Freedom To Read Week

imgres-3It’s that time of year again: time to raise awareness about the freedom to access books and to celebrate the books that others folks love to hate.  Canada’s Freedom to Read Week.

Check out this great video on the Freedom to Read site.  It was made by students at Calgary Science School.  There are messages hidden in students’ desks that point out how impoverished our lives become if we limit our and others’ access to a wide variety of books:

a world without choices, never coming face-to-face with real problems, nowhere to escape to, no imaginary worlds….

The 49th Shelf has a great list of books that have been banned, a list I liked because it highlights the variety of groups and grounds on which they want to ban certain books.

And here is a list of books that have been banned around the world, from the Prince Rupert Library web site.

The best way to beat censorship is to read the banned books, so pick one for your loved ones and snuggle up and READ.


Talk From Behind The Portable

My memories from the fifth grade are pretty watered down.  There isn’t too much that I remember vividly.  I remember my teacher’s name was Miss Darby and she had a penchant for bread.  She kept a loaf of fresh bakery bread in her desk drawer and between revealing the secrets of long division and reprimanding Steven W., the class clown (who learned the hard way that sniffing Fun Dip up your nose, while gets you a laugh, causes inferno-like burning in your nasal cavity for hours afterwards), she would rip off pieces and pop them in her mouth.

I can’t recall much of what I learned during school hours during those ten months of grade five but I do remember studying the ancient Mayans.

Our class would huddle in the library where the lights were dim and the Board of Education approved mini-series The Second Voyage of the Mimi played on a rinky T.V. positioned above our heads on a wheeled cart.  The volume was weak and the picture quality poor.  It was 1990 and the technology seems archaic in comparison to today’s SmartBoards.

It was there, in the darkness, when we should have been watching the scuba team discover ancient Mayan artifacts, that several girls and I found a copy of “The Book”.

The cover of “The Book” was creased and soft.  The pages were overly worn from curious fingers flipping through the pages, anxious to find “The Page”.

It was with my closest friends that I read about Spike, a fourteen-year-old girl who had gotten pregnant and decided to keep the baby.   We read page 10 and 11 over and over.  The words “breasts” and “thrust” practically glaring off the page.  In comparison to what is readily seen on T.V. today, the passage seems somewhat tame.

We were righteous in our judgment of Spike.  We called her the most horrific names our pre-teen brains could conjure up even though we did not fully understand the meaning of the many insults.  Talk about Spike and sex were the basis of many recess talks behind the portable.  We were not even kissing boys so there was a definite undercurrent of curiosity.  What had transpired between Spike and her boyfriend?  Do they have to get married now?  Does Spike still go to school?

A few weeks later our class was back in the library to watch the conclusion of the The Second Voyage of the Mimi.  We searched in vain for the copy of “The Book” but it was no longer residing on the shelf.  Instead, it had been plucked from the stacks and stashed in the librarian’s office.

Later we learned that a parent had lambasted the librarian for allowing a book about sex and teen pregnancy to be made available to the students at the school.  In all fairness, the book was not meant for the prying eyes (and fingers) of tweens but for the more “mature” audience of the junior high classes.

What resonates with me years later is that by banning the book from our library the conversation was cut-off.  Instead of using “The Book” as a teachable moment or to invite a discussion, my friends and I were left with many unanswered questions.  More so, banning the book proved to further intrigue us and we went to great lengths to search out additional copies.

Banning books is like putting a muzzle on a conversation that needs to be had.  Pull the tape off, and talk to your kids about the issues the books bring to the forefront.

Photo credit:

I Haven’t Got It in Me to Try

In the four years since becoming a mother, I’ve changed in some pretty significant areas.  Patience, for example.  I have slowly been morphing into a patience machine.  Not all the time, of course, and not without slip-ups.  But I’m really consciously working on it, and a little surprisingly, it’s actually working.  I’m an infinitely more patient mother now than I have ever been.

This is also partly due to having more information, both about babies and myself.  Where in the early months of motherhood I was beside myself with sleeplessness and frustration at night, now I look forward to sleeping with my children.  I’m grateful and slightly in awe of my power to reassure them just with my presence, and I no longer begrudge their night waking any more than I do their need for food.

In addition, I have a previously inconceivable tolerance around the bodily substances they produce and splatter onto me, and for the noise and chaos at every turn.  And when I see a child or a parent acting out on the street, I usually feel no knee-jerk judgment but a wash of sympathy for the tantrum taker, having borne humble witness to my own low points as a mother.

In other ways, though, my ability to endure has simply atrophied.  Where once I sought to learn about the world’s cruelties and injustices, in hopes of understanding and participating in efforts to better them, now I can hardly bear to listen anymore.  If I see another picture of a polar bear (an ace swimmer) stranded on an ice floe facing death by drowning because climate change is melting away his habitat, I will scream.  I can’t even listen to a nostalgic country song without a teary eye.

I remember a conversation I had with my brother-in-law’s parents* a couple of years after 9/11.  They couldn’t understand why the world’s weak-willed politicians couldn’t just solve the problem, since “90% of Muslims support the attack”.  The solution was so clear:  “Just imprison all of their religious leaders worldwide,” they said.

My husband Ben actually tried to engage them in a discussion, in hopes of exposing the flaws of their views and the prejudices that lay beneath.  I guess that was a mature, constructive thing to do.  I preferred to leave the room and write them out of my social world. Oh, and to vent at Ben afterward:  “What do you mean, they’re still nice people?  They’re kooks!  And they’re kooks who are dangerous!  They get to vote! They’re the people who would have burned women at the stake for being witches!!”

