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Banned Books Week, A Reflection

The American Library Association has been celebrating Banned Books Week in the last full week of September since 1982. The intent of the week is to celebrate the freedom to read, and to recognize those books challenged by various interest groups and those authors persecuted for their writings.
I grew up understanding the freedom that came with reading, but I never fully appreciated that freedom until I became an actual reader. In primary school, I would go dutifully to the library once a week with my classmates. The library in my school was a long room, crowded with shelves and tables. It had knooks and corners where you could hide from the teacher and the librarian, and pull books out onto the floor and look them over—as long as you didn’t get caught. Our librarian was something of a tyrant when it came to handling books, and God help you if you mistreated a book, spoke above a whisper, or laughed out loud during library time. The nearest thing in my experience to the library at that age was the local United church where my mother dragged me and my siblings. The only difference was that after a while we stopped going to church.
Funnily enough, I didn’t fully appreciate the places books could take me until after I lost my sight at age ten. As a blind kid, I suddenly didn’t have access to books in the same way, so being able to read took on a whole different meaning.
The first time I heard about books or authors being banned in other countries, I was shocked. I think that was Solzhenitsyn. When I learned that books such as Huck Finn and Lord of the Flies had been banned at various points I was still shocked, but more appalled that the banning of books could happen in North America. At some point in there I read Farron Height 451. That was an eye-opener.
The impulse to ban or to challenge books is one that goes back a long way, and it came home to me most poignantly as I began to study children’s literature. Surprise, surprise, many people in the nineteenth century didn’t want children reading Grimms’ fairy tales. Too violent, too explicit, and too gruesome for young minds. The rational moralists of the late eighteen century in England, led by such writers as Maria Edgeworth, had particular things in mind for young readers. Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant, for example, included stories for kids that privileged Christian and middle-class values, and you’ve never seen the words industry and honesty appear more frequently in any text.
As a young parent with enough education to do some damage, I began to determine early on the sorts of books my kids should read. The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Black Beauty, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were only a few of the books I was egar to introduce to my kids. My mother was complicit in my literacy campaign. She bought endless numbers of hardcover classics as birthday and Christmas presents. Don’t get me wrong. I always appreciated my mother’s desire to support my kids’ reading, but I was quickly learning that kids don’t always share the adult perspective on reading, or even on the best books. For one thing, what if your kid just doesn’t like to read? I was reminded forcibly of my own attitude towards books and libraries as a kid, so I quickly tried to adjust my approach with my own children.
I decided the best thing to do was to read with my kids, and not to push them in any particular direction. I think I made that decision after getting part way through Black Beauty with my youngest. She freaked out when Ginger, the horse, died. I had the same experience with my eldest reading a Children’s Classic version of David Copperfield. She cried at the treatment David received from his stepfather. We never finished reading those books.
In 1999, my kids’ mom and I had a heated discussion about this new book making its way around the school. It was something about witches and wizards. I knew nothing about it, but I agreed to read the book first, before letting the kids read it. That was my first experience of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
I have done my best to read the books my kids are reading ever since. That’s included stuff they had to read for school, such as The Kite Runner and Life of Pi, and later, those books my kids said I should read—because they’re good, and you would like them—such as The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl.
As a parent and teacher, I have always encouraged my kids and students to read critically—to read, think, and talk about books. You can decide what books you think are best for kids, but they usually have ideas of their own. What sort of message do you send a kid when you tell that kid he or she can’t read Harry Potter or Captain Underpants? If you don’t want a child to read something, ask yourself why, and then read the book—and by read, I mean read critically and deliberately. Too many adults approach books and information with enough preconceptions that it’s a wonder anything gets communicated at all. And kids who are told some books are wrong, bad, or not worth reading will carry that attitude into their adult reading—or, they will just read the books you don’t want them to read anyway.
Some books are bad. Some books aren’t’ worth reading. Some books offer political or subversive messages. But don’t blame books. It’s people who ban books. Its people who decide what books to challenge and what should or shouldn’t appear in school libraries. And it’s people with a vested interest in maintaining their own political or religious ideologies who represent the greatest threat to the freedom of information and the right to choose.

