Alcott introduced me to a world that was totally alien to my own. As a Jewish family, we didn’t celebrate Christmas. There was no copy of Pilgrim’s Progress in my house. I also didn’t have ancestors who fought in the Civil War as the March girls’ father did; my grandparents arrived in America in 1906. The world of Little Women captivated me precisely because it was so different from my own. Little did I know the “harm” it was causing.
According to diversity bureaucrats in charge of libraries at Ontario’s second-largest school board, I should never have been allowed anywhere near my favourite book, because it says nothing about my own “lived experiences.” According to the board’s internal training documents, classic novels such as my beloved Little Women are rife with “explicit and implicit biases” that make them “inherently racist, classist, heteronormative, and/or sexist.” Rather than bringing joy and an appreciation for the wider world around them, these books are actually “causing harm” to young, impressionable readers. And the only proper place for this sort of toxic literature is the garbage dump.
Subterfuge at the School Board
In April 2023 Tom Ellard, a parent in Mississauga, Ontario, was given a school training manual clandestinely photocopied by a teacher from the Peel District School Board (PDSB), which covers a sprawling suburban area west of Toronto. Ellard is well-known locally for his participation on school councils. But in this instance, it was his discretion that really mattered. Before accepting the document, Ellard had to promise not to reveal the teacher’s identity. Good to his word, today Ellard won’t even disclose the whistleblower’s gender.
Why such intrigue at a publicly funded school board? Because the document in question describes a plan for a veritable intellectual putsch at PDSB libraries. And in doing so, reveals the damage being done by “anti-racist” activists hiding within our public learning institutions.
The manual in question is entitled Weeding and Audit of Resources in the Library Learning Commons Collection. Weeding and auditing are generally uncontroversial aspects of a librarian’s job. All library shelves should be regularly reviewed to ensure their books are in serviceable shape and contain accurate information; any damaged or outdated items should be discarded or given to charities. But the PDSB’s weeding and audit plan was by no means regular maintenance. Rather, it contained detailed instructions for librarians at the board’s 259 schools on how to destroy the vast bulk of their book collections.
Rife with the jargon of critical race theory, the 54-page document explains that to “promote anti-racism, inclusivity, and critical consciousness” in the school library system, it is necessary to remove “any harmful, oppressive, or colonial content from our collections.” To this end, most books written prior to 2008 (or perhaps all; the document is unclear) are to be eliminated “in order to maintain the currency and relevance of the collection while ensuring that the resources…remain culturally responsive.”
This 15-year limit applies to a sweeping range of non-fiction books, including ancient history, folk and fairy tales, religion and philosophy. Purged books are to be destroyed in a “sustainable manner” by being sent to a landfill or shredded. They are not to be sent to developing countries or even given away to charitable organizations like Little Free Library, because that would merely spread the “harm.”
In addition to burying non-fiction books older than 15 years, the plan also calls for the removal of similarly-aged works of fiction: everything from classic novels to simple picture books for the youngest readers. No literary work, no matter how beloved, timeless or innocent, is to be protected. “All items should be deemed potential candidates for weeding,” the document reads. “The category of ‘Classics’ typically consists of Euro-centric texts that were penned long before students’ birth dates, and may not reflect the lived experiences of students.” Ideological content and age, rather than literary merit, are the determining factors.
Spare nothing: According to the PDSB document Weeding and Audit of Resources in the Library Learning Commons Collection (excerpted on right), “any harmful, oppressive, or colonial content” must be removed, including potentially all fiction and non-fiction written prior to 2008. Purged books are to be destroyed in a “sustainable manner” – that is, shredded or sent to a landfill. (Source of photo: The Custodian)
In an interview, Ellard says he was initially stunned by the plan’s scale and scope. “It was so at odds with the purpose of a library that I didn’t believe it at first,” he says. “I couldn’t believe PDBS was directing its staff to manage their libraries in this way.” It was true, however. The teacher who handed the document to him reported that other educators at the PDSB were equally “alarmed” by its implications, but feared reprisals – from reassignment to termination – if they spoke out against it. Hence the secrecy.
In a set of FAQs appended to the guidelines, the Weeding and Audit manual anticipates the inevitable reaction to a plan that contemplates the mass destruction of library books. There’s a jargon-filled, critical race theory-based answer to every objection – from why burial is required to what to say if anyone asks why the shelves are bare. “In Peel, we must acknowledge that society operates in white supremacist structures where socially constructed hierarchies…privilege some and marginalize others,” it suggests as a response to questions about empty shelves. “These resources are being weeded because they are causing harm … because they are not inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant or accurate (racism, stereotypes, microaggressions, lack of representation or erasure of communities, slurs, oppression etc.).” The document recommends that, to avoid any unpleasantness, all weeding should be done when the library is closed.
