You can pick up cheap American horror novels for your kid at a fast food joint, books that offer about as much intellectual nourishment as a bag of chips.
When they sell books at hamburger joints, or by mail-order through macaroni boxes, publishers of American pulp fiction have increased access to our kids' minds. And if Canadian books are not as exciting, realistic, and relevant to our children as American books-or television-we undermine their confidence in Canadian literature, and in quality literature in general.
But Canadian books for kids are subjected to an obstacle course of censors-largely invisible and wholly unaccountable-that makes producers of quality kids' literature, and proponents of free speech, tear their hair out. The problem is systemic in how kids' books are distributed. The vast majority of Canadian books find their way to kids through schools, school libraries, and mail-order book clubs operating in schools.
"In my latest book, Do You Want Fries with That, I have this thing on how to make fake boogers," says the author Martyn Godfrey. "The editor said that was okay, `But listen, part of our sales is through the book club people. Would you mind if I took out the word "booger"?' It's not her fault. The book clubs won't pick it up. It's just the way it is in Canada. Most of my books, 90 percent, are sold in a school environment. So there's an awful lot of concern at the editorial level."
"As publishers we have to see ourselves in partnership with parents and teachers," says Diane Kerner, editorial director for Scholastic, the largest distributor of kids' books in the country. "The teachers have to be comfortable."
Most teachers are comfortable with supporting their students' freedom to read. But they must deal with an ever-present minority of parents and community members who react to some books as if they were a manual of satanic rites. Unfortunately, the usual response to complaints against books is to simply remove them from the shelves.
David Jenkinson is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs and a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. He conducted two studies in Manitoba surveying public schools' handling of complaints about kids' books.
"The first time around [in 1982 to 1984], I found out that a quarter of the schools had a challenge," says Jenkinson. "This time [1991 to 1993], I had a third. So it's increasing. [The first study found that] about six out of ten books were totally removed from the school. Only 20 percent were fully retained on the shelves. The other 20 percent were restricted in some way. Things were better in 1991 to '93. Almost twice as many materials were retained. Only 45 percent were removed fully."
So, while the overall picture has improved somewhat, schools are still removing nearly half of the books a single person objects to. No wonder publishers are gun-shy.
Interestingly, the second study indicated that urban centres got much better at handling complaints than rural Manitoba, where the situation actually worsened. "62 percent of materials were removed and only a quarter retained," says Jenkinson. "You could almost reverse those figures for urban Manitoba.
"I think a lot of it had to do with staffing. Teacher librarians were found in 142 out of 206 urban responding schools, compared to only 16 out of 214 rural responding schools. There is a real difference. Here you have a group of people, library technicians or library clerks, who don't have the protection of a union. They are much more vulnerable. That, by itself, would account for a lot of the difference."
Jenkinson found that where there were policies in place to handle complaints, and where the policies were followed, "materials were much more likely to remain on the shelves."
"Books just disappear," says Dennis Johnson, managing editor of Red Deer College Press. "I passionately believe that what happens is that the order never goes though, the card is lost. Nobody takes responsibility, but the book is not available. It's hard to document."
Red Deer College Press is publisher of the controversial How Do You Spell Abducted? by Cherylyn Stacey, which tells the story of a couple of kids abducted by their unbalanced, but definitely not dangerous father. Stacey was publicly criticized for promoting hatred of men and fatherhood.
"It really stimulated interest in the book," says Johnson. "It sold to a book club now, after the controversy. But the criticism will certainly not help it in the school library market. School librarians have not shown enormous enthusiasm. Their hands are frequently tied by boards who respond in a knee-jerk fashion to a single concern from a single parent. Obviously, there have to be clear guidelines. Librarians need to know they are going to be supported, that they are not going to lose their jobs."
Nobody is advocating total, unguided access to any material. Some books, even quality kids' books, are inappropriate reading for young children. Many libraries, especially in combined elementary/junior high schools, segregate books according to age. But, once again, lack of policy at the school level restricts the right of some kids to read.
"Some of the books we offer shouldn't end up in the hands of a kid in Grade 4," says Diane Kerner. "We encourage parents and teachers to choose books with the kids. Ideally, we'd love to say that kids under age fourteen will not get their hands on this book. But the fact is that they will. I don't want to pander to people who are narrow-minded. The concern for me is that our book club goes into a school in a town where perhaps there is no book store. And if Scholastic is taken away, there is no way for kids to own a book."
