Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Freedom to Read Week Day 4

Satanist for a Day

The child finds a book from the many on the shelf. The child climbs into the second branch of an oak tree. She reads the book alone – allbyherselfforthefirsttimeever-yes!
She is free. She is home. She discovers fire.

Last December in Huff Post Books, Oliver Tearle recapped the twelve most interesting facts his blog site Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness uncovered in its inaugural year.

Discovering Roald Dahl was a chocolate taster as a kid and Kurt Vonnegut once owned a failed car dealership delighted me. Endless interestingness. Delicious, these little known facts to a bibliophile like me. On Terle’s list was this:
“In Russia in 2009, Winnie-the-Pooh was banned because a senior official was found to own a picture of Pooh wearing swastika-covered clothes. This is one of the weirder stories surrounding the banning of classic children's books in various countries. Another notable 'banning incident' occurred when Dr Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham was outlawed in the People's Republic of China between 1965 and 1991 for portraying 'early Marxism.”
This was a surprise although I knew Milne, Seuss, Dahl, and Sendak and countless others have been challenged over the years for many different reasons.

Banned kids books are not rare. From my vantage point, children’s’ writers are particularly vulnerable. There’s a certain breed of hungry guard dogs-think Cerberus and a pack of his relatives-- lurking behind every fire hydrant, ready to mark out the parameters of moral, political, and socially acceptable territory. They’re often judge and jury when it comes to what books “our” children SHOULD be allowed to read. Trouble is, the road to helland all that.

So I’m in good company. My own experience having a book challenged was weird and interesting to say the least. At the time, however, I couldn’t see much humour in the situation. I haven’t shared the story often and never in print.

Halifax 1992. At the end of a long day I come home, start to make supper, ask my children what they did in school. Typical, normal every day stuff. The phone rings and I soon fall down a rabbit hole into a bizarre nonsensical world. The woman on the other end asks first, is this the author?
“Yes,” I reply.

“Well, I'm Mrs. XX, a librarian at XX Elementary School.”

“Yes?” I say, hoping it will be an invitation to do an author reading there. Readings have become my major source of income and I need them if I’m going to keep on being a writer.

“I’m phoning you with some distressing news, “she says, “but I want you to know the librarians are all on your side.”

“My side? My stomach clenches, as if ready to take a fist.

“It seems that there’s a group of parents in XX community who are asking that your book Sleeping Dragons All Around be removed from all schools libraries in the district.”

“Pardon me?”

Sleeping Dragons All Around, published by Doubleday Canada, illustrated by Michel Niedenoff has been out three years. It’s my second book, and it won the Atlantic Booksellers Choice Award, the first children’s book to take that honour. The book gained some national recognition thanks to Peter Gzowski and Morningside. Enough encouragement for me to think pursuing writing full time might feasible if I cobble together other enough other paying jobs. This year, I accepted a one-year contract with CBC radio. Sleeping Dragons is, ---my little darling. Yes, I love her.

“I don’t understand exactly what you’re saying. “

“Well, this group has written a letter to the School Board and have signatures on a petition against the book.”

When there’s only silence from me punctuated by little squeaking sounds of disbelief, she continues.

“It’s ridiculous, “she says, “but they're objecting on religious grounds. The book is considered blasphemy. And um. They’ve accused you of Satanism.

“Satanism. Satanism! I shrieked, loud enough for my sons to poke their head into the room.

“I’m a Satanist?

“They have several reasons but take issue with the naming of one of your dragons.”

“Satanist?” I‘m weak in my knees.

“Beelzebub. You named one of the dragons after the devil. “

“Oh. My. God.”

“Yes,” I sputtered indignantly, “I called one of my Dragons Beelzebub because I love the sound of the word and Beelzebub was in the tub and blew bubbles and –it’s called alliteration! Wordplay! And I was studying Milton's Paradise lost at the time, in university and the book is based on a line from Keats, and no one not ONE person has mentioned this in three years. “I’m angry now. Unfortunately, when I get angry, my inner child gets louder. Useful to access when you write kids books but not so effective as an adult trying to defend myself. My voice, even to my own ears, is like a ten year old wailing but Mummy; it’s just not FAIR.

The librarian wasn't laughing.

“Well, it's really important that you fight this. If you want to go public with this we’re behind you at the library. So are the teachers who use your book in the classrooms. This is a perfect opportunity to talk about how ridiculous this kind of challenge is, about censorship and intellectual freedom and freedom to read. We could get media involved.

You know it would end up being good publicity for your book. There’s usually a great demand and increase in sales for challenged books.“ He voice is kind and I don’t doubt her for a minute.

“Satanist? I mumble. The word’s velcroed to my tongue. “I .. need to think about this,” I say.

I tell my children what’s just happened and they laugh hysterically. “Oooh, Mama, the devil made you do it,” they chant.

“Not funny.” I phone my best friend and in heartbroken tones, explain the situation.

“Me a Satanist,” I say, “all I've ever done is try to write books for children.” There’s dead silence on the other end of the phone. Then there’s an in breath and a convulsion of laughter.

“You- you’re not seriously taking this to heart, are you?” she manages to snort out.  She's the friend who’s always been able to ask questions that save me hours of therapy.

“Um, no, um, no no, of course not.”

“Maybe you should go public with it.”


But I didn’t. I phoned the librarian, thanked her for supporting me but my feeling was that people like this WANTED publicity. Going to the media would provide a forum for them to espouse their twisted views. I had faith, I told her, that the school board would not listen. Sleeping Dragons All Around is a good book, inspired by my own son and his fear of the dark. My own fear of the dark, I said "That’s all."

I wasn’t going to fear those bible-thumping zealots. My idea of God was sketchy, but I figured she’d be on my side. The librarian was maybe a little disappointed, but she said she understood and respected my reasons.

So in the end, there was no big brouhaha and the group was silenced and denied their request.

Sleeping Dragons celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009 and was reissued, this time by
Nimbus Publishing as Doubleday Canada stopped doing picture books. The book has had such a long and rich life, and so many stories.

Think teachers acting out the dragons when I go a school. Beelzebub,Grade Two teacher in bikini and snorkel in a real tub being pulled by the Grade six teacher. Satanic and X– rated? My favourite story was the mother who told me they had a sleeping dragon game in their house and the Dad was the dragon chasing after the kids. I hope the kids, now grown, will pass that along.

The most poignant moment for me was the time I met a mother who told me the book was her son’s favourite book and had given her so many happy memories of when her son was little. He was one of the boys in red, a Bathurst basketball player killed in the tragic traffic accident in 2008.

Every Freedom to Read Week I think about writers in prison for what they have written, of children in refugee camps, countries where reading is a dangerous and subversive act, journalists who have been killed for telling the truth, populations who read only propaganda, poets who are gagged into silence. It’s unbearable.  How grateful I am to live where I do.

But… I also take it personally and know that closer to home and in the present, we still have to be vigilant and protect our intellectual and creative freedom.

Freedom of the imagination, freedom to read.


The child in the tree sighs as she closes the book. She looks out to the sea from her perch. She traces the letters of the author’s names with her fingertips. Imagine writing a book like House at Pooh Corner. She begins to dream. She’s just been corrupted forever.

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