Ellard’s informant explained that some librarians were eagerly following the new rules – removing and sending the bulk of their collections to a landfill – while others were hesitant to take such drastic action. When Ellard showed the purloined document to his local school trustee, they said it was the first time they’d heard about the plan. To bring greater attention to the issue, the next month Ellard organized other concerned parents, grandparents and educators into a group they’ve called Libraries Not Landfills. Its motto: “No society that destroys books has ever ended up on the right side of history!” The pushback thus began in earnest.
Book Burying and its Fallout
The broader public learned of the situation at the PDSB early in the 2023/24 school year when Libraries Not Landfills convinced the CBC to report on Erindale Secondary School student Reina Takata’s complaints about her school’s library. At the end of the previous school year, Reina explained, the library at her school was well-stocked with many of her favourite books, including popular young adult series Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, plus the 1977 civil rights novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. But when she returned in September, these books plus many others were gone. “There [were] rows and rows of empty shelves with absolutely no books,” Reina told the CBC. She figures half of her library’s books had disappeared over the summer.
Beyond supplying the CBC with eyewitness accounts from Reina and other students and parents, Ellard’s group also provided the weeding document along with proof of its malign effect, including photos of empty shelves and copies of books rescued from containers destined for the dump. Among the books confirmed to have been discarded are pre-kindergarten mainstay The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Anne Frank’s iconic Diary of a Young Girl. Rescued books include the Curious George series and a host of other innocuous picture books. Even the reliably-left-leaning CBC had to admit the process made no sense, and gave the last word to Reina. “I feel that taking away books without anyone’s knowledge is considered censorship,” she said.
Irrefutable evidence that publicly-funded school libraries were deliberately destroying perfectly good books for nakedly political reasons led to a swift and heated public reaction elsewhere in the media. Ontario’s normally cautious Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, immediately ordered a stop to the practice. “It is offensive, illogical and counterintuitive to remove books from years past that educate students on Canada’s history, antisemitism or celebrated literary classics,” Lecce said via press release.
Having been caught in the act, PDSB leadership reacted by pointing fingers elsewhere. Despite earlier efforts by Ellard’s group to raise the alarm with the board last spring, PDSB chair David Green told CBC’s Power & Politics that “during this period of time we were kept in the dark; we were not aware of what was taking place.” Green further ascribed the eagerness with which some school staffers had destroyed their own books to “a miscommunication.” Yet they were simply following the explicit instructions handed to them by board administrators.
In a response to questions from C2C Journal, Malon Edwards, the PDSB’s manager of communications, said via email that the board “has paused our disposal of books.” Regarding claims that beloved works such as Anne Frank’s Diary or the Harry Potter series had been purged, she said examples of those titles remain “in circulation” and that school librarians have been instructed “to keep books with any publishing date that are accurate, relevant to the student population, inclusive, not harmful, and support the current curriculum from the Ministry of Education.” Edwards did not provide information on how many or which books had already been consigned to the landfill. (Follow-up reporting by the CBC revealed that some librarians removed “more than half of their library’s books.”)
Edwards’ vague responses leave Ellard uneasy. Libraries Not Landfills has called on the PDSB to “make public the list of the materials already weeded” and to restore any purged books that have not yet been destroyed to library shelves. And despite all the media attention and ministerial instruction, Edwards’ claim that weeding has been “paused” suggests it could be restarted once the hubbub dies down. “As parents we lack transparency and accountability for the loss of the materials,” says Ellard. “And we have no clarity on who is responsible for the path forward.” As for repairing the damage already done, Ellard figures it could take between four and nine years and $16.2 million to repopulate the PDSB’s school libraries to their pre-purge levels.
Who Thinks Treating Books as Garbage is a Good Idea?
Ascribing the implementation of the PDSB’s plan to “a miscommunication” is obvious legerdemain. In fact, the story of how the book purge came to be provides clear evidence of the dangers posed by handing administrative control of public institutions to anti-racist activists operating under the guise of promoting diversity, inclusion and equity. Make no mistake, this is the same poisonous ideology that has infected universities across North America, imposing race-based hiring, marginalizing conservative-minded professors, cancelling invited speakers with contrary points of view and generally contributing to campuses devoid of intellectual freedom or merit.