Rapunzel, Not All that Tangled

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was stuck in a tower. Her name was Rapunzel, and she spent her days reading and gazing out the tower window. It got tedious.
Rapunzel was never entirely clear why she couldn’t leave the tower. The old woman had explained it to her once. It was some muddled story about her parents and some lettuce—or was it a cabbage. She couldn’t exactly remember. Whatever the reason, here she was, stuck in this tower, reading her books and looking out over the forest.
The old woman came to see her sometimes. When she did, she would stand at the foot of the tower and call: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.”
Rapunzel didn’t understand why the old woman had to shout every time she came to the tower. Rapunzel was usually at the window. The old woman would climb up, carrying food or books or new clothes. They would always talk for a while, and the old woman would always warn Rapunzel about letting anyone into the tower.
As if she would! Rapunzel might be stuck in a tower, but she wasn’t an idiot.
She supposed the old woman was talking about the young man she sometimes saw from her window. He would sneak out of the forest when the old woman wasn’t there, come to the tower, and call: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
Good luck, buddy.
He couldn’t have been the brightest crayon in the box if he thought she was just going to drop her braids out the window for anyone. And besides, gathering up all that hair was hard work, and she had to wash it every time the old woman used it as a climbing rope. And then she had to dry it and brade it.
It went on like that, day after day, until, one day, Rapunzel decided she’d had enough. Towers were fine, but this was ridiculous. One of the books she had been reading was about a man who lived for years and years on a deserted island. He had to do all kinds of inventive things to survive on that island, and Rapunzel thought she would take a leaf out of his book—not literally, of course, but she liked some of his ideas.
She gathered up all that hair, masses and masses of it, and, taking a pair of scissors, she cut it off. With nimble fingers, Rapunzel began to weave herself a rope. Soon she had a golden rope that reached right down to the ground, and she wove the rest of the hair into another rope, which she stuffed into a make-shift bag she stitched from an old cloak. She took the heavy velvet dresses the old woman always made her wear, and she cut and stitched and stitched and cut. Soon she had a sensible set of clothes—pants and shirt and jacket. Shoes were a problem, but Rapunzel rummaged through the pile of things at the back of the tower room until she unearthed a pair of combat boots the old woman had left by accident.
She was finally ready.
Saying a quick goodbye to the room, Rapunzel hopped out the window and repelled down the side of the tower. It was wonderful to be outside, under her own steam and finally able to do what she wanted.
She ventured into the forest, and there she built a house, following the example of her island survivor guy. She caught fish in a nearby lake, and she gathered edible plants from the forest. She was very happy.
Things went on for a while until one evening Rapunzel heard a bellowing and crashing in the forest. She caught up her walking stick, which also served as a beating stick in case anyone should bother her, and she waited.
And guess who it was—the prince. He was crying and bellowing and crashing through the trees, not seeming to know where he was going, and Rapunzel felt a little sorry for him. She guided him into her little house and sat him down. He seemed to have something stuck in his eye.
“I saw the hair,” he blubbered.” “I saw the hair and thought you’d left it out for me. I tried climbing the tower, but I lost my grip and fell. Nearly broke my neck, and I got something stuck in my eye. I think it’s a thorn from one of those beastly roses. I’m probably blind, now!”
“Don’t worry,” said Rapunzel. “Just sit still and let me have a look.”
And she had a look, but it was only an eyelash that had gotten stuck in the prince’s eye. With one deft flick, Rapunzel got it out. “There you go,” she said.
The prince sprang to his feet. “Rapunzel,” he cried, “will you marry me and come and live as my wife in my castle?”
Rapunzel didn’t have to consider long. “You realize I’ve been stuck in a tower for a long time,” she said. “I don’t think I want to be stuck in a castle. It sounds as bad as the tower.”
“Oh,” said the prince, looking rather crestfallen and a little hurt.
“But,” said Rapunzel, brightly, “I’m off soon to see the world, and you are welcome to join me, if youlike.”
“Off to see the world?” said the prince, uncertainly.
“Yes, I have a list of places I want to visit. I want to see Stone Henge. I want to go to Brazil—I’ve always liked the nuts. I want to go to Canada, although they say it’s always winter there, and I want to visit New Zealand. I’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand.”
“I guess that would be fine,” said the prince, a little uncertainly. “I should really ask my mother first.”
And speaking of mothers, or at least old women, Rapunzel wanted to give hers a proper telling off before she went away. The old woman was contrite, and she begged Rapunzel’s forgiveness, recognizing that imprisoning young girls in towers wasn’t cool. And the old woman, whom some called a witch, went off and set up shop as a family therapist.
As for Rapunzel and the prince, they  left to see the world. They visited Stone Henge, and they sailed on a ship to Canada. It wasn’t always winter, but there were lots of mosquitoes. Next, they went to Brazil to eat nuts, and, finally, off to New Zealand. They toured around the North and South Islands, until they got an apartment in the city. It was in a high-rise. Rapunzel supposed it was part of her thing about towers. But this one, she could leave whenever she wanted. You could say that she and the prince lived happily ever after,  but Rapunzel forever kept her hair short.

