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Apparent restrictions imposed on 2SLGBTQ+ books at Ontario’s Waterloo Catholic District School Board

Last week, children’s authors, publishers, and advocates were troubled to learn that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) has apparently classified select Forest of Reading (FoR) books in a way that likely restricts elementary students from accessing titles that deal with 2SLGBTQ+ characters and topics. 

The memo from the school board, which first appeared on a Reddit page, states that “the current practice in WCSDB is to catalogue and place books that don’t align with the Family Life curriculum in the professional (PRO) section.” Adding, “before JK–Grade 6 students may borrow these books from the library, a teacher must provide the Catholic context because students haven’t been instructed in the Family Life curriculum yet.”

The four Forest of Reading selections singled out are:

  • Blue Spruce (JK–Grade 2): Princess Pru and the Ogre on the Hill by Maureen Fergus and Danesh Mohiuddin, ill. (Owlkids Books)
  • Silver Birch Express (Grades 3–4): The Mystery of the Painted Fan by Linda Trinh and Clayton Nguyen, ill. (Annick Press) and Salma Writes a Book by Danny Ramadan and Anna Bron, ill. (Annick Press)
  • Silver Birch Fiction (Grades 5–6): Jude Saves the World by Ronnie Riley (Scholastic Canada)

The Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest recreational reading program, offers nine initiatives for readers of all ages, and schools opt in to participate. More than 270,000 readers across the country participate in the event annually. 

“It is extremely disheartening and stunning that these types of practices, familiar now to the south of our borders, are finding their way to our Canadian school systems,” wrote Danny Ramadan, author of Salma Writes a Book and current chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, in his newsletter. “As a queer immigrant who came to Canada seeking refuge and escaping homophobia, it breaks my heart to see that my little book is being limited in such a way.” 

In response to the news, the Forest of Reading published a document outlining their stance on book challenges and a child’s right to read, based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Ontario Code of Human Rights. “We encourage all who run the program to utilize the full range of titles, guaranteeing that your readers can fully exercise their right to access books of their choice. In doing so, we expand their perspectives, help them develop their own opinions and values, inform them of the world beyond their window, and inspire them to dream of a brighter future,” the document reads.

“I wrote Jude Saves the World as an apology to my 12-year-old self who didn’t have the answers about their identity and being queer like I do now, so that kids today would have the opportunity to see themselves reflected at such an important age,” says Ronnie Riley. “I struggled with my queerness because I didn’t have the language to describe what I was going through. I hope that readers of Jude Saves the World learn a little more about who they are, find joy, acceptance, and celebration in being themselves, and don’t struggle the same way I did.”

Challenges to books in libraries and schools are common, and restrictions and removals are not a new occurrence in Canada, but there has never been any previous public awareness of restrictions imposed on books that are part of the FoR program. Last March, The Great Bear, the second book of The Misewa Saga by David A. Robertson was taken off school shelves by the Durham District School Board. The book was reinstated weeks later.

Linda Ludke, a librarian at the London Public Library who has read the books said, “they all beautifully and authentically depict diversity that is a part of everyday life.” 

Meredith Tutching, director of the Forest of Reading, told Q&Q the “WCDSB have not put forward a formal complaint about the books.” Tutching also confirmed that a WCSDB staff member’s plan to register their elementary schools from Oct. 12 was reiterated on Nov. 13. 

“Any level of attempting to hide, restrict, or hinder access to particular books or groups of people represented in books is a form of censorship. It is not only dangerous terrain to walk down but also does a tremendous disservice to teachers, librarians, and readers,” says librarian and book reviewer Michelle Callaghan. “As it pertains to students, shadow banning is insidious in nature as it can lead to fear of repercussions, confusion and misinformation, and outright banning. Individuals making decisions to restrict or ban titles will often claim to be “protecting children” – without clear explanation or rational defence – and this arguably only serves to protect those decision-makers’ bigoted personal views.”

If this practice is taking place, children are being prohibited from getting equal access to books, BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ authors are at a direct disadvantage in getting read as widely as others and therefore potentially winning the competitions, and certain schools are not upholding the intention behind FoR. It is not clear to what extent teachers work to make titles classified as professional (PRO) accessible to students.

The Writers’ Union of Canada has called on the WCDSB for a public discussion to address the policy, stressing that any restrictions on shortlisted titles must be removed. “If a school board takes it upon itself to contextualize and/or provide counter understanding around a book’s subject matter, that work should not stand in the way of student access to the work in question,” said the press release. 

Annick Press, Owlkids Books, and Scholastic Canada, publishers of the impacted books, also released a joint statement. “As publishers, we stand behind our books and our creators and oppose any attempts to undermine the freedom to read,” the statement said. “At a time in which we’re facing immense challenges as a society, it is especially critical that all kids, including those who are 2SLGBTQIA+ and from other underrepresented communities, have access to stories that celebrate the rich and diverse experiences of the children we serve across the country.”