more on censorship

by marjorieingall on April 19, 2010

Last week I wrote a piece in Tablet Magazine about attempts to ban a Canadian middle-grade novel called The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, about a Palestinian girl in Gaza. This week in Tablet, I talked about other children’s and young adult books that address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A few paragraphs got cut for space. (It’s funny saying “cut for space” when I’m writing for the web — I come from magazines, where space is a concrete thing; on the web, space is infinite. But attention spans aren’t. My editor Liel gets agita when I spew for more than 1500 words or so, and he really, really prefers me to file at 1200 words or fewer. This is because he is much younger than I and his stupid generation has no attention span. HEY YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN.) Anyway, Liel insisted I nuke my thoughts on an earlier Canadian censorship/book-challenge situation. Unfortunately, that meant that the book Three Wishes ended up also being cut from the list of suggested alternate kids’ books about the Matzav (“the situation”), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I definitely recommend it; the Canadian Jewish Congress definitely doesn’t.

Three Wishes, by Deborah Ellis (Groundwood, 2004), is a series of interviews with Israeli and Palestinian children of all political persuasions. I thought it showed a huge range of perspectives; Booklist called it “an accessible historical overview that is fair to all sides.” But the Canadian Jewish Congress protested when it was part of the Forest of Reading program in 2006. Len Rudner, regional director of the CJC in Ontario (which was not among the groups protesting The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, by the way), told me, “Three Wishes was problematic for us for a number of reasons. What we found most troubling was an interview with a Palestinian girl whose sister was a suicide bomber.” That interview is indeed shocking. The 12-year-old, Salam, says of her sister, “She’s a martyr and is now in paradise, where it is supposed to be very beautiful. I would like to join her there….I don’t think it would hurt if I blew myself up. I don’t think it hurt my sister. I think she was very brave, not scared at all. I think she was probably very happy. I don’t know if the girl she killed had a sister my age or not. What does it matter? I don’t know any Israeli kids. Why would I want to?”

Is that horrifying? Absolutely. But to me, that’s a teachable moment. Why would Salam (ironic name!) say something like that? Why do people do terrible things? What can we learn from her statement?

The Canadian Jewish Congress felt that quotations like that made the book inappropriate for the Forest of Reading list it had been placed on – the one aimed at 4th to 6th graders. (And indeed, the publisher’s own age recommendation for Three Wishes is Grade 6 and up.) Rudner told me, “We did not say ‘take it off the shelves.’ We sent a letter to the OLA asking them to withdraw the book from the Silver Birch list, and sent a copy to school boards in Ontario, asking them to review the book and reconsider its age classification and put it on a higher shelf. There are about 60 English language school boards in Ontario — some responded some didn’t; some agreed, some didn’t.”

Is this censorship? Rudner thinks not. “Putting a book on a higher shelf is not an express elevator to hell,” he says. “People love to say that censorship is a slippery slope, but not every case is black and white and not all slopes are slippery.” I sympathize, but disagree. Restricting access is problematic. An example: when I was a kid I went through a phase of being obsessed with palmistry. (This made me very popular at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I got to hold cute boys’ hands while I stared thoughtfully at their palms.) But one day, all the “occult” books were moved to a locked room – a parent must have complained about satanism. Kids were still allowed to borrow them – you just had to get parental permission and ask the librarian to let you in. I never did; I was too shy. So I stopped being educated about palmistry. Big whoop, I know. But what if the age-restricted books had been about homosexuality or sexual education, or if restrictions were placed on all literature containing “profanity” or “adult themes”? Who decides? What if you’re depriving kids of potentially life-saving information?

It’s ironic — restricting access to Three Wishes because Salam celebrates her sister’s suicide bombing seems to me a missed opportunity for people opposed to Palestinian statehood. They could hold up this interview, which seems to confirm the worst generalizations about Palestinians, as proof that Israelis shouldn’t negotiate with Palestinians. Listen to this girl! Her people are indoctrinated into terrorism from childhood on! They don’t see Israelis as human! They don’t see human life, as opposed to the afterlife, as valuable or meaningful! And if you believe that, why not promote Salam’s words far and wide?

