A Facebook post went viral recently because a woman came across a book at Costco and was offended by the poems in it- specifically one poem, Brotherly Love:
The post was clearly written to provoke outrage, which it did achieve. The thousands of comments are filled with calls to pull the book, questioning the store for selling it, the authors for writing it, and the publishers for supporting it.
I understand if this poem isn’t appealing to everyone – it’s definitely dark in its humour, and filled with imagined instances of hyperbolic violence. Some kids might find it frightening, but others will surely find it hilarious. In the comments of the post parents are also asserting that kids couldn’t possibly understand the dark humour for what it is and will take the poem literally; to this I say no two kids are the same, and kids in general are smarter than we give them credit for. This book isn’t going to incite mass fratricide, and this outcry is just yet another attempt by adults to remove a unique book that would be enjoyed by certain kids.
Parents are understandably protective of their kids, but what one kid can’t handle might be what another kid clicks with. For some kids, the love of reading can suddenly be sparked with something a little edgy — something shocking, scandalous, gross, ghoulish, or morbid. When a book steps out of the safe and into the daring, that very act alone might garner a kid’s respect and begin a lifelong reading habit. Thinking back to my younger years, the books that were widely popular and always checked out at the school library were rarely “nice” books- they were the kind of books that you pass around at the back of the class and get in trouble for giggling about.
Despite its dark content, there’s no reason to fear this book- if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to read it, and can also ensure their kid doesn’t read it. If a parent wants to control what their kid has access to, that’s their choice. However, when people try to prevent others from exercising that choice, that’s where we have a problem.
Fearing that they might decide to pull the book from their stores in a reactionary act of censorship, I wrote this to Costco executives:
I am an educator, library worker, and MLIS student, and as such I wanted to share my thoughts and perspective on the children’s book carried by Costco “No More Poems”. As I’m sure you are aware by now, a parent shared a poem in this book which they found offensive and are warning others not to buy it as well as questioning your company for carrying it, the publishers for approving it, etc. The post has since gone viral on Facebook. I understand that in situations like this the impulse may be to pull the title from your stores, but on the contrary I hope that you keep it available. No book will appeal to the sensitivities of all kids (or all parents) but censorship isn’t the answer. I think the poem is funny and could totally be appreciated by some kids who get the dark humour. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for- this book isn’t advocating actual violence, it’s playing on exaggerated fantasies of a kid annoyed by their brother. I hope you keep the title in your stores- I would buy it, and I’m sure others would too. Those who don’t want it can close it and walk away. Thanks for your time,
This week in Canada we recognize our intellectual freedom in celebrating the 35th annual Freedom to Read Week (Feb 24-March 2).
Freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Schools and libraries are regularly asked to remove books and magazines from their shelves. Free expression on the Internet is under attack. Few of these stories make headlines, but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read. – freedomtoread.ca
The Freedom to Read Website keeps track of submitted challenges here (I’ll be quoting some passages below). A challenge indicates that someone sought to limit public access to the title, whether in a school, a library, or elsewhere. Sometimes a challenge results in removal of the title – banning a book is a clear form of censorship. Yet, even when a challenge is dismissed, the resulting controversy may mean that it is quietly dropped from school projects, curriculum lists, and displays, which is an unseen form of censorship that is harder to track.
On the other hand, often efforts to censor a book “backfire” because people naturally can’t wait to get their hands on the title that someone doesn’t want them to read!
I’ve been keeping tabs on the challenged titles in Canada the past few years, and I thought it would be fun to highlight a few of my favorite or noted titles that have been challenged and why (if the record contains a reason, which it often does not).
So here, in no particular order, are some notable works which, for some reason or another, someone tried to restrict access to in Canada:
The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel edition) by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
This title was challenged in Edmonton in 2016 and Ontario in 2015. Complaints included that the illustrations were graphic and violent, and a mother said that they made her son cry.
Spooky ABC by Eve Merriam and Lane Smith
Spooky ABC was challenged in British Columbia. Objections: “The letters D and I poems not very appropriate for kids to read, and quite honestly the whole book was not OK to read to a child of any age. I don’t know if it would be useful to another child. Many other alphabet books [are] available. This one just seemed bad all across the board.”
I don’t know, it looks pretty intriguing to me!
Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach
“Offensive language, age inappropriate”- I’m guessing this person didn’t get that this a humour book which is probably more intended for parents than children. There IS an alternate SFW version called Seriously, Just Go to Sleep, but I think it’s missing the magic of the original…
Fun fact! Samuel L. Jackson narrates this book spectacularly in the audio edition.
