For the past few weeks, I have been following the story of “The Great Bear“, a book by Cree author, David A. Robertson, that was being challenged at the Durham District School Board.

My friend and colleague Daniel Tooker has been reading this book out loud with his Grade 5/6 class. Last year, they read the first book in the series “The Barren Grounds” (which admittedly, I just started). He and I followed the story of the book being challenged together and then decided that his group of students could really get into a banned and challenged books session. And so… we developed some slides and a culminating task together that I will outline, detail and share below. His students did not yet know that this Forest of Reading nominated book in the Silver Birch category … was being challenged.

Like a typical librarian, I started the session with a mentor text “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” by William Steig. This is a book about a young donkey that comes across a magic pebble that grants any and all of your wishes. In a panic, he misuses a wish and is transformed into a large stone. We watch his parents grieve and search for him in the year that follows while Sylvester the rock, goes through the different seasons. In the end, he does end up getting saved and reunited with his parents. They put the stone away in a special box for safe keeping. Following the book reading, I asked students what the moral of the story was. They had great thoughts about power and it being great but also dangerous. I informed the students that in parts of the United States, this book has been banned. Could they guess why? They could not. Then I let them know that the book, in places, was deemed “anti-police” for portraying the police officers as pigs. Incidentally, there was also a non-police neighbour portrayed as a pig.

You can find our slides here. They may seem a bit disjointed because I removed some that I had purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers with relevant vocabulary, a discussion prompt around liking chocolate milk and having it banned, the process of banning a book and banned book week in September. You can find those slides under “Banned Book Week Slides” by Lacey Librarian.

As mentioned, our first lessons consisted of defining some terms and explaining how a book might get banned. We talked about censorship and how a different of opinion about a book does not mean it should be banned or that it is harmful to others. We played a Kahoot! Game in the middle to change the pace. And towards then end, we revealed what was happening in the news with “The Great Bear” being challenged in Durham through a video of the author talking about the challenge, and a news article from Winnipeg.

We further appealed to their emotions and empathy with a series of tweets that were screen-shotted in our second lesson (slide 7) by the author. It is still unclear to the public why this book was being challenged in the first place. It was deemed “too cultural” and it is unclear who the complaint was made by. In Social Studies, these students have been learning about the principles of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. We reviewed the principles of reconciliation, highlighting the ones that seemed contrary in the situation of banning this book.

Source: Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada

We talked about how in parts of the US, the process of banning books is not being followed, and books are simply disappearing from libraries. Then we got into why – why might a book be banned? Who is banning books? Mostly parents it seems. We used and analyzed some infographics to learn more.

Then we featured some slides featuring banned books that they might know… now this got a loud reaction from the students. Harry Potter? What! Captain Underpants? The New Kid & Drama (Graphic Novels)? Dan chose these titles well as he really knows the books that they have read in class this year together and independently.

Now it was time to get hopeful. Students discussed the quote below by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. We also showed them a video of Rudine (slide 24) explaining the quote in more detail. That made a huge impact.

And then Dan elegantly framed our project with a question:

And now it was time to take action. Trust me when I say that this is a group that was primed to work on the problem. We showed them some “Banned Books” displays and let them know that I was opening up a whole wall of the library for a “Banned Book” display that I wanted to include Media too. M. Tooker broke them up into groups:

  1. Librarians who would research banned books and find them in our library. They added a tag to the books explaining where and why the book was banned.
  2. Media – a group of students that would make announcements explaining the display to their peers.
  3. Display Designers – students made a lego wall that would hold some of the books and decorated bulletin boards with caution tape, information and their students reactions to the question above. The things they had to say still blow me away. Their responses give me great hope for the future.

I have never seen a group so on task and motivated and engaged in my life. We literally stood back and acted as guides as they took it away. The videos created included Scratch coding of a copy of “The Great Bear” escaping from jail and a news broadcast about the situation. Their display included a photo booth where students could take a picture of themselves “caught” reading a banned book. They were super pumped when pictures of their work in progress was re-tweeted by David Robertson.

And the reactions from students in the Library Learning Commons has been amazing. “Why was Captain Underpants banned?” they shout at me. They are proud to take these books out. They are asking questions… and they are tough questions at times. Even teachers are shocked – “What? I used this book on the first day of school every year!” when they saw that “The Day You Begin” by Jacqueline Woodson was included.

And we got a thank you email from a parent too. They sent it to the principal and she shared it with us.

Students celebrated the decision by DDSB not to ban the book and to put it back on the shelves.

I am a very lucky TL to have such amazing colleagues (Thank You Dan!) that are willing to take a dive in and take a risk with me. I don’t know if this could ever be re-created really. I think it was a bit serendipitous. A combination of a book they love being threatened, while learning about reconciliation while appealing to their sense of social-justice. But it was amazing and it was an experience their teachers will not soon forget. The students blew us away with their insight and passion.

I had the chance to partner with Dan on another project this year… students created advanced irrigation systems for plants that are being moved to some greenhouses soon. The food in these greenhouses will be donated to the local Food Bank this summer. These kids are getting some amazing learning opportunities. We are not just teaching, we need to develop future leaders. These students are hope in the face of oppression. But that is a blog for another day…

A tweet by @MrsLyonsLibrary, a TL that I follow and enjoy caught my eye this week. While I did not attend the session she did, the line from this tweet that “empathy has to push us to action” caught my eye and resonated with me. Maybe that was the appeal of this project.

And well now I need to ask: Have you read a banned book lately? Take action and support authors who have been unjustly banned or challenged. Buy a book for yourself or someone else!

Featured Photo by MikoĊ‚aj on Unsplash