Le Guin, An Author for a Lifetime

The National Book foundation in America recently awarded Ursula K. Le Guin its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. A prestigious award for an outstanding author. But Le Guin’s books and short stories speak for themselves.
Le Guin is one of those authors I discovered early in my reading life. I was already a Tolkien geek by the age of eleven, and I was so new to fantasy that I had no idea another author could transport me the way Tolkien could.
The first book I read by Le Guin was The Tombs of Atuan. I think I was thirteen, blinded in a car accident two years before, and desperately trying to adjust to life at my old school. Junior high constitutes a particular kind of hell for many kids, but mine was a hell defined by being the only blind kid in a regular, inner city school. These were kids I had known my whole life, kids I had gone to school with for five years, and who now alternatively felt sorry for me, ignored me, or teased me. The teachers were helpful and well meaning, but intervening on behalf of the blind kid in the class only made my situation worse.
Before I started getting out much on my own, my dad would sometimes drive me downtown to the Materials Resource Centre. This was the library/resource centre that produced all the stuff those few blind kids going to public school in the city needed in order to function. They provided books on tape, both textbooks and novels. They reproduced math texts in braille, and they supplied tape recorders and brailers and everything else we needed to function in a regular school.
The head librarian at the MRC was named Leslie Aiken, and I think she was please to discover a kid so eager to read. She never saw the angry, troublesome side of my character, at least not early on, and she always recommended new books and authors for me to read.
It was Leslie who introduced me to Le Guin. She gave me The Tombs of Atuan, and told me since I liked Tolkien, I might like Le Guin. Understating the case, to be sure. My imagination was ravenous for more after reading and rereading Tolkien.
The Tombs of Atuan is actually the second book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, but at the time, I didn’t care. I read the book, following Arha/Tenar, the high priestess, down into the tombs beneath the Place, and, oddly enough, I began to learn something about myself. I had enough awareness at the time to realize the tombs could be read as a kind of metaphor, although I don’t know that I knew the word yet. I had my own demons crawling around the labyrinth of my own damaged psyche at the time, and somehow experiencing Arha reclaiming her name and meeting Ged, the wizard in search of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, helped me to begin thinking about those things that were turning me into an angry adolescent.
I haven’t read the Earthsea cycle for a couple of years, but I intend to read it again this winter. Le Guin is a challenging author, dence with character, inventive in her use of landscape, devastatingly clear in description, and sometimes more cerebral than I like. And I’ve returned to her again and again over the years. The Tombs of Atuan appears in a course I teach by distance, and I even taught The Left Hand of Darkness to a first-year class. That was an experience of another kind, which I don’t think I would repeat. I have no real desire to teach more of Le Guin; I just love reading her books. She will always have a place on my literary map, and I will always first remember meeting a scared and angry girl, and a strange, inscrutable wizard in the dark beneath the tombs.

Back to School – What to Read?

September means back to school. If you are a fan of the Harry Potter books, then you know

September 1 is the day the Hogwarts Express leaves from King’s Cross Station. Harry makes this trip in five of the seven books in the series. In Chamber of Secrets, he and Ron take a flying car to Hogwarts, and in Deathly Hallows, Harry and friends are in hiding from both the Death Eaters and the Ministry.

