As Canadian authors and illustrators, we are deeply concerned about the issue of shadow banning in the Forest of Reading awards program.
Based on a number of screenshots we have received, it appears that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) has been restricting its students’ access to four Forest of Reading-nominated titles for a number of years, because those books “don’t align with the Family Life Curriculum”—ie. they include 2SLGBTQ+ characters. The screenshots we have received reflect a discussion via email, as well as meeting minutes, indicating that WCDSB librarians have been directed to segregate these titles from the other books on the list, moving them to a “Professional” section of the library that children can't access on their own. Unless a teacher chooses to pre-read the book and provide "the Catholic context" before reading the book to their students, the students will not be able to read these books.
The books affected are nominees for the Blue Spruce, Silver Birch Express, and Silver Birch Fiction Awards, and include Princess Pru and the Ogre on the Hill by Maureen Fergus and Danesh Mohiuddin; The Mystery of the Painted Fan by Linda Trinh; Salma Writes a Book by Danny Ramadan; and Jude Saves the World by Ronnie Riley.
Segregating and restricting access to 2SLGBTQ+ books is a form of book challenge or silent censorship sometimes called shadow-banning. Shadow-banning includes actions designed to limit a book’s readership by relocating it, restricting who can access it, or discouraging teachers from using the book in the classroom. These actions often target books by and for marginalized communities, as they do here, while allowing schools to avoid the backlash that might follow an outright ban. Shadowbans like the one currently being practiced by WCDSB hurt 2SLGBTQ+ children and those from 2SLGBTQ+ families, who will miss the opportunity to see their own identities and families represented on the page. It denies all students an opportunity to learn about the diversity of the world they live in.
Although these schools will be participating in Forest of Reading, their students will be voting without having equal access to these nominated titles. This practice also biases the Forest of Reading awards program against authors who write about 2SLGBTQ+ characters. If students from multiple schools can’t read their books--if they don’t even see their books on the shelves—they won’t vote for them.
The Forest of Reading is a much-loved program--by authors as well as schools! It’s an important pillar of our Canadian kidlit community and with book bans, censorship, and anti-2SLGBTQ+ rhetoric escalating–and shadow bans becoming more and more prevalent- we all need to make sure that we protect the award and its integrity.
The program has now released a statement highlighting the rise in book challenges and addressing the importance of providing students with access to diverse books in response to this issue. In this statement, the Forest of Reading makes a number of important and valid statements. However, the impact of this statement is significantly weakened by this sentence:
“The Forest of Reading has created resources and activities to support running these programs, but recognize that each library professional, educator or family member’s program could look different since it is an optional program and not mandated at the government level.”
Our response to this is simple: optional, non-government mandated programs can still require participants to be inclusive and fair. The statement encourages organizations to be inclusive, but does not require it. That is not an effective way to ensure that all children are given access to all of the diverse selection of books that have been so carefully and expertly chosen by the Forest of Reading staff. Censoring books to avoid 2SLGBTQ+ content is never in the best interest of children. This practice harms students, some of whom might be struggling with their sexual orientation and gender identity. It tells 2SLGBTQ+ students that their identities are wrong, or shameful, or can’t be spoken about, instead of supporting them to feel free to be themselves in their own schools.
It is also not an effective way to ensure that all nominated titles are given an equal opportunity to compete in the program, and to find their intended audience. As authors and illustrators, we invest significant amounts of time, care, expertise, and love into our work. Being recognized by a program like the Forest of Reading–and then finding out our books are being hidden away because they include characters who in many cases share our own identities or have families that look like our own families–is a painful experience.
We appreciate the work, time, and energy that Ontario Library Association staff and volunteers put into this program. We understand that for many, it is a labour of love–for children, for books, for authors. We also empathize with the librarians and teachers who have been working hard on the front lines to navigate these book challenges. We feel strongly, however, that in order to resolve this situation and preserve the integrity and fairness of this much-loved children’s choice awards program, concrete action needs to be taken.
We are asking the Forest of Reading to take a strong stance against book banning and shadowbanning by requiring all participating organizations to sign an agreement that indicates they will provide equal access to all nominated titles, without segregation.
This is an important time for the Canadian kidlit community to stand up for 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion, and to advocate for schools to continue to create a supportive environment for all their students. Please share widely.
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Jenna Lyn Albert
Kate Jenks Landry
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May Q Wong
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© 2023 Danny Ramadan