The Waiting Dog by Andrea and Carolyn Beck
The Waiting Dog was challenged both in 2006 and 2010. Complaints included “revolting, vile”. It’s true! This is a picture book with a warning label on the cover art: “WARNING- do you have the guts to read this book?”
The story *spoiler alert* involves a dog who daydreams about pulling the mailman in through the slot and feasting on his body from top to toes. Its graphic imagery and playful verse are both gratuitously, gruesomely, disturbingly macabre, and while it surely isn’t to every readers taste, I’m certain that some kids as well as adults would gobble it up happily.
The dark humour is played in an exaggerated way- the evil thoughts of the dog contrast so completely with the gentle, wiggly, goofy dogs that I know, so as the violence ramps up it only adds to the hilarity.
I probably never would have stumbled across this book if it hadn’t been challenged, but I am quite fond of it. I actually ordered my own copy on Amazon and the author signed it!
“All Young Adult LGBTQ publications”
It’s alarming to notice a certain trend in the books that have been challenged in Canada in recent years- many of them are LGBTQ+ titles.
In one particular instance in 2016, a mother in Alberta initiated a challenge on all of the LGBTQ book titles that were suggested in the Teen Summer Reading Program pamphlets at St. Albert Library. She found the entire category objectionable, claiming “there is a difference between showing respect for all peoples and using the summer reading program as a place to further LGBTQ propaganda”– she also called LGBTQ+ an unhealthy “lifestyle” contrary to god’s plan and unfit for promotion to youth.
The Teen Librarian did not remove the Queer Lit category from the Summer Reading program, and noted in their response to the patron that it was not a requirement to read from that category to participate in the SRP game. Furthermore, they explained:
“Library patrons have a choice in what they read… The St. Albert Public Library serves all members of the community, regardless of age, race, faith, education level, income, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic background, or language spoken. We serve LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) youth, and the library is a safe space for them to visit. Many of these young people, as part of an invisible minority, have learned to be secretive about their sexual identity or gender identity for fear of rejection from their peers or their own families. They experience isolation and are often victims of bullying. For these youth, a realization that there are library materials available to them which address LGBTQ identities and issues can help them choose to become more resilient and to feel that they have a place in society… having LGBTQ material available in the Young Adult collections and on book displays alongside other materials, not hidden away, helps to create an atmosphere of acceptance”.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This bestselling and award-winning dystopian novel was challenged in 2008 by a parent who was concerned about its use in a grade 12 classroom in Toronto. Concerns included “profane language, anti-Christian overtones, violence, and sexual degradation“.
Hmm, I wonder how an author is supposed to portray a dystopia without depicting the plentiful ways in which humanity can go wrong?
The school board reviewed the title and decided to keep it in the grade 11 & 12 curriculum.
Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
Back around the 2000’s the Harry Potter series was widely challenged in the US and Canada, mainly by christian fundamentalists, on the grounds that the series contained themes of witchcraft. The books were removed from classroom use in some instances, and some orders for removal were rescinded after public outcry.
“In 2002 the Niagra (ON) District School Board turned down a parent’s request for the removal of the books from area schools. The parent said the books contained violence and promoted a religion (Wicca) which is against the law in Ontario schools. She said that she had not read the books.”
These books still face challenges again and again- I see another challenge recorded in Canada in 2010, but I imagine there are probably so many more challenges happening without being submitted to Freedom to Read.
Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley in the movie adaptations of the books, recalls a sobering moment in his childhood when he realized the truly enormous impact of the series:
I saw a picture in a newspaper of a book-burning in America’s Bible Belt. And there was a picture of my face smouldering on top of the pyre because they thought the Harry Potter films were endorsing witchcraft.
The first omnibus, containing volumes 1-3 of this manga series, was challenged in Canada in 2017. No details are listed as to why.
I haven’t read Flowers of Evil yet- it’s on my TBR list- but I am a big fan of Oshimi’s beautiful and haunting vampire series, Happiness.
Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Again, no reason given here as to why it was challenged, but in 2017 someone had an issue with Jumanji. Van Allsburg’s works are unique and whimsical. This strange and imaginative picture book was the inspiration for the film of the same name, which was released back in 1995!
Goosebumps (Series) and Fear Street (Series) by R.L. Stine
Speaking of 1995, that’s the year that R.L. Stine’s books were challenged in Nova Scotia! Take a nostalgic look at those gorgeous covers, would you?