I’m teaching Chamber of Secrets this year in my children’s literature class. It’s a book that gets variously criticized, but it also raises some important issues—such as classism and racism—that persist throughout the rest of the series.
Now that I also have a course in the folktale, I won’t teach folktales as part of the children’s literature course. Not entirely true. I couldn’t keep Hans Christian Andersen off the syllabus for this year.
Andersen is a strange writer. He’s one of those children’s authors who many people identify as classic, but he has a darker, disturbing side that many people don’t know.
Think of some of his lighter stories. “The Ugly Duckling” is one that has been retold, in picture books and on television, many, many times. It’s considered Andersen’s signature story—an ugly duckling, shunned by the world until he discovers he’s actually a beautiful swan. This is how Andersen perceived his own life, the best evidence for that being his autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life.
Many of Andersen’s best-known stories are entertaining and gently ironic. Think of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (not New Groove) or “The Princess on the Pea.” Many are more disturbing. Andersen’s darker side shows itself quickly once you start to look.
“The Tinderbox” is a story about a soldier who enters a hollow tree to retrieve an object for an old witch. She says he can fill his pockets with money, as long as he brings her back the object. The object, of course, is the tinderbox, and instead of giving it to the witch, he cuts off her head. The soldier proceeds into the town where he carouses and spends all of his money. He discovers the tinderbox will summon three magic dogs that will do whatever he asks. He wants the princess, and he gets her. At the end of the story, the soldier is about to be hanged, and he summons his three dogs using the tinderbox. He commands the dogs to kill the king and queen and the court, then he marries the princess, who is, apparently, okay with it. If the soldier in this story is the hero, then he’s a nasty one.
“The Little Mermaid” is a beautiful story about the youngest mermaid who falls in love with a prince. She sacrifices her legs and later herself for the sake of her prince. Lovely, indeed. However, the Little Mermaid has to endure excruciating pain after losing her fishtale; the prince doesn’t recognize her for the girl who saves him; he treats her like a pet, making her sleep on a cushion outside his door; then he marries someone else. The Little Mermaid can get back her fishtail if she cuts his throat and spills his blood onto her legs. She chooses not to, then throws herself off the boat, intending to kill herself. She doesn’t die, but is taken up as one of the spirits of the air.
Now think for a minute. Does this sound at all like Disney’s The Little Mermaid? The film marked the beginning of the Disney renaissance in the late 80s, and it was the film that brought me back to Disney. I love the character of Ariel, but she isn’t Andersen’s Little Mermaid, by any stretch.
Finally, if you want something dark by Andersen, read either “the Red Shoes” or “The Shadow.” Both of these stories are disturbing and graphic. Karen of “The Red shoes” is vain and loves to dance in her red shoes. Not a properly pious child, Karen would rather dance than pray. She eventually asks the executioner to cut off her feet because the shoes won’t stop dancing. In “The Shadow,” a young man loses his shadow, which eventually comes back to enslave and, finally, kill hymn.
Classics of children’s literature? Indeed. But remember, classic has become a largely meaningless  word when it comes to kid’s books. The word also describes every Disney film before it’s even released.
Andersen’s stories are rich, deep, dark, disturbing, funny, and entertaining. He’s one of those writers who used the fairy tale form because it best suited what he had to say. I think of him as a children’s writer, but mostly because I think of children’s books as a category of literature more than I do a type of literature only suitable for children.  And anyway, living in a world where kids only read kid’s books and adults only read adult books would be a sad place, indeed.

