Book ban stifles important classroom conversations

Opinion



Who decides what makes a book “harmful”?

This is a question raised by the curious case of the Durham District School Board in Ontario, which made the puzzling decision to ban Great Bear, a book by David A. Robertson, author and graphic novelist Swampy Cree of Winnipeg.


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The Great Bear by David A. Robertson has been banned by the Durham District School Board in Ontario.

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The Great Bear by David A. Robertson has been banned by the Durham District School Board in Ontario.

The school board has removed several books, including Robertson’s, from its school libraries that are, rather euphemistically, ‘under review’, saying they contain ‘content that could be harmful to Indigenous students and families’ , according to Toronto Star.

Anyone familiar with Robertson’s impressive body of work, including the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award When we were alonea children’s book about the legacy of Canada’s residential school system — knows it’s centered on Indigenous students and families.

Robertson’s work has already been targeted. In 2018, his graphic novel Betty: The Story of Helen Betty Osborneis on Alberta Education’s “not recommended” list for classrooms.

There has been little clarity around the school board’s decision – including what, exactly, is so “harmful” about Great Bear, the second installment in an Indigenous fantasy series aimed at kids ages 10 and up – but it echoes a larger and disturbing trend unfolding south of the border, where a Wyoming county prosecutor’s office has considered file lawsuits against library workers for making sex and LGBTTQ+-themed education available to young people, and a Tennessee school board banned Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman Maus — in which Jews are portrayed as mice and Nazis are portrayed as cats – from an 8th grade unit on the Holocaust because of the language and a scene of nudity.

“These are disturbing images,” Spiegelman told the New York Times. “But you know what? It’s a disturbing story.

Book bans appear to be driven by a compulsion to protect students from ‘sensitive topics’ – a catch-all term that once encompassed sex, violence and language, has now, disturbingly, been expanded to include race , gender and cultural identity – because they “are not mature enough” or for some other unconvincing reason.

It’s been a long time since I was a kid/teenager, but I can tell you this for sure: basically doing something contraband – specifically, my God, a book – will not have children less interested, and they will 100% find a way to see what the problem is.

But more importantly, literature is an incredibly powerful site for potentially difficult conversations about everything from systemic racism to bullying to sexuality.

There’s a reason reading is often compared to a passport: a passport to countless adventures, to paraphrase author Mary Pope Osborne, a passport to time travel, a passport to other worlds – and above all, a passport to other visions of the world.

Literature, especially at such an early age, can make people feel seen and heard, especially children whose experiences and identities are often missing from the pages of books.

Literature can develop empathy, insight, curiosity and understanding. If you only see stories that are very similar to yours, how do you learn and grow? Reading books from a wide variety of perspectives, telling a wide variety of stories that reflect the breadth of humanity – good and bad – allows us to question our biases, to be exposed to new ideas , to see things from different angles. In books, we can better understand and understand ourselves.

And there’s no better place to do all of this than in school, where there’s an infrastructure in place to have discussions, ask questions, and write down thoughts and impressions.

Like many older Manitoba students, I have read April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier — the CanLit classic about two mixed-race sisters who are separated and placed in different foster homes — when I was in school. I don’t remember what class I was in, only that I was young, barely a teenager. A harrowing scene in which April is raped left a searing impression on me – its violence, language, racism and brutality, all conveyed in sober, unwavering prose. (I located the passage while writing this column and was not surprised to find that I remembered it very well, almost verbatim.) April Raintree is a YA novel.

It is worth noting that April Raintree was, when first published in 1983 under the title Finding April Raintree, aimed at adults, especially mixed-race women. Mosionier revised the book a bit, toning down the language and the rape scene slightly, so that it could be incorporated into schools; it was an important story that needed to be taught. But note that the book was not banned; the author was the one who made small changes that would help get his words across to a wider audience.

April Raintree was not an easy read – then or now. But I’m better off for reading it. This clearly put into context the violence and objectification experienced by too many Indigenous women, too often.

Because it’s just that: the things that happen to people in the books also happen to people in real life, including young people. Not reading or discussing important things – in all their complexity – does everyone a disservice, but especially young readers who are, so often, woefully underappreciated.

We need more books like The Great Bearto like April Raintree – Not less. As Robertson himself tweeted: “When I was a kid I needed a book like The Great Bear. I did not have it. It’s there now. Don’t take it off.

[email protected]

Twitter: @JenZoratti


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Jen Zoratti

About Herbert L. Leonard

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