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.