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OTTAWA – A children’s novel about a Palestinian girl set against the conflict in the Middle East has sparked outrage in Canada’s Jewish community – with some school trustees demanding the book be removed from reading lists and libraries.
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, by Canadian author Anne Laurel Carter, tells the story of Amani, a young teenage girl living outside a Palestinian village in the West Bank, who dreams of being a shepherd. The novel – told through Amani’s eyes – also depicts her family members’ losses and their reactions to encroaching Israeli settlements.
It has sold 10,000 copies in total in Canada and the United States.
Although the book was published in 2008, it was chosen this year by the Ontario Library Association as one of 10 finalists for the Red Maple Award, a program intended to foster reading skills for students. Ontario children in Grades 7 and 8 are encouraged – but not required – to read five of the 10 books on the list before voting on their favourite.
The winning novel will be announced at a ceremony in Toronto in May.
Critics feel the novel – told from the Palestinian viewpoint with characters’ opinions about the conflict ranging from peaceful resistance to militancy, with Amani choosing non-violence – could result in discrimination.
The Jewish Tribune recently wrote an article about the novel quoting hurtful comments made toward Jews on Goodreads.com.
“One book by itself is never going to make any child any sort of bigot. Along with other things though, yes, it could. I don’t think that’s a process that the schools should be helping along,” said Brian Henry, a parent in Toronto who writes for the Tribune.
He says schools should be “a politics-free zone.”
B’nai Brith Canada has publicly denounced the novel, saying it “demonizes” Israelis and portrays Palestinians as innocent.
“My reading of the book is I walk away feeling hurt and marginalized and offended by the falseness of what’s in the book. I don’t walk away feeling I’ve just read a nice little story,” said Anita Bromberg, the legal director of B’nai Brith.
The Jewish advocacy group has previously raised concerns about Three Wishes, a book about Israel and Palestine from the same publisher which was subsequently withdrawn from some elementary schools in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Carter said critics who suggest The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is hateful misses the point of her book.
“I appreciate that it’s very a sensitive, complex situation but I’m telling a viewpoint that has a right to be told,” said Carter, a Toronto-based teacher/ librarian who has lived in Israel and the West Bank.
“I did a lot of research to tell the story, and went (to the Middle East) many times, and I have been sympathetic to both sides. As everybody does, I would like to see peace in the Middle East,” she said.
Publisher Patricia Aldana, of Groundwood Books, said the book also includes “very, very sympathetic Israeli characters,” as well as diverse Palestinian ones. She recently penned a letter to the Toronto District School Board asking it to stand up for the book.
“Groundwood’s publishing list is built around children being exposed to reality and to difficult situations, so that they also can participate and understand world they live in,” said Aldana.
At least one Toronto trustee wants The Shepherd’s Granddaughter gone from schools.
“The book is really inappropriate to be presented in this way, in a school setting. It doesn’t present a balanced or fair reflection of that conflict zone. It’s a biased book that borders on political propaganda,” James Pasternak, a trustee with the Toronto District School Board trustee, told Canwest News Service.
He says others agree with him.
According to the Jewish Tribune, Pasternak’s fellow trustee Sheila Ward has said she would “move heaven and Earth to have The Shepherd’s Granddaughter taken off the school library shelves.”
“I suspect I’ll be accused of censorship. If it means I will not support hate-provoking literature with no redeeming qualities, I am delighted to be called a censor,” Ward is quoted as saying in the weekly publication, a subsidiary of B’nai Brith Canada.
She added that she wants the book removed from schools but not banned outright, but did not reply to a Canwest request for comment.
Pasternak, who is Jewish, said the board has received a formal complaint and its members will vote on the book’s fate after a 60-day review. It is possible the book will remain on the list, be removed from the recommended list or from school libraries.
Academics and Muslim advocates balk at the suggestion that novels – even those designed for children and teenagers – should be exempt from expressing contemporary issues.
“(Children) are exposed to politics of all kinds in school and at home anyway. Do I think that the struggles of Palestinians and Israeli Jews should be verboten in literature aimed at younger readers? Certainly not,” said Lincoln Z. Shlensky, an assistant professor of English at the University of Victoria, who was speaking generally and has not read the book himself.
Wahida Valiante, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said the importance of a book like “The Shepherd’s Granddaughter” is that it provokes discussion.
“The story of the Palestinian children themselves is not being told in our media,” said Valiante. “By banning these books, which contain factual information, I don’t think that the Jewish organizations are really doing any favours to themselves.”
The executive director of the Ontario Library Association, which nominates books for the Red Maple Award as part of the Forest of Reading program for elementary school grades, said the novel was chosen because it meets the criteria of being Canadian, age-appropriate, and a “good read.”
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter also won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award last year.
“I think it sends an incredibly destructive message to young people, to say we live in a country where we’re OK with book banning, and book removal, and censorship,” said Shelagh Paterson.
“Really, what ends up happening with any book that gets contested is it becomes a best-seller, which is ironic, considering the people that are trying to remove it.”
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