A few weeks ago, a friend's ten-year-old daughter came home from school, turned to her mother with a frown, and speaking low, so as to stay out of earshot of a younger sibling, asked, "Mom, what does the word ?contraception' mean, and what does a sponge have to do with it?"

You would think she'd been talking to a classmate, but no; as it happened she had read this in a book on Ancient Rome. Since the school's fourth grade bookshelf includes a number of colorfully illustrated reference books on the period, her mortified teacher's first thought was that one of these adult books was the source. It wasn't; the information came from an Usborne book. In other words, it came from a book written and designed for children.

It is not very original of either this mother or me to complain that our children are under siege, but they are. Some days, the pervasiveness of it seems remarkable.

I have fourth grader myself, who loves to read and loves words, so many nights now she and her father tackle the Jumble word puzzle which lies opposite the comics page in our increasingly thin Louisville Courier-Journal. This is a new game for them, and it took a day or two for my husband and I to notice that right above ATCATK and YLROLWD lies the "Annie's Mailbox" column, with its sad parade of grief, trouble and abuse. We cut or fold the page now.

Our daughter would like to look at the rest of the paper also, but since the front page may feature a large colored photograph of people exploded by a suicide bomber, or the murder of a child, or a personal assault highlighted in large type, some days she can't. (I don't complain that the paper reports bad news, but I do object to the increasingly tabloid fashion in which some stories are covered.)

Two weeks ...

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