What is a Kid's Book Anyway?
Volume 18 Number 3
Robert Munsch's latest book, Giant or Waiting for the Thursday Boat, has been banned by some Ontario school boards. How do teachers and librarians choose reading materials? What selection criteria do the public libraries use? Who decides what kids should read?
What appears to have begun as an individual teacher's personal concern about the content of Giant or Waiting for the Thursday Boat by Robert Munsch has erupted into a heated, multi-faceted debate about what constitutes suitable reading material for children. The debate, however, goes far beyond Munsch's little book and the implications reach farther than the provincial boundaries of Ontario, where the issue arose in March 1990.
The controversy began when a teacher felt the book was inappropriate for use in Primary grades (kindergarten to grade 3). The board responsible for her school district supported her assessment by restricting the book's use in those grades except when children had written permission from a parent. Some parents have reacted in turn by insisting the book be reinstated for use in all grades.
Education falls under provincial jurisdiction, and the Ontario Ministry of Education would therefore seem the ultimate authority in matters such as defining appropriate reading material for use in Ontario schools. According to Carol Corsetti education officer with the Ontario Ministry of Education Curriculum Policy Development Branch, "no policy exists [in Ontario] except that pertaining to Circular 14," a listing of texts, i.e. basal readers, math and sciences texts, and the like. Decisions concerning other reading materials are left to the discretion of the individual school board.
Problems arise because most school boards have no clear policy of their own. As illustrated by the kerfuffle over Giant, many boards are reflexive as opposed to selective in their review processes. As a result, there is increased potential for a book, once purchased, to be deemed unsuitable for the intended readership. It can be subsequently placed on restricted use or pulled from the collection altogether. Either move is an expensive one for an already financially strapped education system.
Money -- and time -- often play a role in how the selection process is undertaken. For example, Middlesex County Board of Education near London, Ontario (site of the beginning of the hullabaloo over Giant), like most other school districts, has a limited library budget. Books are often purchased solely on the recommendation of journal reviews or based on information in publishers' catalogues. Many are obtained sight unseen. In the case of Giant, Robert Munsch's reputation alone was sufficient to prompt a purchase. Under such a system, a thorough review only takes place after a complaint is lodged. Middlesex County Board of Education chairman Robert Kew defended the decision to restrict the book's use in Primary grades by stating that "parents trust teachers to do their job responsibly." He also felt the media has blown the whole matter quite out of proportion.
The Middlesex experience is not unique. Other districts across the province appear to be taking similar action. For example, Renfrew County Board of Education is also reviewing Giant to determine its suitability for children. Superintendent of Schools Russ Holmberg expressed the hope that Robert Munsch himself would be present at the meeting of their board's review committee, which incidentally includes two members of the clergy. He felt it would be "unfair to make assumptions for the author regarding his intent."
Of course, not all schools purchase their reading materials in this fashion. One example is the London and Middlesex County Roman Catholic Separate School Board, the separate board for the same district where public schools are restricting the use of Giant in Primary grades. The separate board, through its review committee, has chosen not to ban the book. However, as Joan Bolt, coordinator of learning materials, said, "it is not one of Munsch's best."
The London and Middlesex County Roman Catholic Separate School Board makes every attempt to determine the suitability of books before they reach the library shelves. This is accomplished through a somewhat complex and time consuming process. As with the public school system, the review board compiles a list of books from publishers' catalogues and journal reviews. However, once selected, the books are then sent out for review. The reviews remain on file at the board's resource centre. In addition, those titles that were favourably received are placed in the display collection, also located at the centre. The books and the reviews are available to anyone in Middlesex County be they teachers, librarians, parents, or members of the public.
Although separate school librarians and teachers are expected to begin their selection in the display library, they are still able to bring other works into the system. If these works were challenged they would have to defend them on their own, however, since the board's reviewer has turned the same books down. As Bolt says, "while we have chosen not to restrict Giant's use, we have not recommended it for library use in our system. And that, to us, is a significant selection decision, which carries weight across our schools."
Such a system, although somewhat involved, does appear to have the desired effect. loan Bolt insisted that there has never been, to her knowledge, a system-wide banning of a book. In fact, "such criticisms have never reached a review committee, because the principal and/or I has been able to satisfy the complainant immediately," said Bolt.
It is interesting to note that the public board insisted that part of its reason for deeming Giant unsuitable for Primary grades was the religious references. Bolt felt that, in this case, for her board, such a reaction was not warranted. After all, she pointed out, the London and Middlesex Roman Catholic Separate School Board is free to "discuss a book from all aspects and views."
Public school boards operate under rules quite different from those of the separate school boards. One area where they differ is religious education. This can, perhaps, be best illustrated by the Judeo-Christian theme in Giant. Here, the giant McKeon is threatening to "pound God into applesauce," an action many adults found disturbing. There is some question, however, as to how much of the unease was caused by the perceived blasphemy and how much by the fear of having to include a religious element in any lesson involving the book.
