by Sharon McCann-Doyle
My 3rd grade daughter still cries at Disney movies and is afraid to see Matilda on Broadway. So I was dismayed to discover that her school's reading list includes "Behind Rebel Lines", by Seymor Reit, part of the city's new reading curriculum called ReadyGen. It's a terrific book for middle-school students but completely inappropriate for 8-year-olds.
"Behind Rebel Lines" is a compelling story about Emma Edmonds, a woman who, disguised as a man, becomes a Civil War spy. The 127-page book explores issues of war, feminism and race and is full of emotional and historical complexity. The language is dense and the vocabulary is very advanced. But more troubling to me are the content and context.
At one point, Emma's friend and potential love interest is shot through the neck by a musket—a scary, violent scene. At another, Emma dresses as a slave to go behind enemy lines in scenes that introduce minstrels, black face, and the use of racial slurs. The vernacular reflects the era and social status of the book's characters. For example when introducing herself, disguised as a male slave, Emma says "Mah name Cuff, suh. Lookin' fo' Mistuh Prahvit Thompson. Ah b'lieve he wuk here?"
I'm not in the business of banning books and I don't want my children to live in a bubble. I agree with the principles of the Common Core State Learning Standards and want my children to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But the argument for increased rigor does not have to mean choosing literature that is developmentally inappropriate. There is a plethora of age appropriate and rigorous literature available and there are many excellent classroom teachers that know just what books to choose. The inclusion of "Behind Rebel Lines" in the ReadyGen curriculum makes me wonder what other literature choices the Pearson publishing company has made for the program that's designed to implement the Common Core.
This book may be a great launching point for middle school discussions and debate but even the savviest 3rd graders don't have an appropriate contextual foundation. My daughter loves history and knows more Abraham Lincoln trivia than I do but her historical lens is still small and age appropriate. She will learn about the complexities of life and like me I bet she will really enjoy the debates and dialogues that come out of it. All in due time. For now I want her to continue to love learning and embrace all the kid things she loves to do. There is no rush to grow up!
Sharon McCann-Doyle reviews District 6 schools for Insideschools. Formerly a professional ballet dancer, Sharon is now the mother of three and a member of the School Leadership Team and co-president of the Parents Association at her children's school. In 2003 she co-authored a qualitative review of charter schools for the Women's City Club of New York. She is a vice president at Partners With Parents, a tutoring and educational consulting company.