.

I sent a nice, polite, calm (I wasn’t feeling calm) e-mail to my daughter’s teacher. I explained that I was surprised to find the school sending home books that taught children rigid gender roles, and, equally disturbing, told them to give up on their dreams of taking on new challenges and learning new skills. (The truth is that I didn’t find them equally disturbing, but both were pretty bad.) The teacher thanked me for my e-mail and promised to look the book over, and, ultimately, it was removed from circulation.

That was the easy part.

Much more challenging was navigating the message with my daughter. I didn’t want her to think that she shouldn’t listen to us when we teach her lessons about safety. I also didn’t want her to think that she shouldn’t try new things in case she should fail. I certainly didn’t want her to think tools are for boys. I also didn’t want her to think there was anything wrong with sewing. Just because girls were forced to do it doesn’t mean girls can’t now choose to do it. She and I do it, all the time. So does my other daughter. So does my son.

I practiced what I was going to say to her. I took a deep breath, and sat down with her. She settled in. I told her that the book was written a long time ago, when people treated women and girls (more) unfairly, and they had some pretty limited ideas about what they were allowed and able to do. I was about to talk about how she has a lot more options than the girl in the book, and the girls who were the original audience for the book.

I had it all worked out. I’d practiced, after all.

She cut me off. “It’s a pretty silly book, Imma. I bet her brother wished he could have sewed the flag with her. Maybe she could have taught him how to sew the flag, and he could have taught her how to use the tools.”

I’m glad I flagged it for the school.

Turns out there was no need to flag it with her.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.