Of course, it would be even easier if you took them out of context, as the words of Goodreads member Madeline were taken out of context in the attempt to ban The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, as I discussed in Tablet last week. If you read the whole interview with Salam, she’s reeling from the loss of her sister and sounds, truly, like a confused child. She keeps repeating, “She should have told me.” If you just cut to the blood-chilling conclusion of her interview, though, she sounds like a trained killer.

But even if you do see her as a monster, why are you so certain kids can’t handle this portrayal or see nuance in it?

I’m currently reading The Great Gilly Hopkins, by the United States Ambassador for Children’s Literature, Katherine Paterson. Josie recommended it (and how much nachas do I get from having a kid who recommends great books to me?). It happens to be #52 on the American Library Association’s newly released list of the most frequently banned and challenged books of this past decade. I see why: when we meet 11-year-old Gilly, she’s breathtakingly racist and full of venom toward authority figures. She’s disrespectful and foul-mouthed and thieving — exactly the kind of kid you don’t want your kid anywhere near. But when you get to know her, you see how she’s hurting — she’s grieving for her mother. Even more importantly, you see that with kindness and education, she’s redeemable. People want to ban this book because Gilly is so dislikable in the beginning, but they miss the point: She can learn. She can be saved. Keeping this book out of kids’ hands because Gilly is a racist and a thief keeps kids from seeing how Gilly is capable of growth and change. (And just because a character expresses horrid thoughts doesn’t mean the author shares them. Doy, as Josie would say.)

I enjoyed talking to many of the people who want to censor books (whether they call it that or not), people whose views I disagree with. We had common ground on some things (I disliked The Shepherd’s Granddaughter too!) and not on others, but most importantly, we respectfully talked about our differences. I hope that wherever we stand on political issues, we can continue to have conversations about strategies for coping with books that make us queasy.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Some Light Reading « Frume Sarah's World
April 19, 2010 at 2:00 pm
Children's Books and Censorship - Tablet Magazine - My Tablet
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April 27, 2016 at 12:44 am
Children’s Books and Censorship – Tablet Magazine | Spielzeug Bestellen
April 27, 2016 at 3:22 am

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Henry April 19, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Marjorie,

I do think you keep missing the reality of The Forest of Reading program. These books are actively promoted to the kids. It’s not censorship to say a certain book shouldn’t be recomended to a 10-year-old as a book she (or he) ought to read.

Should we be urging 10-year-olds to read about suicide bombing? I don’t think so.

Also, I recall the Canadian Jewish Congress objected to Three Wishes in part because it shows some Palestinians in such a terrible light. I’m sure the little girl who admires her big sister the suicide bomber is no more representative of Palestinian kids than the ghoulish Jews who inhabit the Shepherd’s Granddaughter are representative of Israelis.

Also, teachable moments are fine if there’s someone around to do the teaching. But Forest of Reading books are for independent reading. No guidance from teachers, and 19 times out of 20, a parent has no idea what their kid is reading.

Day by day, I don’t always know what my daughter is reading. Not because I don’t take an interest – I do. But she reads a book a day or every other day – who can keep up?

Anyway, thanks very much for the recommended reading list, though I’m glad Three Wishes didn’t get on it.

marjorieingall April 20, 2010 at 8:27 am

Brian — I interviewed a CJC representative and we talked about the book for almost an hour. He did not say that.

I can’t keep up with my daughter’s reading either (witness her recommending a frequently banned book to me! which I did just finish — very powerful!). Every day when our kids go to school they’re subject to influences and values we may not share. It’s our job as parents to convey what we believe as our kids head off into a world full of crap TV, questionable hobag tween fashion, and eventually drugs and alcohol and cancer sticks and teh sex. C’est ca.