So, while many publishers continue to produce "challenging" books, they know that sales of such books won't be as high as "safe" books. And writers respond to market pressure by censoring themselves.
"I even censor myself to a point as to whether I use `geez' any more because it is short for Jesus," says Martyn Godfrey. "I've had parents object to that. Obviously, when an editor and I are wasting time talking about the word `booger', it's gone too far."
Many writers press on, treading the narrow path between integrity and acceptability. The price they pay can be high. Many kidslit writers depend on school appearances-giving workshops and readings-for both exposure and revenue. Writers of "safe" books are a "safe" choice for schools.
Beth Goobie, whose Mission Impossible was nominated last year for the Governor General's kids-lit award, often writes for "reluctant readers". Some of her books-Group Homes from Outer Space, Who Owns Kelly Paddick?, Hit & Run, Sticks & Stones, I'm Not Convinced, The Good, the Bad, & the Suicidal, Kicked Out-deal with matters like homelessness, sexual and emotional abuse, family violence, sexual harassment, and political repression of teens: the very issues that many "reluctant readers" need help in dealing with.
Goobie believes passionately that kids deserve to see their own lives reflected in literature, but this sometimes shuts her out of the school reading/workshop circuit. A librarian once told her that she would not put any of her books on library shelves because her son had not been sexually abused, and she didn't want him to know about it.
"My experience in the school system has been varied," says Goobie. "One teacher refused to hire me, not having read any of my books, when she heard that I had written about family violence for kids. She was concerned, she stated, that the kids might go out and read my books."
Kevin Major is a Newfoundland fiction writer of young adult and adult novels. Back in the early 1980s he was touring northern Ontario as part of a children's book festival week, talking to kids and promoting Hold Fast and Far from Shore. "Both books contained some strong language and some minor sexual references, nothing very graphic," says Major. "We were due to go to a place called Rainy River. The principal also happened to be chairperson of the library board. And I assume that having read the book he decided against having a reading and promptly cancelled it. As it happened some people were upset by his ruling and scheduled another reading. But it was not one young people came to.
"I naturally thought that a book like Hold Fast, which won a number of awards in Canada and internationally, and had been put on the list in provinces. But in the very province the book was set, Newfoundland, the book was ignored. I can only assume that it was because of the language. There have been a scattered few cases where books have been removed from library shelves. I've actually gone into schools and seen my books with some of the offending words blacked out."
Major's books are now widely read, even though they are identified as containing strong language. "I have no problem with that designation," he says. "The problem is that I am now the bearer of a certain label: being for mature audiences. I have been scrutinized carefully. Although that may have gained me some attention, it certainly doesn't do anything for sales. And ultimately, you can be presented as somebody who is trying to corrupt children."
Amazing that we allow our kids access to cheap pulp horror and crappy television, but kick up a huge fuss over strong language in quality literature. But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the book-burners. "Censors value the power of literature much more than we do," says Merle Harris, who organizes Freedom to Read Week in Edmonton, "It's a backhanded compliment, and I wonder if we are so insecure in our values that we think a book or two is going to destroy everything we've taught our children."
"Some parents say that supporting a child's right to read a challenging book means you are condoning what's in the book," says David Jenkinson. "Then they go the next step: that you are encouraging the kids to engage in this activity. But I think we need to look at how we see ourselves as parents. Do we want to be controlling parents or liberating parents?"
And, perhaps, it comes down to how we see ourselves as a society. If we leave decisions about what our kids are to read up to the authorities, investing immense trust in a system that is neither transparent nor accountable to us, what does that teach them to expect from Canadian institutions? And what does that tell us about what we expect?
The invisible censorship of kids' literature sends strong, if unspoken, messages to children: that sharing ideas is dangerous, that we have the right to tell each other what to say and what to think, that authority is meant to control, not to empower. That freedom is something to be feared.
If literature has the power to corrupt, then it also has the power to redeem. The role of society is to guide and empower children to mature into independent, powerful adults in a free society. By abdicating our kids' right to read, we abandon our future to the book-burners' agenda.
Nora Abercrombie lives in Lindbrook, Alberta. She is also the publisher and editor of Tarnation.