The Forest of Reading is a recreational program run by the Ontario Library Association. Every year more than 250,000 Ontarians vote for their favorite books, a tradition that culminates in The Festival of Trees, Canada’s largest literary event for young readers. It’s a waterfront party with authors, illustrators, and live music.
It all sounds so sylvan and merry. But this year, in the Red Maple category—the recommended reading list for 7th and 8th graders—one of the 10 nominated books is The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter. And its inclusion is making a lot of Canadian Jews very unhappy. The book tells the story of Amani, a Palestinian girl in the West Bank who wants to be a shepherd like her grandfather. But the land that has been in her family for generations is now under Israeli occupation. Israeli soldiers prevent the family from harvesting their olives, grazing the sheep, or driving on the highways near their home. Israeli settlers poison the sheep’s water, bulldoze Amani’s house, and shoot and kill her dog. Amani’s father and uncle are beaten and thrown in jail; her father seeks justice and peace through negotiation, but her uncle believes in violent resistance. There is one sympathetic Jewish character, a teenage settler who realizes that the Jews are wrong and decides to leave the country. In a heavy-handed metaphor, the Israelis are repeatedly compared to wolves stalking the sheep. A Jewish rabbi and a lawyer who help Palestinians make brief appearances, but the book gives no indication that there is a serious Israeli peace movement.
The book was published in 2008 to mostly good reviews and little controversy. But when it was nominated to the 2010 Forest of Reading list, the uproar began. Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center demanded that the book be “made unavailable” to students. “The Simon Wiesenthal Center does not promote censorship,” said president Avi Benlolo, “but the issue is that this book is so skewed and so overtly against the State of Israel. … Any school child who reads the book will grow to hate the State of Israel and possibly the Jewish people.” The Jewish Tribune, a publication of B’nai Brith Canada, ran a story with the provocative headline: “Could this book turn your child against Israel?” The story’s opening sentence: “Reading this book made me want to go to Palestine and kill Israelis.” The quote was attributed to a girl named Madelaine on the book review site Goodreads.com. Quoting her was Toronto parent and Jewish Tribune contributor Brian Henry, who also wrote an open letter to Ontario’s education minister demanding the book’s withdrawal from the reading list. “Unfortunately, that’s a perfectly natural reaction to this book,” Henry wrote. And in the same issue of the Tribune, Sheila Ward, a trustee of the Toronto District School Board, said, “I will move heaven and earth to have The Shepherd’s Granddaughter taken off the school library shelves.”
Ward, it was clear, hadn’t read the book. “This book,” she wrote, “on the basis of what Mr. Henry has sent to me, is so blatantly biased that it is intolerable. I suspect I’ll be accused of censorship. If it means I will not support hate-provoking literature with no redeeming qualities, I am delighted to be called a censor.”
Anita Bromberg, national director of legal affairs at B’nai Brith Canada, told me in an interview that calling the book into question had nothing to do with its literary merit. “The book isn’t badly written,” she says. “I’ve read most of it. What we are questioning is the educational value. Anyone without a lot of background or experience who was reading it would accept that everything in there gives context to what goes on in the Middle East, but it is one-sided, biased, and more based on propaganda than truth. I think this book is inappropriate to be on the list or in the school setting.”
The Canadian mainstream press has picked up on the story. For now, Toronto school officials say the book will remain in school libraries, but Henry is filing a formal complaint. Concern over the book’s one-sidedness is understandable. But there’s a larger question here: How do we determine which books children should be allowed to read? Who should get to decide whether books are carried in school libraries or added to curricula?
Angela Maycock, assistant director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, believes that any demand for restriction is risky. “It quickly becomes a slippery slope,” she says. “Most of the time, people are motivated by genuine concern, fearing that harm will come to young people from being exposed to a book. That’s a laudable goal, wanting to keep young people safe. But where we get into trouble is when one group wants the power to restrict the access of everyone. In a library, everyone gets to choose for themselves. No one is required to read The Shepherd’s Granddaughter.”
Anyone offended by a book, says Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, has recourse. “You don’t have to be quiet if you don’t like something,” Bertin says. “Anybody can file a complaint. There’s generally a review process. But it’s not about whether someone likes the message but whether teachers and librarians think the book has pedagogical value or promotes reading. The problem with saying ‘this offends me, and therefore it shouldn’t exist’ is that when drawn to its larger conclusion, nothing should exist because everything offends someone. That would shut down all but the banal and bland, and it shuts down the ability to have a conversation about all kinds of matters of public interest.”
So, how should Jewish communal organizations react to literature and art they perceive as anti-Israel? “B’nai Brith could ask to have a panel discussion at schools about the book’s representations of Israel and why they find them upsetting, though that would mean they’d have to listen to others who don’t agree with them,” Bertin suggests. “In my dream world, we’d be having discussions about why people react the way they do, and maybe by doing that, we’d also get people to respect and understand other people’s sensibilities.” The question of balance—whether parents and educators should require a book or a library to strive toward even-handedness—is a trickier one. “If you have 10 books on evolution, do you need 10 books on creationism?” Bertin asks. “If you have 10 books on the Holocaust, do you need 10 books by Holocaust deniers? Balance is an impossible proposition. We strive for a diversity of viewpoints and a wide range of thoughts and opinions so individuals can choose.”
B’nai Brith and the Friends of the Wiesenthal Center are of course not alone in advocating censorship (whether or not they choose to call it that) of potentially upsetting books. In recent years parents have challenged Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its use of the N word; Texas School Board members have rewritten children’s textbooks to reflect their beliefs that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation; the Spertus Museum in Chicago closed a 2008 exhibition of historical maps of the Middle East and contemporary art because some Jews felt the maps reflected an anti-Israeli point of view. In 2006, Brandeis University took down an exhibition of art by teenagers from Palestinian refugee camps, curated by an Israeli student.
But might young people have better critical faculties than we give them credit for? Remember Madelaine, the teenaged girl who supposedly wants to kill Israelis after reading The Shepherd’s Granddaughter? If you actually read her Goodreads review, you’ll see that she goes on to say the following: “Please allow me to explain that this feeling, luckily, did not last. Once I finished the book and spent a few minutes sitting quietly in a corner, I calmed down. I promise, I no longer want to kill anyone. But I have never, ever read a book that made me so incredibly angry … because of the endless, frustrating parade of injustices that happen to the protagonist and her family. That’s why it gets three stars, by the way—the story really wasn’t that great, but I felt it deserved credit for stirring such powerful emotions in me. … So, I’m asking my more politically-savvy Goodreads friends to please explain the other side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This clusterfuck cannot be nearly as simple as The Shepherd’s Granddaughter makes it seem.”
Does that sound like it was written by someone who seriously wants to kill Jews? Or someone without critical faculties? No. This young reader (she’s 21, as her profile says—it’s unclear where the Jewish Tribune got the idea she was a teenager) is actually asking to be educated. But Brian Henry didn’t quote that part of her review. And being disingenuous and hyperbolically alarmist about the threats posed by novels—as opposed to the threats caused by shutting down all discussion—means we don’t get the chance to elucidate and debate. If The Shepherd’s Granddaughter can teach us anything, it’s that even educated people with a glorious literary tradition sometimes feel justified in banning books. And we’re all poorer for it.