Monday, 2 July 2012


In Canada and the U.S. there are both right wing and left wing book banners. Their activities are mostly directed at schools - removing books from the classroom and from the libraries to prevent young minds being tainted by dangerous thoughts.

The first and probably most persistent group of the book banners on the Right are the Christian fundamentalists. Sometimes Christian fundamentalists go after books that have sorcerers and witches. A typical angst of the fundamentalists have been the Harry Potter books. Harry and his classmates attend the celebrated Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. According to the religious right, these stories teach a triple whammy of witchcraft, sorcery and satanism. In a similar vein fundamentalist have also pushed for removal of books such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for allegedly promoting New Ageism.

Christian fundamentalists most often target books that deal with sex in a manner which they don’t approve. In a famous case from Surrey, British Columbia (it went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada) a school board dominated by fundamentalists banned 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.

Another set of conservatives try to ban books that appear to undermine authority. An elementary school teacher in Prince Rupert, British Columbia was told she could not display in her classroom a quote from a Dr. Seuss book, "I know up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here on the bottom, we too should have rights". Dave Stigant, acting director of instruction for the Prince Rupert School District, stated the decision was based on the November, 2011 ban by an arbitrator on political messages in schools in the province, though the ongoing labour dispute between the teacher's union and the province played a role as well.

Ironically Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, started his career as a political cartoonist, and was vocal in his desire to educate children about politics. He was particularly concerned with educating children about various forms of Fascism. He once stated the character of Yertle was modeled after Hitler.

Arizona has emerged as a hotspot for authoritarian officials who wish to cleanse schools of subversive thinking. The thinking that most disturbs these people is anything that might "promote" a non-traditional perspective on Hispanic and native American culture and accordingly banning efforts has extended to history books, poetry and general literature. Quite naturally history books that are sympathetic to Mexico in its 19th century border wars with the U.S. are particularly verboten.

Arizona’s book banning is a consequence of a resolution ostensibly aimed at curbing resentment, government overthrow and ethnic distinction and separation in any district or charter school's curriculum in that state. Under this stricture even William Shakespeare's The Tempest was included in the list of banned books. The Tempest, a play believed to have been penned in the early 1600's by the famous British writer, is the tale of a banished duke of Milan who seeks revenge through his use of magic while at sea. 

Elsewhere in the U.S. books which have a anti-establishment tinge are often the subject of banning. Thusly even a book like Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich frequently ends up on a no-go list. Nickel and Dimed is a non-fiction work about how difficult it is to live as a waitress, maid or Walmart worker. According to the banners it is (allegedly) inaccurate, uses offensive language, and has an unacceptable political and religious viewpoint. As one commentator noted. "The closer books come to things that are really happening in a lot of lives, the more they become a reminder of what people don't like to think about."

A second perhaps more insidious group of book banners come from the left rather than the right. They are more insidious because they are not so obviously stupid as some of the right-wing banners.

Vancouver has a diversity team patrolling the hallways and libraries of its schools. An article in the Kerrisdale Courier pointed out that diversity team’s 27-page "planning tool" for elementary school teachers, "includes a censorship checklist, that if followed, would empty school libraries of classic children’s literature. Crafted by a lobbying group from California, the checklist’s narrow definition of the acceptable deems most books "published before 1973" as racist or sexist."

The author referred to a few checklist examples. "Check the story line: Liberation movements have led publishers to weed out many insulting passages… however, racist and sexist attitudes still find expression in less obvious ways." Another example "Check out the author’s perspective: Children’s books in the past have traditionally come from authors who were white and who were members of the middle class. Is the perspective patriarchal or feminist? Is it solely Eurocentric, or do minority cultural perspectives also appear?" And finally, "Look at the copyright date: Non-sexist books, with rare exceptions, were not published before 1973."

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the 4th most banned books in schools) and To Kill a Mockingbird get it from the both the left and the right of the political perspective. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gets banned because it uses the vernacular of the day including the "N" word and because the language is sometimes profane. To Kill a Mockingbird was pulled from the 10th grade English curriculum at a Brampton Catholic high school because a parent had complained about a racial epithet used in the book which documents racial injustice as it was practiced in the Deep South at the time it was written. Similarly a long-established book that has emerged as controversial among U.S. parents (both left and right) is the sci-fi classic Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which is cited for its language, racism, sex education, violence and unsuitability for young readers.

One would hope that school administrators would stand strong against the book banners but that is often not the case. Unfortunately it seems to be an occupation which curiously attracts people who are inclined to both cowardice and pandering. Consequently book banning movements are successfully initiated by small, unrepresentative groups of parents. Robert Munsch is a famous author of children’s books. He had a librarian call to tell him that three of his books had received complaints in her school district from an "organized movement," which turned out to be two families in two different schools who had complained about the same three books. It didn’t seem to matter that 90% of the parents would not want his books banned. Administrators will avoid controversy at all costs even if it means that the wishes of a small ideological or religious group prevails.

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