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The Censorship of Canadian Children's Literature

Iram Khan

m any books in the past have been banned for reasons varying from offending religious beliefs to portraying women as liberated. In today's free Canada, challenges of literature are taken seriously almost everyday. Furthermore, a great number of the recent challenges have pointed towards children's literature for its literary content and illustrations. Surprisingly, many Canadian children's books are censored, not at the government level, but at the level of local schools and libraries. How can Canadians allow this to happen if many of us believe that the role of the true educator is to teach children to be free thinkers, not closed minded? Restricting children's literature puts a severe limitation on a child's right to read. Many local and school libraries' actions contradict the Canadian Library Association's Statement of Intellectual Freedom, which states that "all persons in Canada have the fundamental right, as embodied in the nations' Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to have access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity."1 What should be done to solve this problem? Before this question can be tackled, three other questions have to be answered. These questions involve the ways children's books are censored, the reasons why children's books are censored, and the actual effects that the challenged books have on children.

Robert Munsch, a children's author who is popular among children and censors, outlines three types of censorship in a letter to the Canadian Children's Literature Magazine. The first is government censorship, where writers or publishers are imprisoned or killed for their actions. The second type, as outlined by Munsch, is local schools and libraries censorship. In schools, censorship occurs whenever groups or individuals, attempt to prevent students from reading, hearing, or seeing something or someone because they believe that such exposure will be harmful to the students.2 A majority of censorship in Canada occurs at this level because the laws usually prevent censorship at higher levels, but parents expect the local libraries and schools to mirror their own values, and it is easy to succeed at censorship at this level because schools and local libraries are very vulnerable to politics and generally want to avoid problems.3

one dad, two dads, brown dad, blue dads A perfect example of this type of censorship is the recent and very publicized attempt for the Surrey, British Columbia School Board to ban the books Asha's Mums, Belinda's Bouquet, and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads because they depict or describe same-sex parents. By December of 1998, the decision to ban the books was taken to the B.C. Supreme court and overturned. "The Court quashed the Board's resolution that banned the three books but declined to compel the School Board to approve the books, saying that such orders are rarely given as that would have the Court assume the role of school board. However, the Judge remitted the matter back to the School Board for consideration in accordance with the Court's reasons."4

This case was very publicized and consisted of passionate protesters on both sides, however, many Canadian children's authors' books have been taken off the shelves as a result of a few complaints to librarians or principals. In June, 1992 Roger Pare's The Annick ABC was pulled from an Alberta's school library's shelf and thrown out. A mother had complained to the librarian that the reference "'N' is for nudist eating noodles in Naples" is inappropriate reading for kindergarten students. She was upset that she had to explain nudism to her five-year old daughter.5 Another example of this situation concerned Robert Munsch's Thomas' Snowsuit. Thomas' Snowsuit In Lloydminister Alberta/Saskatchewan, a teacher at an elementary school told the principal that the book undermined the authority of all school principals. The principal agreed and removed the book from the school library.6 Robert Munsch also had a librarian call to tell him that three of his books had received complaints in her school district and she was considering taking them off the shelves. She stated that there was an "organized movement," which turned out to be two families in two different schools who had complained about the same three books.7 As Robert Munsch concludes, "Suppose 10% of the population really wants a book off the shelves and 90% sort of like it, or even really like it. What then? I think the 10% should lose. In real life they often win; .001% can win, as long as they stage a sit-in on the floor of the principal's office."

Many principals and educators do not have the time to read every book that they order for their school or library. To help them out a little, they rely on the many Canadian committees who thoroughly investigate and recommend books specifically aimed at certain ages, reading levels, and literary qualities.8 Unfortunately, sometimes when a book is challenged by anyone, its merits are quickly forgotten. For example, Margaret Buffie's Who is Frances Rain was recommended by many of the reviewing committees and also won a major Canadian award. In preparation for a visit by Margaret Buffie to Queenswood School in Ottawa in the fall of 1990, the school's librarian skimmed through Who is Frances Rain, highlighted every profanity that was written. The principal, after seeing this, canceled Buffie's invitation and banned the book from the school without reading the book himself.

Another type of censorship that Munsch did not mention is the one committed by publishers who attempt to avoid the censors through pre-censoring. Munsch himself was asked by Annick Press to write a softer version of his book The Paper Bag Princess. Annick Press suspected that there would be objections to the main character, Elizabeth, socking a Prince Ronald in the nose.

the little mermaidIllustration also get pre-censored by publishers. An example is Laszlo Gal's original front cover to Margaret Crawford Maloney's re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen's, The Little Mermaid. The cover which had featured a bare-breasted mermaid, was not accepted in the United States because it would not have been good for sales in the "Bible Belt." Gal had to cover the breasts with hair. Similarly, Roger Pare's illustration for a nudist in Naples, had to have clothes on when it was released in the United States.

