Monday, June 7, 2010

Update on The Shepherd's Granddaughter

This update is long overdue - my apologies. But I expected the whole process of complaining to the school board about this book to be over long ago - which just goes to show how badly I underestimate bureaucracy. But there has been progress.

First and most importantly, the Toronto Board has decided that in future it won't assume that the Ontario Library Association recommends good, wholesome books. Instead, the Board will do it's own assessment to make sure books recommended by the librarians meet the board's anti-racism standards. As far as I'm concerned, this is the most important step for the Board to take and anything beyond it is gravy.

Second, the Board has classified The Shepherd's Granddaughter as a "controversial book." This means that students are alerted that the book may be biased if not downright bigoted and teachers are to guide students before, during and after they read the book.

In addition, teachers are supposed to supply students with other books that provide differing(and more accurate) views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, the Board hasn't carried through with this last bit, probably because they can't: for children in this age group, there aren't any good books about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or even about the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.

This isn't a big surprise. Take any contemporary conflict and you'll find very few children's books about it - for the obvious reason that most authors can distinguish between their own obsessions and children's actual interests. Unfortunately, anti-Israeli activists are an exception to this rule and feel no shame about attempting to propagandize children. (For a report on another example, of Israel-haters trying to propagandize students, see here.)

I do know of one Young Adult book on the Palestinian Israeli conflict which does an excellent job of humanizing people on both sides: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti. But it's for kids in high school, not grades 7 and 8.

But back to my update: The York Region School Board also put a caution on The Shepherd's Granddaughter so that it's only available in the context of teacher-guided reading, and the Niagara Board "red-flagged" the book so that librarians and teachers will warn students that the contents aren't to be believed. To me these seem to be reasonable steps and better than banning the book outright, which I don't favour.

Still better would be to spend precious library dollars on books that are actually good and don't tell students that the Jewish God commands them to kill and steal and that Israelis are child-killers. But for most school libraries in Ontario, it's too late for that.

(My complaint to the Board has nothing to do with banning the book. I objected to the schools promoting The Shepherd's Granddaughter to grade 7 and 8 students as a book they should read - which I'm sure the Board would never have done on its own account. The book got distributed on the recommendation of the Ontario Library Association, without anyone from the Toronto Board reading the book first.)

Meanwhile, The Shepherd's Granddaughter did not win the Red Maple Award. No surprise there, as the book is not only bigoted, it's boring. It was nominated by a committee of librarians, obviously on the basis of its politics, not its literary qualities. The winner of the Red Maple for 2010, as chosen by Ontario children is Word Nerd, a great book by Susin Nielsen.

And the Toronto Board continues its formal review of The Shepherd's Granddaughter. It's been a couple months now, but I'm not complaining. The board conducted its initial, informal review very quickly and slapped the "controversial" label and all the restrictions that go with that label within in days of receiving my complaint.

Every few weeks someone from the board phones me to assure me that they haven't fallen off the planet and that the bureaucracy's slow grind is continuing. Doubtless, sooner or later, they will issue a very cautiously worded report. But in the meanwhile, the chief victory - making sure that in future books recommended by the Ontario Library Association are vetted first - is already won.

Note: For my original complaint to the Toronto School Board (and to the Ministry of Education), see here.