Friday, March 7, 2008

Subtle Censorship?

I had planned to blog about censorship and prepared notes on how it is a subtle, sophisticated practice these days. But then a dramatic example of the antithesis of subtle and sophisticated emerged, and it has commanded our attention. The letter below, which I recently wrote, describes a very troubling scenario in which a special interest group is working to impose their values and morals on our publishing program and on your book reading decisions. They are campaigning to tarnish a title, even to the point of suggesting it violates the criminal code. But as publishers we won’t back down; we must not become self-censors as a result of their intimidation and we will hold true to our highest value which is the freedom to dialogue with youth on subjects that matter. As a publisher who dares to take on difficult subjects, we understand that there will be those who will not agree or are uncomfortable with some of our publications. So be it. But when a single point of view or bias gains influence over what we read, our society has lost its most precious right.

I am the Director of Annick Press Ltd. We have been publishing Canadian children’s literature for 32 years. We are also a living example of why any group or panel that sets itself up as a court of public opinion is a profoundly dangerous undertaking. Last year Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, unleashed a wide-ranging and hostile attack on one of our publications, The Little Black Book for Girlz: A Book on Healthy Sexuality.

Written by youth for youth, and vetted by doctors and a variety of health professionals, the book encourages teen girls to learn about issues, such as relationships, safe sex, STI’s, sexual assault, etc. in order to make choices that are most appropriate for their well-being. But McVety didn’t see it that way and with a series of media interviews, blog campaigns and frantic political lobbying, he set out to defame the book. He labeled it “deeply, deeply offensive” and was quoted in the media as saying it put forward terrible pornographic statements and claimed that the book said 80 per cent of our country is bisexual (I found that shocking too; I can’t imagine where he read that.) He attacked the fact that we receive support from the government and sought to have the book's distribution terminated. (His campaign was partially successful as one major corporation did de-list the title.) Like most censors, he got a lot of the details wrong, pulled descriptions out of context, and confused our publication with material on the creator’s web site. We had no opportunity to defend ourselves or set the record straight.

His campaign has now faded, but the book has gone on to receive one accolade after another including a listing on the New York Public Library’s prestigious Books for the Teen Age 2007 list, stellar reviews, and a good number of international rights sales, including Random House in Germany. But here’s the lesson for all of us: following McVety’s attack we have not received a single letter of complaint.

So the McVety “court of public opinion” delivered a wildly inappropriate verdict, one dramatically out of step with public opinion. Isn’t any guardian of the public taste vulnerable to judge according to its own interpretations? At Annick, we encourage critical thinking and self-awareness. But here is an example of ideologues who would impose their values with the full conviction that they know best what’s right for teen girls. Well, we know countless young women across the continent, not to mention libraries, schools, and community agencies who disagree with this approach in the strongest of terms.
Rick Wilks


Mommy C said...

After reading this post, I went on to check the news, to find that the province of Quebec has just dropped sex ed from its mandated curriculum. It would seem now, more than ever, a book like "The Little Black Book for Girlz" is necessary. I find it ironic that the same society that props up a singing group of mock-exotic dancers as role models for our little girls, would deny those same girls the right to know about their own sexual health. It is irresponsible. I, personally, would love to see a book, such as this, being used in schools as a text book.
I would have loved something like this. I would have learned much more from information that came from my peers than from those embarassing talks with my parents. I always found them embarassing and did not listen because I thought they were outdated and out of touch with what was going on with my generation.
There is a reason why third world countries have a higher rate of STIs. It can be linked to a lack of education. Canadians are all over places like Africa, trying to educate people about sexual health, and here, at home, we have a province back sliding and people who believe they are doing society good by preventing education.
I resent the fact that a middle aged man on the conservative fringe, feels he has the right to withold important information from young girls. When Mr. McVety has had to endure the fear of his first menstration, or has had to make a tough decision when pressured by a boy that he really likes, I would be more than happy to hear his opinions. Luckily, for my daughters, he did not give birth to them. When they are old enough, I don't care if I have to get a purple martian to inform them about their sexual health, if the information is correct and they will listen to it. Thankfully, I will not have to because now there is a book on the market that I will be able to turn to as an ally.
While it is not necessarily the genre I have been planning to review on my blog, I can't wait to go to the library and borrow a copy. Just when a person would start to believe that Mr.McVety was harmless and on the fringe, a move, like the one made by the province of Quebec, comes along to wake you up.
One day, I and my children will be very thankful to Annick for more than just "The Paper Bag Princess".

Lisa Samuels said...

Thanks for your comment Mommy C. We feel that "The Little Black Book for Girlz" is especially important and unique because it is written by youth for youth.