A children’s book just told me Michael Jordan was drafted in the third round. It’s not true, and that’s a problem

OPINION: Fact-checkers need to check the facts before titles start to rewrite the history of the world from children’s books to adult novels.

(Photo by Panama Jackson/theGrio)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I had the pleasure of being a mystery reader in my first grader’s class recently. A mystery reader, as the title suggests, is a reader who will be a surprise to the class. I had to send in some clues as to who I was, and the kids would all take turns guessing who the reader would be. Well, the morning of my big debut in front of first graders—my opportunity to show them just how good a reader I am—I was rushing to get the kids out of the house and left the book I intended to read at home. No problem; the teachers let me know that I could pick a book from their library. 

When presented with a bunch of options for books, one stood out: “Michael Jordan” by Mary Nhin with pictures by Yuliia Zolotova. I’m a huge Michael Jordan fan, of course, both on the basketball court and because of his shoes. In fact, that day, I was wearing my Jordan 11 “Concords.” It seemed like a match made in heaven. My first grader, if you’ll remember, is a basketball fan, and a fan of LeBron James in particular, but has no idea who Michael Jordan is. I figured it would be a fun way to introduce him to one of, if not the greatest basketball players of all time. 

As I sat outside thumbing through the book, waiting to be called into the classroom to read, I came across a page that was factually inaccurate. The page featured this sentence: 

“Soon, I was drafted in the third round of the NBA draft.”

A harmless sentence, except it’s factually inaccurate. It’s wrong. Michael Jordan was famously drafted third in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft, behind future NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and second-pick Sam Bowie. Jordan was the third pick, but he absolutely was not drafted in the third round. It is an easily verifiable fact and one that I found in less than a second after hitting enter on my search of “1984 NBA draft” on Google. 

Now you might be asking yourself, what’s the big deal? It’s a children’s book; plus, you were there to correct that error (which I did when reading the book to the class). And you’d be right on both accounts. It is a children’s book, and I was there and did correct it. But I think dismissing something in a children’s book is short-sighted. If a kid doesn’t know Michael Jordan—and let’s face it; most first-graders in 2022 probably don’t—then facts, as presented, are accepted as true. If he or she reads the book, there is no reason to question the validity of the claim; it’s in this very published book. Even if a teacher reads the book, unless he or she is an NBA fan and a Michael Jordan fan, it might be taken at face value as well. If I didn’t happen to know for a fact that he was the third pick in the first round of the draft, I probably might not bat an eye. But I did know it was wrong, and that troubles me because now I have to question every fact in that book that I’m unfamiliar with. If something as simple as his draft order, a literal fact, could be wrong, what about stuff that isn’t as readily known? If we’re willing to overlook simple truths, what are we doing with things that require a lot more digging? This frustrates me to no end.

I read a lot of books, including those that contain historical information, and I get supremely annoyed when they get things wrong. Because if you’re getting the things I know wrong, then who knows what else is wrong in the book? I’m assuming that because the book has been published, it’s been through some sort of fact-checking process but I don’t know that it’s always true. 

For instance, I remember reading a book once about Lauryn Hill by Joan Morgan. The book made reference to the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, but instead of noting that they died roughly seven months apart, the book stated that they died within six days of one another. Considering the author, there’s no way she wrote that parenthetical—it was presented as a parenthetical—but it managed to make it to the final printing of the book. In this book—authored by a hip-hop scholar and a person whose opinion and voice are respected—is a completely WRONG fact that could have been easily verifiable. It also wasn’t the only inaccuracy in the book. That stuff frustrates me because, again, if you don’t know what you don’t know, how in the world do you know it’s wrong?

Do I think it’s more egregious because it’s in a children’s book? No. I think it holds the same level of significance. Those first-graders might read that book and just be wrong forever, assuming they retain the information. The person who reads the book on Lauryn might do the exact same thing, assuming that information stood out. My problem is that published work, just as a written essay or article published on a platform should be as close to accurate as possible, which can be hard at times. But something as simple as the actual draft order of Michael Jordan or the fact that Tupac and Biggie did not die within a week of each other are mistakes that should never be made. 

I have no idea how often this happens, but based on my own experiences, it happens way more than I’m aware of. I find factual inaccuracies in books and articles about subjects with which I’m intimately familiar enough to realize it’s a thing. When I’m consuming works about subjects I’m learning about, who knows if things are true? I just have to accept it and/or do my own research after. That’s a lot to ask of any reader. Definitely a lot to ask of a first-grader. Thankfully, I was there to fix that issue. 

And now it looks like I’ll be reading every book they read with a fine-tooth comb.

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.

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