The story of how a public school board declared picture books about curious monkeys and hungry caterpillars unfit for circulation took shape three years ago when the PDSB, Canada’s second-largest school board comprising the racially-diverse Toronto suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton, was riven by accusations of racism. A black parents’ group, Advocacy Peel, also known as Peel African Youth Advocacy, complained loudly that their children were underperforming at school due to board-wide systemic discrimination (while ignoring obvious socio-economic factors such as rates of single-parenthood and family income).
Seeking to calm the waters, Lecce dutifully ordered an investigation. Based on recommendations of the Review of the Peel District School Board, in March 2020 the province provided the PDSB with 27 directives to correct the alleged problems. Most were focused on governance issues and hiring practices, but Directive #18 called for “a comprehensive diversity audit of schools – including naming, mascots, libraries and classrooms…to ensure that they are inclusive and culturally responsive.”
The province, perhaps naïvely, told the board to check its libraries; anti-racist zealots at the board took this as permission to impose their own political agenda on the entire library system. From the slender thread of Directive #18, it appears PDSB bureaucrats concocted the entire weeding plan. The document clandestinely handed to Ellard does not list an author other than “Library Support Services,” but Ellard’s group has also released an internal memo from Bernadette Smith, the PDSB’s Superintendent of Innovation and Research, promoting the weeding plan and reminding board employees to “follow the guidance from the training sessions” and to dispose of all culled library materials “in a sustainable manner.”
The eagerness with which the PDSB’s administrators embraced the idea of destroying books in the name of diversity appears consistent with the board’s growing reputation for intolerance in other areas. The National Post, for example, recently published a front-page investigation into rampant anti-Semitism at the PDSB following the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. As the Post reported after interviewing numerous teachers at the board, “Some principals are using social media tools like X and Facebook to broadcast hateful content toward Israel and Jews on feeds that are displayed in school foyers and over the internal public address system.” Several Jewish teachers told the Post that, given this atmosphere, they feared for their safety.
The Rot Spreads
Beyond publicly-funded education institutions such as universities and school boards, the rejection of pluralism and freedom of thought is apparently infecting other components of the literary world as well. For example, well-known Canadian children’s book publisher Tundra Book Group states on its website that it is “currently only accepting manuscript and art submissions by creators from underrepresented communities. If you identify as Black, Indigenous or as a person of color, [sic] LGBTSQI2S+, having a disability or have ever had refugee status, we want to hear from you!” Tundra’s commitment to diversity appears to exclude a vast array of established Canadian children’s authors and illustrators, as well as most of this country’s young readers.
Other major children’s publishers, including KidsCan and Second Story, have similar submission policies. And in 2021, Annick Press issued a call for applications for a mentorship program for writers “whose perspectives have historically been excluded from children’s publishing. This includes but is not limited to LGBTQ2SIA+ writers, Black writers, Indigenous writers, writers of color, [sic] writers living with disabilities, and anyone living at the intersections of these identities.”
Curiously, all these publishing houses remained silent throughout the PDSB scandal. But when news broke around the same time that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in southwestern Ontario was screening books in a reading contest to limit access by young students to new books with explicit LGBTQ themes, Annick and two other children’s publishers released a joint statement declaring, “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.” It appears book publishers are more interested in selling new books with a particular ideological bent than they are in defending the foundational issue of the freedom to read any book.
A Delightful Diversity of Children’s Literature in Canada
The argument that publishers need to impose artificial discriminatory policies to diversify their lists, or that school library collections need to be culled to ensure young readers have a “rich and diverse” reading experience, is itself a falsehood. It is belied by the fact that Canada has for decades been well-supplied with a broad range of stories and perspectives aimed at children. There is no diversity problem in Canada’s school libraries or the publishing world in need of fixing.
Judith Saltman’s authoritative 1987 Modern Canadian Children’s Books charts the emergence of a distinctly Canadian children’s literature early in the 1970s, citing numerous examples of ethnic diversity in subject matter and authorship. Any well-stocked children’s library will have countless books illuminating the Canadian experience from multiple perspectives. Shizuye Takashima’s 1971 A Child in Prison Camp, for example, recalls the author’s experience in an internment camp during the Second World War.
