My three-year-old granddaughter and I recently fell in love with a wonderful little illustrated storybook at the Lockport, New York, Library, “The Wall in the Middle of the Book” by Jon Agee. As the title suggests, on every page there is a giant red brick wall right smack in the middle of the book.

On one side stands a tiny child dressed up as a knight in armor. My granddaughter decided this was her so we will go with that. She is carrying a ladder to climb up and put back a brick that has fallen to the ground. On the other side of the wall there is a rhinoceros, a tiger, and a gorilla standing on each other’s backs trying to see over.

“There is a wall in the middle of the book,” says the little knight. “And it is a good thing. The wall protects this side of the book from the other side of the book. This side of the book is safe. The other side is not.” But as she climbs up the ladder she doesn’t notice the flood of water rising higher and higher, along with some menacing looking fish and an alligator slowly getting nearer.

She continues, “But the most dangerous thing about the other side of the book is the ogre. If he ever caught me he would eat me.” A giant dark-bearded ogre appears on the other side of the wall. The tiny knight falls into the rising water. The ogre reaches over and in the nick of time plunks her up to safety.

“You are the ogre who is going to eat me up!” she says. The ogre laughs. “Haw-haw-haw! I am actually a nice ogre. And this side of the book is fantastic!” So the tiny knight and the ogre go off to make happy friends with the rhinoceros, tiger, gorilla and also a mouse who live on the other side of the book.

The story is not only a sweet tale for children but also a metaphor for our times. We are in a fever of fear at the moment over who and what is on the other side of the wall from our own experiences.

Take for example the great national debate over immigration. Of course we need to control who comes into the country. But we are surrounded by politicians and pundits who have gone well beyond having a reasoned debate on the matter. They have made demonizing immigrants a centerpiece of their quest for political gain or more followers.

If you took what they have to say at face value you might believe the thousands of people trying to enter the U.S. as asylum seekers right now is mostly a giant hoard armed with suitcases full of fentanyl or people coming with the aim of collecting welfare and living a life of luxury at our expense.

Regardless of what you think our policies should be, the vast majority are people fleeing such danger and hardship that they are willing to walk across whole nations on foot to find a better life. They are doing what most of us might do if faced with similarly dire circumstances.

Another example is the heated debate over transgender people in this country. If you listen to ranting politicians and pundits (most of whom don’t actually know any transgender people) you would think they are an army of freaks just looking to assault young girls in bathrooms or “groom” young boys into following their lead.

Here again, the reality is different. They are people wrestling with complicated personal issues of identity in a culture that wants everyone to fit into neat boxes that don’t fit every soul among us. Yet politicians have ramped up a whole set of new laws to ban them from living their lives.

I was grateful to see the front page article in the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal recently profiling Alex Weinstein, a local musician who also bravely came out in public as transgender. Fear begins to dissipate when we see people as people instead of as labels.

There is fear from the other side of the national divide as well. All people who own guns are not crazy gun nuts who want to go out and shoot up classrooms, nightclubs and supermarkets. I know people who hunt and value it as a long-time family tradition. I know people who keep a gun in their home for self-protection.

None of these people – be they asylum seekers, or transgender, or lawful gun owners – are demons despite the fears they generate among others. They are not mean ogres who are going to eat us. But we too easily believe that they are.

The moral to the story here is the same one my three year old granddaughter picked up on quickly from our newly beloved little book from the library. “Before she thought that the ogre was mean,” she told me, “but really he was nice.”

Prejudice and the walls we build in response to that prejudice are often as foolish as the one in the middle of the book. Three year olds can see that. I hope adults can too.

Jim Shultz is an occasional CNHI columnist, and founder-executive director of the Democracy Center. Reach him at

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