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Last month, just before my son’s fifth birthday, I found myself crying some bittersweet but mostly happy tears after I checked the mailbox. Among the arrival of packages and cards, and preparations for a celebration, he received another very special gift marking a momentous occasion: he completed his collection of books from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library (DPIL). 

North Carolina is one of 16 states in the U.S. (and more locations across the globe) that has heavily invested in this resource to bring high-quality, age-appropriate children’s books into homes at no cost to families, available starting at the birth of a child, although a family can sign a child up at a later point before age five. The books that arrive monthly to our home come with reading tips for the adults in children's lives, to help them learn how to read to kids, and boost literacy and a lifelong love of reading.

And I am so happy that North Carolina invested in this resource, and that Smart Start and the network of 75 Local Partnerships serving all 100 counties across the state are working together with DPIL to get books into the hands of North Carolina’s youngest children. Through this program, my family has discovered books and book series I never would have thought to look for, and bilingual versions of classics I already knew. 

I have loved seeing children and families of all different kinds in the books my son has received—not just different races, but different cultures, same-sex couples, children with mobility aids and other assistive devices—just different types of representation in the stories we read, presented as perfectly normal. Because they are! We live in a diverse world, and seeing that reflected in my son’s books helps his natural curiosity (that all children have!) get comfortable and cozy with people who are not exactly the same as himself.

I love that one of his favorite series that he chooses when we visit our local library is full of Spanish words sprinkled throughout, and that he gets excited about learning vocabulary in Spanish even though we don't speak it at home. I love bringing out what I learned in my high school Spanish classes again, and sharing the beauty of learning about other languages and cultures. I hope he continues, and connects with a wider world of friends and neighbors as he grows. And I'm glad that when COVID kept us apart from the community around us, books were still there to ignite his curiosity.

Books are a magical and magnificent window into the world, and worlds beyond. And looking at his last book, with the letter from Dolly on the first page that began, “Dear Imagination Library graduate,” I cried. Because just a few weeks prior, I had watched my son read a sentence, really read for the first time. And I knew his world was about to get so much bigger.

His windows will be infinite, and I hope they will be wide open, to see himself reflected in the books he reads; I hope he will see many others reflected as well. I hope he will wave hello and welcome wherever he goes, knowing that “other” and “our own” are not that far apart. I hope that all children have this experience, and grow in this world ready to receive—and give—the amazing gifts that can be shared between and among people who come together with love and respect in addition to children’s natural curiosity.

We all contain so many intersections of our unique ways of being, knowing, doing, believing, feeling, and so many more facets that make us who we are. All children deserve wide-open windows into the world, that they might be celebrated, and celebrate one another. I hope that in our desire to guide, we do not shutter our children’s windows to the world; I hope that we do not deprive them of the gifts they might find there. And I hope that we do not pauper them of their ability to give fully of their uniquely inquisitive love to others. Banning books closes windows into the world; it meets curiosity and creativity with locks and chains; it is an act that seeks to turn love into fear. The world is far too wide, and far too fascinating, to not approach it with some sense of wonder, ready to learn. 

Get books into the hands of children; get more diverse books, and more diverse books, into the hands of children. Open the windows. Teach them to love learning, and let them learn to love.

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