It’s up to us parents to teach our kids to make good choices and evaluate info wisely. You and I both know it wasn’t OK for you to quote Madeline from Goodreads out of context, as I discussed in the first Tablet piece. That girl read The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, figured out that it was one-sided and manipulative, and chose to educate herself about the matzvav. Which is all we can ask. Which is what she said. Which is why you were beyond unethical in saying she wanted to kill Jews; her review makes ABUNDANTLY clear she wants no such thing. (If you read her other reviews, she also says she wants to teleport into Wuthering Heights and “go Tarantino” on Heathcliff’s psychologically-abusive ass. Like you, the girl has a way with hyberbole.) Disingenuousness (to put it kindly) does not help your cause.

I’m FINE with parents who are dismayed by the library association’s book choices pressuring the association to make different choices. But that’s not banning books. And I do hear you as you keep saying NO ONE IS MONITORING THE KIDS and KIDS ARE BEING PRESSURED TO READ THESE BOOKS and BAD THINGS MIGHT HAPPEN IF KIDS READ THESE BOOKS. And I keep saying: THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN has been the excuse for every kind of book ban, for whatever reason the person wants the ban — Jewish content, gay content, the n-word in Huck Finn. You won’t convince me (especially after you’ve deployed out-of-context quoting of a college student to make your case) but I am glad you’ve lodged a formal complaint with the Toronto schools and will get your hearing. I hope it will turn into an opportunity to educate people about alternative books (though alas, none of the ones I listed in Tablet are by Canadians, which makes them ineligible for the Forest of Reading program!) with less cartoonishly one-sided points of view. I know librarians ARE paying attention to the case.

Brian Henry April 20, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Marjorie,

“He did not say that. ” I imagine there’s all sorts of things he didn’t say. But you have that weird paragraph in y0ur article about how people who want to demonize Palestinians should welcome Three Wishes. So far as I know, people of that sort weren’t involved in the debate.

You have an odd idea of context. The girl said that in spite of the fact that she knows and likes Jews, The Shepherd’s Granddaughter made her want to go to Israel to kill Jews. She was making a point about the quality of the book. In quoting her, I conveyed exactly the point she was making.

Yes, happily she recognized that the book is manipulative and that it couldn’t possibly be true – which is to her credit – but not to the credit of the book. And it was the book I was talking about.

And you keep going on about “banning the book.” Others have suggested the book should be withdrawn from school libraries. I haven’t. I’ve made the simple and I would have thought obvious point that if the schools are going to recommend a book to kids, it ought to be a good book.

In the Shepherd’s Granddaughter, the schools made an appallingly bad choice.

In Toronto at least that’s not likely to be repeated as they’ve changed their procedures so that in future books recommended by the Library Association will be read by someone on the Board before they start recommending them to students.

marjorieingall April 21, 2010 at 7:19 am

This’ll be my last engagement with you, Brian.

Let me get this straight. You say “I recall that the CJC objected to this book because of” X. I reply that I actually ASKED the CJC why the organization objected to this book and it is NOT because of X. You come right back with “I imagine there’s all sorts of things he didn’t say” and steamroll right on. (Why would he have NOT TOLD ME the fact you insist is a fact when I ask him directly for a fact? You know, now that I think of it, when I interviewed Ben Stiller back in 1994 he didn’t say the moon wasn’t made of green cheese! SILENCE EQUALS ASSENT! BEN STILLER THINKS THE MOON IS MADE OF GREEN CHEESE! ALERT THE ENQUIRER!)

In all seriousness: While this isn’t quite on the level of presenting thoughtful Midwestern college students as would-be Jew murderers, your “just because he didn’t say it doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it” rhetorical spin does mean there’s no point in trying to debate civilly with you. I agree with you that the Shepherd’s Granddaughter is a very one-sided book, and I’ll even go further and say it’s an unfortunate choice for inclusion in a 10-book list of choices in a voluntary reading program. But for the very last time, my response is: let’s discuss with adults and kids what the problems are with this book, and behold, here’s a list of other books (column #2) and a look at better tactics than banning (column #1 and #2). Your response is: Get this book out of kids’ hands, by any means necessary, whether or not we call it censorship. Got it. Point made.

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