WA Early Achievers Program Raises Censorship Concerns

Broad language used in a Washington State Early Achievers program that singles out specifically “fables, fairy tales, and nature/science books” has raised concerns about censorship in daycares across the state.

Part of the Early Start Act, which was signed into law earlier this year, Washington Early Achievers is a program designed to extend “high-quality early learning for Washington’s children and families, particularly in our most diverse and vulnerable communities.” In order to receive or maintain access to state subsidies and other important services, select daycares must enroll in the program and follow specific guidelines to obtain credits and a certain rating from the state. One of the guidelines: to monitor the age appropriateness of reading materials children have access to in the daycare.

Along with requiring students to have accessibility to at least one book for every two children, as well as a 3-hour informal reading time, the part of the program which outlines the necessary exposure children must have to literature also contains a requirement that asks caregivers to select books that might not scare children. Indicator 5.4 “requires that all books are appropriate for children in that group.” It continues, outlining specifically what does not qualify as an “age-appropriate” book:

Look closely at fables, fairy tales, and nature/science books. Books that glorify violence in any way or show frightening images are not considered to be appropriate.

The guidelines are most likely well intended, being broad enough for teachers and caregivers to be selective of titles that they feel might fit the parameters. But as the National Coalition Against Censorship points out, “indeed, countless pedagogically valuable books that cater to young audiences rely on images that toddlers might find frightening,” and therein lies the problem.

Moreover, as Katherine Keller, CBLDF Board Member and TDRL Evening & Weekend Supervisor, University Libraries, UNLV notes, “age appropriateness is a legitimate concern when it comes to collection development for youth, continuing:

Reading and stories are an important way that young children learn about the world, and one of the things that it is vital for young children to learn is that they can face their fears and overcome them.  This is one of the ways that children learn they have agency.

When it comes to non-fiction and nature books, their utility is threefold.  Books about things like earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes help teach what to do. Books about wild animals are a safe way for small children to confront any fears about these animals, and/or learn correct behavior at the zoo or wild animal park (like don’t climb down into the gorilla cage!).  Finally, learning about STEM topics as small children is often what sparks a life long interest which leads to the next generation of achievers. It is important that girls and children from ethnic and cultural minorities see themselves as having a place in STEM fields, and the sooner, the better.

The broadness of the requirement could inadvertently lead teachers to self-censor certain materials that have pedagogical value for fear that they are not age-appropriate and to avoid not receiving a rating that qualifies them for state subsidies. NCAC notes that books like Maurice Sendak’s seminal classic Where the Wild Things are could become a victim of the guidelines due to its literal depiction of monsters.

Also of concern is the clause that asks for nature and science books to be evaluated. “Nature/science books are no different,” writes NCAC, “as children might be afraid of pictures of large animals like lions, bears, and dinosaurs.” They continue:

The standard also prohibits books that depict or describe animals or people eating other animals or people. This would, naturally, impact science books covering the more Darwinian aspects of natural history and also fairy tales like There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

Although the intentions behind the standards are good, ironically there is an underlying fear that the guidelines established could, in effect, end up compromising the very goal of the Early Achievers program to provide all children with comprehensive access to education in preparation for their entry into kindergarten. For Keller, “exposure to diverse subjects in an age appropriate fashion is an important part of how children start learning about the wider world around them, and as part of that development it can be useful — and even critically important — that some of the topics be (potentially) discomforting or even (the right amount of) scary.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!