Ron Wideman of the Ontario Ministry of Education Curriculum Policy Development Branch felt some of the concern may stem from the January 30,1990, Ontario Court of Appeal ruling on religious education in the public elementary schools. In a unanimous decision, the court stated that subsection 28(4) of Regulation 262 under the Education Act is invalid because it is inconsistent with freedom of conscience and religion as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The decision, as Wideman pointed out, does not alter a board's ability to provide programs that teach about religion nor does it restrict the fostering of moral values. It does restrict the indoctrination of a specific faith, but a discussion of various faiths is permissible.
The decision of the Middlesex County Board of Education was not yet final. The Trustees Academic Affairs Committee, responding to the demands of a parents' group that the book be reinstated for use in Primary grades, was to meet to review the issue.
The Public Perspective
The book selection/review process is difficult for school libraries, but the task for public libraries is no less difficult. If money talks, every taxpayer feels he or she should have a personal say in how municipal funds are spent.
It is for this reason that Nepean Public Library, located just west of Ottawa, has decided to make copies of Giant available to the public. Sandy Burke, children's librarian, branches, for the Nepean system, felt that if taxpayers want the book, it should be made available. Further, the selection policy of the Nepean Public Library states that "the responsibility for children's reading rests with the parents and legal guardians.... [In addition] the library believes in the freedom of the individual and the right and obligation of the parent to develop their own code of acceptable reading."
Nepean Public Library selects books for its collection in much the same way as most school libraries do -- based on information contained in journal reviews and publishers' catalogues. As Burke pointed out, two librarians devote half their time to making purchases for the entire district. With purchasing collection materials being but a small portion of their duties, time is a precious commodity. "Of course, we make mistakes," Burke stated, "but in the case of Giant, I feel no error has been made. We have received no complaints from the public that I am aware of."
Yet Robert Munsch himself admitted that a book has yet to be written that will please absolutely everyone. So how does one go about determining whether a book should be obtained for a collection?
Barbara Herd, director of youth services for the Ottawa Public Library, felt that literary merit should play a large part in the criteria used. "We decided last fall, long before the media had picked up the story, not to carry Giant. " The Ottawa Public Library has a well-established review panel (two English and two French reviewers per book), which concentrates on a work's literary merits as well as on how well it will fit in with the rest of the library's collection.
Herd was just one of many who felt that Munsch's latest work fails on literary grounds. Folktales are a departure from the author's usual style, and his version is deemed a far cry from other traditional folktales currently available. There is also some concern about the continuity and flow of the story itself. Although Munsch insisted he had tested the tale during his storytelling sessions, something appears to have been lost when it was committed to paper.
Herd was also quick to point out that Ottawa Public Library's decision not to purchase Giant is supported by earlier decisions not to purchase other works by Munsch, for similar reasons. In addition, works by other prominent children's authors have not been selected because, in spite of the author's personal popularity, individual books were deemed unworthy of purchase. Herd noted, "Ten years ago we would have bought anything by a Canadian author simply because such works were hard to come by. Now we can allow ourselves to be more selective."
Judith Saltman, co-author of The New Republic of Childhood, also stated, "This is not one of his better books." She felt the theme (violent religious conflict evolving towards tolerance) was too complex and the author did not do it justice. In addition, it was her opinion that the illustrations do not complement the text. Religious and mythological characters, which in the illustrations are rendered in handsome, formal character, are, in the text, parodied as comicbook personalities. Little wonder some view it as blasphemy.
On the positive side, Saltman is just one of several reviewers who applauded the introduction of a small girl to represent God. To her, such a character (a child as God) has intriguing mythological antecedents and can also possibly be more readily accepted by children.
It should be remembered that this is not the first time a book by Robert Munsch has come under attack. Thomas' Snowsuit was also criticized although it was in terms of making authority figures such as teachers and principals look silly. Brian Doyle's Angle Square is perhaps a better comparison in this context. As with Giant, Saltman felt many adults reading Doyle's work miss the juxtaposition of violence and tolerance.
Librarian and book reviewer Joan Weller felt that much of the reason for the recent controversy has to do with Robert Munsch the phenomenon. No other Canadian children's writer has attracted such a large following.
Children frequently ask for his books by the author's name rather than the title -- a very enviable position to say the least. According to Weller, Munsch "has opened children's eyes to the whole notion of story-telling. He has an almost therapeutic approach to writing, since his characters say things for children that children cannot say for themselves."
In addition, Weller sensed that the controversy has become a "motherhood" issue. Had it happened to a less well known author, chances are would not have grown to such proportions.
Robert Munsch feels that the controversy over Giant is a symptom of our pluralistic society: what is acceptable to some will be rejected by others.
For this reason, Munsch feels it is senseless to try to defend Giant. "Like children, there comes a time when a book has to make it on its own."
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