It’s this lack of tolerance that’s making it hard for me to meaningfully engage in this week’s proposed discussion of banned books.  I’m a research lawyer for the government, and I have actually read legal cases on freedom of expression as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and defined by the Supreme Court of Canada.  This could potentially be an interesting angle for this online roundtable.  And if we were talking about pornography, or hate speech, or Ernst Zundel (involving litigation I actually worked on), maybe I’d have the will to say something productive about it.

But this list of banned books?  Nope.  I’ve got nothing.  I think about people who would deny not just for themselves but for others the majesty of Toni Morrison’s words, the youthful soul-searching and adventures of Harry Potter, or just the plain comfort that Judy Blume has brought to generations of pre-pubescent readers, especially during the decades before all-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-sex could be found with the click of a mouse.  I think about these people and just haven’t got it in me to even try to talk.

I know this isn’t useful, but I can’t help it.  I know the constructive thing to do would be to try to meet the book banners in debate, sourcing out the emotional impulse behind the censorship and the values they seek to protect, and then engaging in the art of persuasion.  I bet Ben could do it.  Maybe Nathalie, Marcelle and Beth-Anne could do it too.

Me?  I’m leaving the room.  To tend to my babies, doing what I can to be part of kinder times, and to nurture a better future, all the while hoping the book banners’ sphere of influence is small.  And that they don’t vote.

* It’s okay.  I can write about them with impunity.  They’re not reading my articles, trust me.

Affirmed from the First Memory

We live in a heteronormative world, and there are very few spaces where being gay might actually be the default assumption. 

My house is one of them.

If one or all of my boys grows up to love men, I want him to have that aspect of his identity affirmed from the beginning of memory.  Not “accepted” because that implies I would have preferred something else.  Affirmed. 

Whenever we talk about the boys’ future, I refer to their future partners as men or women.  My eldest son is especially interested in babies, and we talk about him being a parent one day, whether in a single, same-sex or heterosexual parenting arrangement.  This is not about being politically correct.  It’s about something much more profound: making sure that my sons can trust their truest selves when they begin to wake up to their sexuality.

So for Banned Books Week, I decided to read a new-to-us book about same sex couples with the boys.  (As it happens, Griffin had already read the book in class in Grade Two.  Thank you, Heather!)   As I mentioned last week, And Tango Makes Three is one of the most banned books of the past decade because of its depiction of a same sex couple, a penguin couple to be precise. 

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole, is a charming book based on the real life relationship of Roy and Silo, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo.  The reader is brought into the story through the concept of family: “In the middle of New York City there is a great big park called Central Park.  Children love to play there.  …  Best of all, it has its very own zoo.  Every day families of all kinds go to visit the animals that live there.” 

The illustration very subtly includes (human) families of all shapes and sizes.  The story then introduces Roy and Silo, who fall in love, form a couple and build a nest for an egg that never materializes.  They get inventive and put a rock in the nest and take turns sitting on it.  The zookeeper observes this behaviour, and when he finds an egg that needs a nest and two loving parents, he thinks of Roy and Silo.  Thus is born another family at the zoo. 

I love this book, and I love that it is based on a real story.  Owen and Mzee is the true story of a hippo and a tortoise who befriend each other at a zoo, and I can’t get enough of it.  Heather Has Two Mommies is a classic in the category of same sex parent books, and we have read it often, but it is a bit heavy-footed in places.  And Tango Makes Three is delightfully light on its feet, and tonight, at least, it has stood up to several retellings.  Mostly, I love it because it is a testament to the joy of love and the rewards of the long, long hours we sit with our eggs.

And what did the boys think?  The usual.  They fought over who would be Roy and who would be Silo.

“I want to be Roy.”

“No, you be Silo.  I want to be Roy.”

“No!  I called it first!!”


Here is a link to some more books about same sex families from Toronto’s Parentbooks.

And here is a link to some other picture books about same sex families.

And this is a wonderful video from a series of you tube videos aimed at middle and high school children who are being bullied because of their sexual orientation.  The series is called It Gets Better, and its name hints at its genesis: one third of teenagers who commit suicide are gay.  Dan Savage, sex advice columnist, and his partner Terry talk about their experiences with being bullied, coming out to their parents and raising their son.  Thanks to Rebecca for the link.

Perhaps if more teachers and parents read books like these to the kids in their care, our children won’t have to wait for their lives to get better.

Banned Books Week: September 25-October 2, 2010

Next week is Banned Books Week in the U.S.  (Canada has a Freedom to Read Week in February.)  The event was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.  During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events.

This is a list of 100 books recently banned.  Check it out, then go to your local library and check one (or two or three) out for real.  I will be reading And Tango Makes Three with my boys.  It’s about a penguin chick and her two dads.  Here’s more from Wiki:

The book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap Penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo. The book follows the six years of their life where they formed a couple and were given an egg to raise.

The book has won many awards but also been at the center of numerous censorship and culture war debates on same-sex marriage, adoption and homosexuality in animals. The American Library Association reports that And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, and 2008, as well as the most banned book of 2009.

I just LOVE this comment from one of the authors:

  We wrote the book to help parents teach children about same-sex parent families. It’s no more an argument in favor of human gay relationships than it is a call for children to swallow their fish whole or sleep on rocks.  
—co-author Justin Richardson,
New York Times (2005)

Heaven knows, those darned kids might just go eating their fish whole if we don’t ban the book!

Keep us posted about what you read together, and stay tuned for an At Issue on banned books next week.

Happy subversive, whole-fish-eating reading!