Fear is at the centre of censorship. Today's Canada, like many countries, is a chaotic world for children. It is filled with violence, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and teen-age pregnancies. To have control over this chaotic world and protect our children, adults need to blame something that they can control. Frightened adults frequently blame the literature that children are reading. These people see words and books as having the potential to endanger, frighten, and corrupt children.9 In almost all censorship cases involving children's literature, concern is most commonly focused on descriptions of sexual activity and graphic scenes of violence, as well as on religious or social practices that threaten the censor's moral sensibilities.10 According to the most knowledgeable specialists (psychologists, sexologists, and social workers), the actual welfare of children is not a factor. Adult feelings are the one's that are to be spared here, so there won't be any problems when their values are passed on to the following generation.11

Another basis for challenging children's books is "political correctness." In his article, "Children's Book Challenges: The New Wave," Ron Brown loosely defines political correctness as the act of censoring, or even self-censoring out of the fear of offending some group. Since Canada's multiculturality is sensitive, a growing number of groups have been considered "offendable." In 1991, a number of Toronto school libraries removed Ian Wallace's Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance for fear of offending the Chinese. In 1991, Lynne Reid-Banks's The Indian in the Cupboard was removed from library shelves in the Kamloops school district. A Native had objective to the portrayal of Natives in the book.

An example of a politically correct challenge that extended beyond race, though, is the case of Diane Lager Haskell's book, Maxine's Tree. In it, Maxine goes camping on weekends with her father in the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island. Maxine ends up seeing clear-cut sections in the next valley, and fears for her favorite tree. Member of the Schelt, B.C. area's International Woodworkers of America local called the book "emotional and in insult to loggers."12 In February of 1992, the union sought to remove the book from the School District 46 libraries. Book challengers appear better equipped than ever with this relatively new term.

It is amazing to see how quickly people forget about the way they thought as a child when they become parents. As Robert Munsch said in a 1988 interview:

Kids love talking about peeing and farting, but they do not like stories where the mother says, "Go to hell!" to the father. That's a major taboo violation, and kids do not want an adult doing that. But to have an adult saying "bum" or "pee" that's great. "Underwear" is good too!13

We all knew what a naked body looked like by the time we reached grade three, but again most adults forget that. I'm sure that most of us would agree that it had no major effects on our moral or emotional feelings. Any degree of explicitness in children's literature, fiction or nonfiction, is too much. Kids are supposed to be familiar with their own sexuality, if any sort of sexuality at all, and that's that, end of discussion. la premiere foisIn his article, "Book Banning: A How-to for Beginners," Charles Monpetit describes an incident involving an enlargement of a La Premiere Fois cover at a book fair. A five year old did not notice that the character on the cover was naked. All he said was "Mom, look! That man's got an apple in his body!"14 The mother, though, was horrified. La Premiere Fois is anthology for true stories about first sexual experiences. In 1992, a number of Quebec parents asked child specialists to evaluate it. The results were positive, and the specialists concluded that there was a definite need for this type of material in the main stream market.15 If censors really want to keep children away from focusing too much on sexuality, the issue should be treated like any other everyday problem. Focus should not be on censoring books with this content; it should be put on changing society's values.

In many countries, such as Denmark and Japan, sex for children is a part of life as natural as eating and drinking. These countries usually meet the need for books on sexual topics for children of all ages. den nat kristian blev til Here are two examples. Lene Kaaberbol's Den Nat Kristian Blev Til (The Night Kristian was Made), is a Danish book that describes how a young couple, very much in love, create their first child. Nanao Jun's Oheso Ni Kiite Goran(Listen to Your Belly Button), is a Japanese book that explains sexuality, by beginning with things that young children are naturally curious about. These countries are encouraging their children's authors to write about sexuality, which results in good books being available when adults and children need to talk about it.

Unfortunately, censorship in its many forms is part of peoples lives from the very first moment they walk into their kindergarten classrooms. Many books are too easily censored as a result of a few complaints or preconceived views. An educator's job is to open up the world of books to children. Those who restrict the world of books, because somebody might object, are simply failing to do their job. Schools must respect the censorial rights of groups and individuals, but schools must equally try to ensure that such people do not succeed in extending their prohibitions to everyone's children. If not, children's authors will be unable to write about controversial or unexplored issues. Children's literature will go back to the boring educational texts of the past. Every child should be allowed access to these controversial books, so that thoughts and questions can be raised about the world that we live in.


1 Alvin M. Schrader, "Too Young to Know? The Censorship of Children's Materials in Canadian Public Libraries," Canadian Children's Literature, Summer, 1992, p. 85.
2 Dave Jenkinson, "Good Libraries Don't: The Censorship of Canadian Picture Books," Canadian Children's Literature, Fall, 1993, p. 42.
3 Bob Munsch, "Letters From Canadian Writers," Canadian Children's Literature, Summer, 1992, p. 135.
4 Surrey Schools Book Banning: Bigots Ban Books
5 Jenkinson, p. 52.
6 Ibid., p. 44.
7 Munsch, p. 135.
8 Margaret Buffie, "Reflections on a Personal Case of Censorship," Canadian Children's Literature, Summer, 1992 p. 43.
9 Ibid., p. 48
10 Janet Collins, "Suffer the Little Children," Books In Canada, October, 1991, p. 25.
11 Charles Monpetit, "Book Banning: A How-To Guide For Beginners," Canadian Children's Literature, Summer, 1992, p. 8
12 Chris Dafoe, "Union Calls Children's Book an Insult to B.C. Loggers," Globe and Mail, 21 Feb. 1992, p. C4.
13 Jenkinson, p. 43.
14 Montpetit, p. 12.
15 Ibid., p. 7.

Iram Khan manages the acclaimed teacher resource website CanTeach

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