“A parent group in Halifax asked that both these series be withdrawn from schools in the Halifax School Board’s jurisdiction. The books were said to convey violence and a lack of respect for parental authority.”
Why do parents always seem to want to ban the books that their kids are desperate to read? What a great way to kill a potential love of reading! Also, wouldn’t you fight back if you were being attacked by relentless lawn gnomes or killer slime? And maybe learning to not blindly trust authority is also an important lesson in life, but hey, that’s just my opinion…
I am a 90’s kid myself, and recently wrote on my personal blog about my obsession with Goosebumps. It certainly gave me chills a few times, but sometimes a kid needs a good scare!
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole
And Tango Makes Three was challenged in Canada 2006 and again in 2009. This book was inspired by two real-life male penguins at the Central Park Zoo. The Calgary Catholic School District banned the book from a school library after a parent complained, on religious grounds, about the theme of “homosexual parenting”.
This book has also been highly controversial in the United States, facing frequent challenges.
Again, these are just a handful of examples of titles that have been challenged in Canada, and many more titles are challenged every year that likely aren’t reported.
The removal of Drama came after complaints from parents about LGBT content; Drama, which centers around a middle-school theatre production, features a panel where two boys kiss onstage.
The School Board had asserted that the choice was made to remove the book not necessarily because of LGBT content, but because of relationship content:
“It is not a book we really need younger kids reading without guidance.”– Robert Long, Ottawa Catholic School Board
I’ve read Drama, and I feel confident that if the LGBT characters were instead presented as a boy-girl coupling there would have been no perceived “issue” and no censorship of this title by the School Board.
Drama features young students, some of which have crushes on other students (shocking, I know), but the book isn’t heavily focused on romantic relationships- it’s also an intensely readable comic featuring diverse characters who are excited and passionate about theatre. The students are busy addressing all of the intricacies of designing a set, planning the lighting, creating the costumes, rehearsing and getting ready for their big performance.
Scholastic recommends Drama for ages 10-14, which covers about grade 4-9. Age recommendations aren’t set in stone though, and I take them with a grain of salt- readers often enjoy titles above and below their “reading level”, especially if the content is relatable to them. When I was in elementary school and middle school, I was involved in several school plays, and this is just the kind of comic I would probably have enjoyed.
While the decision to ban Drama was thankfully reversed due to the pushback, we can still learn a lot from this act of censorship.
What does it say when we remove a book like Drama? The School Board had claimed that the book’s relationship content was age inappropriate, but the book was originally contested because of LGBT content (a gay character, a kiss). If the school was truly concerned about relationship content and kisses they would have a lot more titles to ban, including heaps of classic fairy tales, bestselling kids’ novels, and tons of picture books.
Take a look at the cute picture books up there created for young readers- why does society readily accept the love and affection of entire menageries of animals and creatures in a children’s picture book, but as soon as a boy kisses another boy in a comic people become uneasy?
Sadly, comics and graphic novels are subject to hyper-vigilant scrutiny on a regular basis. There’s something about the visual nature of comics that gets people all riled up, and this controversy over Drama is one more story showing that censorship is alive in Canada.
By purposefully removing Drama from a school library collection, the school board was effectively removing representation of LGBTQ+ characters. This removal insinuated that board members had concluded gay crushes are problematic and can only be handled by more mature readers. It implied that it’s unnatural for boys to like boys, it’s unmentionable for a boy to kiss a boy, that kids shouldn’t see LGBT relationships as normal, and that school libraries shouldn’t contain these types of content.
Representation isn’t trivial- it’s vital. Statistics show that in Canada, as in many other parts of the world, LGBTQ+ people are targeted at disproportionately high levels when it comes to violence, sexual assault, and discrimination.
We need stories with LGBTQ+ content to normalize LGBTQ+ people and relationships if we are to stop the violence that is directed toward them.
This book wasn’t being used for a class- it was available in the library, where students had the choice to read it or not read it as they liked. Parents can control what their own kids read, but when a book is banned and removed from a school library it eliminates EVERYONE’S chance to read it.
Drama could be the book that sparks a love of reading for a child. It could be the book that makes them feel less alone in the world, the book that they see themselves reflected in. It could inspire them, comfort them, entertain them, educate them, and more. It could do all of these things or none of these things, because every person is different and every reader brings their own ways of knowing into what they are reading. When the book is available, at least they have the chance to read it- if they don’t want to read it, nobody is forcing them to.
I’m glad that Drama is back in the elementary school libraries. Telgemeier’s graphic novels are popular for a reason, and kids read them voraciously. Drama could be just the book that a student needs.