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Breaking Ground: Patsy Aldana in Conversation with Peter Carver

Patsy Aldana is the publisher of Groundwood Books in Toronto. The company, which was established in 1978, produces children’s books for all ages, including fiction, picture books and non-fiction. The books often tell the stories of young people who have been marginalized in society and whose voices are not heard. Groundwood Books publishes many of Canada’s leading authors and has won many awards.

In recent years, at least two of Groundwood’s titles have been attacked for their content. In 2010, B’nai Brith Canada described The Shepherd’s Granddaughter — a novel about strife in contemporary Palestine — as “anti-Israel propaganda” and demanded its removal from a recommended-reading list in Ontario’s public schools. In 2006, the Ontario branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress complained about Three Wishes, a book about children affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and urged public school boards in Ontario to deny schoolchildren access to the book. At least five school boards complied with the request. Editor and author Peter Carver sat down with Ms. Aldana to talk about why she publishes the books that she does and what her views are about freedom to read. The following transcript is an edited version of their conversation.

P.C. What lies behind your convictions about what children are ready to read?

P.A. I had read a fair bit of children’s literature and I certainly thought that kids’ books should tell the truth about children. I guess I always knew that there were some people who did not like that idea very much. I had children and I knew perfectly well what their range of reality was. I had always known that. You respect the reader’s intelligence.

Plus you also remember your own childhood. I grew up in Guatemala and I saw everything. There was a guy who would come out and expose himself to us every day. There were people fighting and we saw dead bodies in the street. I always assumed that children’s reality could be quite diverse without childhood — the essential nature of childhood—being destroyed. So I guess I have never been that afraid of it.

P.C. In this country, we are a bit more protective.

P.A. Yes, and there’s also the hypocrisy in what is applied to books as opposed to other media that children watch. We know children are exposed to all kinds of information and material. If it is in a book, it causes panic, but if it is on television it is completely normal.

P.C. Books are easy to take away from people.

P.A. They are, and they are supposed to be this privileged space or something. My parents gave me absolute freedom; basically, I was free to read anything. I remember that I wanted to read Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet when I was in Grade 3 or 4, and the librarian said it was too old for me. My mother wrote a letter that said, “Patsy can read whatever she wants.”

P.C. You started as a publisher with the belief that children were able to accept anything in the books they read. What kind of challenges did you face because of this belief?

P.A. An example is Sarah Ellis’s The Baby Project. In the book, the baby dies and the brother says “fuck” or “shit,” one or the other. That caused a huge furor. Or The Charlotte Stories by Teddy Jam. There are three stories—funny, touching and true—seen from the point of view of a very realistic, honest five-year-old girl. People complained that they were too mean or whatever.

P.C. And now you have published Anne Laurel Carter’s The Shepherd’s Granddaughter.

P.A. Some say that children aren’t old enough to understand it. That’s what they said about Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes. Children can’t be exposed to people being at war with each other, but it is fine to read about the Holocaust in Grade 1. To me it is so hypocritical. Hana’s Suitcase [by Karen Levine] is in every single school; it is about a girl who dies, killed by people because she is a Jew. That is something that Grade 1 students can understand, but they cannot understand the Palestinians’ situation? That is such a complete crock.

P.C. So what do you do when a book like The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is attacked?

P.A. You have to fight it. You have to challenge it. You have to call it what it is: an attempt to silence the voices that don’t fit into the political agenda of certain groups. That is what it is. That’s all it is. It has got nothing to do with anything else. Nobody is allowed to talk about it in Canada. Even in Israel they talk about it more than they do here. But in Canada we have this terrible silencing.

P.C. So how do you react when a book like The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is challenged? Do you seek out the media?

P.A. I have to say I really felt dread and I didn’t want to do anything about it. First of all, because it takes so much time. Secondly, because I don’t like being called an anti-Semite. It bothers me. This is obviously an issue that touches me personally because of Matt.* I hate being in that situation. On the other hand, I feel quite strongly about it and so when you have to fight, you have to fight. I didn’t publish The Shepherd’s Granddaughter to cause a scandal. I published it because I thought it was a really good book on a subject that really needs to be talked about.

P.C. Can you talk about some of the highlights of your work as president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and on freedom to read issues?

P.A. I think it’s a hopeful situation. For example, in China there is censorship of sexuality. When we went to Macao four years ago for our conference, the Chinese publishers said that they only wanted bestsellers. They were very commercial. Then I went to the Shenzhen school district last year and the books they were buying had really changed. It’s really evolving. It’s true they are not buying books about sex, but they are buying much better, quality books. And they are now doing reading promotion that we would give our eyes and teeth to do. They have free reading. They read freely. Their summer reading is free.

P.C. What does that mean?

P.A. They can read whatever they want. They have book clubs in every class so that kids share the books. Kids get to talk about their favourite books. They do these little postcards about them, put them in little envelopes outside doors and then borrow from one other. My favourite book might be a horror story. It might be a comedy. They are not allowed to be tested on their reading in the school system. They hardly use textbooks at all.

In one school, I saw a presentation where four mothers presented four different versions of The Three Little Pigs, including Helen Oxenbury’s version of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. The kids got to vote on the one that they liked best, and then they got to talk about why they liked this one. The mothers talked about why they had chosen the version that they had chosen. Everyone is totally involved in this conversation. And I think it really was the impact of the IBBY conference. I think we really did help to change things there, to start people thinking. And the books that they had in the schools, especially the picture books. Chinese publishers bought a great variety of books, and I think that is where we can make a difference.

P.C. So how does this affect kids as they become adults?

P.A. I said to one of the members of the school board: “You are really creating thinking adults.” He said: “Yeah, we need thinkers in this country.” So freedom to read—this is the literal manifestation of that. And I think that is so hopeful.

Peter Carver is a writer, editor and publisher principally in the field of books for young readers. He co-founded the Freedom to Read kit which he researched and edited for 20 years.

*Canadian author Matt Cohen (1942–99) was Ms. Aldana’s husband. — Ed.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2011.