The Frog Prince, Revisited

Once on a time, there was a widow who lived with her daughter at the edge of a village. The widow baked bread for people in the village, and she had to work hard. Every day, she tried to get her daughter to help, but Molly, for that was her name, was always running off to play.
“If only,” cried the widow, “I had a daughter who was of some use in the kitchen!”
But Molly wasn’t any use in the kitchen or out of it. She would take her prized possession, a small golden ball, and she would run out to the forest to play.
One day, Molly came upon a pool in the forest. It was deep and clear, surrounded by rocks and ferns, and she bent over to have a look. And with a plop, her golden ball disappeared into the pool.
“Woe is me!” cried Molly. “What will I do? I’ve lost my golden ball in the pool!” And she sat down and began to cry.
“What’s troubling you, little maid?” asked a voice.
Molly stopped blubbering long enough to look up, and there, sitting at the edge of the pool, was a hideous old frog.
Molly didn’t mind frogs, and she blinked away her tears and stared at him curiously. “I’ve never met a talking frog before,” she said.
“I’m actually a prince under an enchantment,” said the frog, impressively. “If you promise to take me home, let me eat from your little plate, and let me sleep in your little bed, I will fetch your golden ball from the depths of this pool.”
“A prince,” said Molly, a little doubtfully. She had only ever heard of such things in fairy tales. And sleep in her bed? She wasn’t sure if her mother would want that.
She stared hard at the frog. “If you fetch my golden ball, then I promise to take you home. We’ll see about the sleeping arrangements.”
“Fair enough,” gulped the frog. And with a kick and a splash, he dove into the pool.
He was a long time under the water, so long that Molly began to wonder if he were ever going to come back. And then, with a splash and a splat, the frog was sitting on one of the stones. Giving a great croak, he spat the golden ball into Molly’s lap. And she was so delighted, she sprang up and ran all the way home, forgetting her promise to the frog. She might have remembered, but as soon as she came in the door, her mother put her to work.
“Fill the wood box, you lazy thing,” she scolded. “And when you are done that, you can set the table for dinner.”
Molly set to work, and in no time at all, she had the wood box filled, and she and her mother were sitting at the table eating soup and breaking off chunks of steaming, crackling bread.
Just then, there came a knocking at the door. “Young maid,” cried a voice. “Keep your promise. Let me sit at the table and eat from your plate.”
Molly ran to the door, and there was the frog, bobbing and puffing.
“What is that slimy thing?” asked her mother, peering over Molly’s shoulder.
“It’s a prince under an enchantment,” said Molly. “I promised that I would let him eat from my plate if he got my golden ball from the pool.”
“Well,” said the widow, “a promise is a promise. Bring the silly thing into the house, but keep it out of my way.”
Molly let the frog eat from her plate, but when it came time for bed, she found a box, and she stuffed the frog inside.
“Young maid,” cried the frog, plaintively. “You promised to let me sleep in your bed, so keep your promise.”
“You are a slimy frog, wet and icky,” said Molly. “You can sleep in the box.”
After that, the frog would sit and the table and eat from Molly’s plate, but at night she stuffed him back in his box. He complained and complained.
“You promised,” he would say. “You promised to let me sleep in your bed. I found your golden ball, and you must keep your promise.”
“Do you ever shut up!” cried Molly. And she got so tired of hearing him complain, she covered the box with a quilt to muffle his voice. And after a week, she’d had enough. She took the frog in his box into the forest where she found the pool.
 “Back you go,” she said, “enchanted prince, or no.”
And upending the box, she dumped the frog into the water. Just as she did, a great fish came up from the depths, and swallowed the frog with a snap.
“Oh,” cried Molly. “That wasn’t very nice.” And she grabbed the fish and heaved him out of the pool.
The fish landed on the ground with a great splat. “Young maiden, young maiden,” cried the fish. “If you put me back into the water, I will grant you three wishes.”
“Three wishes,” said Molly doubtfully. “Are you something enchanted as well?”
“Yes, yes!” cried the fish. “I will grant you three wishes, any wishes you like, as long as you put me back in the pool.”
But listening to enchanted creatures had got Molly into trouble from the start. “Cough up the frog, and then we can talk,” said Molly.
With a great, belching heave, the fish coughed up the frog. For his part, the frog was a little worse for wear having been in the stomach of the fish, and he just lay there on the ground, looking pathetic and half-dead.
“Now,” said Molly. “Yu owe me some wishes.”
“Fair enough,” gasped the fish. “But make it quick. I have to get back into the pool.”
“First,” said Molly, “if that frog is a prince, then change him back. And second, give my mother enough money so she doesn’t have to work so hard. And finally, I want a pet, and I don’t want it to be a frog. Perhaps a nice dog?”
Maybe the fish didn’t entirely understand. He was lying there gasping out his life, so he might not have heard correctly. At any rate, he took a shortcut. With a popping flash, the frog disappeared, but in its place, there wasn’t a prince, but a great, droopy-eared red setter. He panted once and gave a wine, and Molly was delighted. She picked up the fish, and dropped him back into the pool.
Molly went home with her new pet, and she found that her mother had suddenly come into some money, enough to open a bakery and hire some help. The widow became the most famous baker in the kingdom, and one day, when the King and Queen and their little daughter came to visit the bakery, Molly made a present of her golden ball to the princess.
After that, Molly spent her time with her new dog, whom she called Prince. He was gentle and loyal, and he never complained about a thing. She still had to help out around the bakery, but it was much nicer. And it could be said that Molly got her happily ever after after all, for she found her prince, and they lived together, very happily, indeed. Prince never spoke a single word, but he was the best of friends, and every night, Molly would let him sleep on her bed.

