Maryland Social Worker Writes Children’s Book About Body Safety

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Three dozen children in slashed mango-colored shirts filled a classroom in Africa and focused on the woman in front of them. As Maryland social worker Terri Johnson read them a book, they listened and asked questions. Then they joined her in a chant.

“My body,” she said. And they repeated his words, louder and in unison – My body!

belongs to me.” belongs to me!

“You don’t have permission.” You don’t have permission!

“To touch me.” To touch me!

“It went well,” Johnson said afterwards. “Everyone was receptive.

At a time when books for young people are under intense scrutiny in communities across the country, Johnson is trying to get more kids to read the one she’s written. His effort was met with resistance and receptivity. She found people in her own community who didn’t want to put the book on the shelves, and she found classrooms in other countries eager to hear her read it.

Johnson, whose resume shows she earned a master’s degree in social work in 1996 and spent decades working for the Baltimore City Public Schools, published the book “BSZ Body Safety Zones” in April 2020. The main character is a school social worker named Mrs. B Persistent and she works at Rhoda Lee Jones Elementary School. There, she teaches students about bodily autonomy and how to ask for help if someone touches them inappropriately.

“REMEMBER, your whole body belongs to you, and if someone is in your space or touching you and you don’t feel comfortable, you have the right to tell them!!” reads a page. “Above all, tell a trusted adult IMMEDIATELY if someone touches your body safety zones! »

Johnson acknowledges that some people might feel uncomfortable with children talking about their bodies. But she thinks it’s crucial to give them this information because too many people experience physical and sexual abuse every year. She remembers living in a homeless shelter in Baltimore as a child and only later realizing how wrong the actions of a woman who worked there were. When Johnson was 13, this woman gained her trust and tried to convince her to date her brother who was in his 20s.

“There isn’t a child in any culture who isn’t potentially a victim in waiting,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what language you speak or where you come from.”

A powerful collection of children’s essays on violence now resides at the Library of Congress

The idea for the book came to Johnson long before she started writing it. A decade ago, she worked at the Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore, performing mental health assessments for inmates. During these conversations, she repeatedly saw how people who hurt others as adults were hurt as children. She saw grown men cry as they talked about how they had been abused and listened to women describe repeated patterns of abuse.

“I was watching the consequences of violating someone’s mind,” she said. “It breaks your mind. It breaks your view of the world.

These conversations also confirmed to him that a person does not have to be a victim of abuse to be affected by it. Even if parents believe their child will remain safe from abuse, she said, statistics show their lives will inevitably intersect with friends, relatives and strangers who have experienced it.

“What about the kid who grows up and feels like no one ever cared about his pain, and now he wants you to feel pain?” she says. “Now they’re holding a gun to your face.”

To hear Johnson speak on the matter is to believe that she is less concerned with making a profit from her book than making an impact. The book is sold by major retailers and Etsyand she donated many copies and offered to do free readings in schools and libraries.

When she went to Africa a few weeks ago for an educational conference, she could have spent her free time sightseeing. Instead, she arranged to read the book at several schools and orphanages. In the space of a few days, she spoke with more than 150 children aged 4 to 9 years old. She recalled one child asking about unwanted face contact and another pointing out that boys’ chests should also be off limits to uninvited guests. touch.

“These kids are different than we were when we came in – they’ll talk,” Johnson said. “But they must have the right information.”

Her concern is that too many young children are not getting any information or are getting it in forms that do not empower them. She said it was easier for her to organize these readings in Africa than in the Washington area. Several requests she sent to local schools and libraries were met with hesitation and rejection. In an email she shared with me, a library official wrote, “While this is an important topic, I don’t fit into our schedule at this time.”

It’s impossible to say whether Johnson’s book would have been more embraced in any other era. But it’s clear she picked one of the worst times to try to get a book that deals with a sensitive subject into the hands of children.

Children’s books have become a victim of politics and complacency. In recent months, books have been banned from school systems, pulled from library shelves and quietly slipped out of children’s reach because parents have complained or there are fears that some might do so. In November, in response to attacks on books about racial, sexual and gender identity, the American Library Association published a statement saying he “condemns these acts of censorship and intimidation”.

The sensitivity of adults should not deprive well-meaning educators of their work or deprive children of the possibility of accessing books that may change their view of reading, of the world, or of themselves. And yet here we are, watching it happen again and again, with increasingly ridiculous targets. Consider two recent examples.

On April 6, author Jason Tharp was preparing to read his book to students at an elementary school in Ohio when he received a call from the principal saying he couldn’t. The title of Tharp’s book: “It’s good to be a unicorn!The book is described online as “an inspiring story about the rainbow magic of kindness.” Tharp told the Washington Post that he wrote the book to remind children “that it’s okay to be different.”

A month earlier, a Mississippi vice principal was fired after reading the children’s book “I need a new ass!” second-grade students. The book tells the story of a boy who discovers that his behind has a crack and goes in search of a replacement. It’s supposed to be silly. It’s supposed to make kids laugh and show them that reading can be fun. Price’s termination letter, which was releaseddescribes the subjects of the book as “inappropriate”.

My kids’ bookshelves are filled with silly, wonderful books that, yes, in some cases, contain butt and fart jokes. These shelves also contain books that teach them about wildlife, mythology, and the human capacity for creativity, evil, and kindness. I have two elementary school age sons and they are both avid readers. I don’t hide any children’s books from them. If these books ever touch on topics that I think will raise questions, we read them together and discuss.

Johnson said she welcomes parents reading her book with their children. She acknowledges that the topic will raise questions and she thinks a trusted adult should be there to offer answers. To make the book more accessible, she is working to have it translated into Spanish, Arabic and French.

She also continues to try to find opportunities to reach children, whether they live in the state where she grew up or in countries she has yet to visit.

For his upcoming 50th birthday, Johnson plans to travel to Cartagena, Colombia. While there, she will spend time exploring the area with friends and partying. She will also visit elementary schools, read her book to students, and lead them through a song that she hopes will help keep them safe.

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