The School Year, A Force of Nature

As an undergrad, I was a terrible student. I left things until the last minute, I wheedled extensions on assignments, and I had bad study habits. Maybe I was just a student.
For years, first as a kid going to public school, then at the university, and later as a parent and a teacher, September has always meant the beginning of the year. New Years has never been the beginning; it’s only halfway. The real start of the year has always been the fall.
September has become a threshold in my subconscious, characterized by anxiety, anticipation, nervous excitement, and nostalgia. It’s such a weird month. The school year is a force of nature, rising from the remains of summer to drag students and parents and teachers alike down the fall and through the winter. She inexorably plows through holidays, good days and bad, only lessening her grip with the end of exams in April, until, finally, worn out and fading, she explodes into fragments with the arrival of graduation and summer holidays.
Every August, my kids would shop for school supplies with their mom, while I found backpacks and tried figuring out lunches my kids wouldn’t hate. But before kids and teaching, I was a weird, half-terrified undergrad at university, in awe of both the campus and my professors. These were people who knew more than I could ever hope to understand, who evaluated me with an unnerving objectivity, and who I could barely bring myself to address.
In my third year, I took a children’s literature course during the spring term with Jon Stott. He was then around the age I am now—short, a little round, and full of a restless energy. The class met in the Humanities Building, and I sat at a table near the door—my preferred seat. Professor Stott would pace up and down the room, lecturing as he walked, never relying on notes, and only stopping to occasionally write on the board. Back in those days, I used a slate and stylus for note taking, and it struck me from almost the first day that he didn’t seem fazed to have a blind student in his class. I had become used to professors not quite knowing what to do with me. They were generally helpful and understanding, but I couldn’t help sensing their bemusement, as though they had discovered a talking, brightly exotic reptile in their classroom.
Professor Stott came up to me right away and asked what he could do to help, and to come and talk to him if there was a problem. That in itself was unusual.
I took children’s literature during spring session because I was short an English course, and by third year I was becoming irritatingly superior as a student. Fortunately for me, I remembered that a measure of humility wasn’t such a bad thing when it came to reading. I discovered books in that class I’d never heard of, and I read books I’d known of for years but thought myself too intellectual to bother with. Meeting gilly Hopkins was a revelation. Reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time was a surprise. Wasn’t it a girl’s book? And who the hell was Aslan?
I learned how to ask questions in that class, and I learned to be less ashamed of how much I didn’t know. I had read a smattering of children’s books, and I always loved what I read. But I had never thought about kid’s books as being important in the same way as adult books. Professor Stott showed me differently. He talked about Gilly, Anne, and Bilbo as though they were real people. He brought them out from the page and took them seriously. And then he forced us back to the books—to read and read again, and not just make stuff up when we talked about the books.
I was lucky that spring. Lucky to meet a professor who was not only a skilled teacher but a skilled reader. He had a passion I couldn’t ignore, and he opened up a world of books that I’ve been exploring ever since. And luckier still, that spring I was open to something new and open to being taught. I was able to say what I thought in that class, and I was taken seriously. The experience enabled me to take on kid’s books as something to love, to read, reread, and wrestle with, for myself, with my kids, and in the classroom.