Indigenous stories have also been a popular theme for young readers in this country for many decades. In 1977, Canadian children could read Peter Pitseolak’s Escape from Death, a story of two Inuit hunters on a fast-moving ice floe. As a teacher, I frequently used Tundra Books’ series of beautifully painted and retold legends by Mohawk artist C. J. Taylor (published between 1990 and 1994) in the classroom. Michael Kusugak’s wonderful Arctic stories, like 1988’s A Promise is a Promise, seamlessly merged legends of the past with life in the North today. Since his books were originally published by Annick, it’s puzzling that today the same publisher thinks Indigenous authors are historically “excluded.”
Concerning LGBTQ and disabled authors, Mom and Mum are Getting Married by Ken Setterington and Alice Priestly came out in 2004. And as far back as 1972, Jean Little drew on her own experience of near-blindness to write one of Canada’s most memorable children’s books about living with a disability, From Anna. None of these books was the result of political zealotry. They appeared organically from publishers and writers with stories to tell.
Further, books with white, heterosexual main characters can have something important to say to all readers. Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar shifts back and forth in time between Ontario and the American South, bringing to life the trauma of the American Civil War. The Pit Pony by Joyce Barkhouse paints a vivid picture of the dangerous working conditions for turn-of-the-20th-century Cape Breton coal miners, including child labourers. And Scholastic’s Dear Canada series of fictionalized diaries presents a comprehensive view of Canadian history, from the filles du roi of mid-17th-century Quebec to the Great Depression. Allowing our youngest citizens to learn about our shared history is critical to developing a strong sense of Canadian identity in the next generation.
As for older classics dismissed as racist, sexist and colonialist by the PDSB’s weeding document, such a sneering characterization ignores the transcendental nature of all great literature. My father was born in Latvia in 1903; his favourite boyhood book was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he read repeatedly as he vicariously sailed on the Hispaniola with young Jim Hawkins and the pirates. The book is as Eurocentric as you can get, but it nonetheless captured my father’s imagination and in doing so introduced him to a lifelong love of reading – just as Little Women did for me.
As a former elementary school teacher, I share Ellard’s shocked reaction to any plan that seeks to destroy books on the basis of age or ideology. Doing so requires a profound ignorance of what teaching reading is about: informing the naturally curious child about animals, plants and planets; expanding vocabulary and developing sensitivity to the beauty of the English language; showing how different characters living in different times and places think and feel; and experiencing wonder as you hear toads talk, see brooms fly or look into magic mirrors. All are crucial aspects in the formation of young minds.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is one of the most successful books I’ve ever taught in the classroom. This story of an encounter between Mary and Colin, two spoiled upper-class English children, and Yorkshire cottage boy Dickon touches all youngsters regardless of their “lived experience.” Admittedly, the book is marred by incidental racist language; when Mary arrives at her uncle’s manor from colonial India the maid expresses surprise that she isn’t “black” and the child erupts in rage at the affront. It’s a passage that bears some unpacking.
But rather than cancelling the best children’s book ever written, I always tried to explain the prejudices of the Edwardian period. Kids can understand that people thought differently in the past – even if some adults can’t. Illustrating a different issue, The Wind in the Willows has no female protagonist. But must we toss aside Kenneth Grahame’s poetic evocation of a vanished countryside, with its hilarious satire of Mr. Toad’s bombast, because it fails some arbitrary gender quota?
The greatest stories ever told: Despite accusations of racism, sexism and colonialism, classic literature such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows offers young readers the opportunity to embark on a lifelong love of reading. Shown, top to bottom, scenes from movie adaptations of each book.
Arguments that books must meet post-modern representational balance standards (of the sort demanded by the U.S.-based Education Trust) or be removed from circulation is a mischaracterization of diversity. The goal should be to encourage a broad diversity throughout the library collection, rather than demand removal of any individual book deemed insufficiently “diverse” regardless of its other merits. Diversity is achieved through a plurality of viewpoints, characters and stories, not by enforcing one particular template on each and every book.
Canada’s Self-Proclaimed Voices of Freedom Fall Silent
The swift rebuke dealt to the PDSB’s book-burial scheme by parents, the media and Ontario’s government suggests the values of intellectual freedom and literary excellence still count for something, at least in the public’s mind. Yet many other necessary voices were disappointingly silent throughout this affair. Together with a group of other children’s book authors, I wrote to three well-known Canadian organizations that claim to defend the freedom to read, reminding them that “books do not belong in landfills, but in the hands of children,” and urging them to “issue a public statement condemning the actions of this publicly-funded school board.” The reaction from The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), the Ontario Library Association and PEN Canada (a free expression lobby group) are revealing, and deeply troubling.
Around the time of the PDSB library scandal, TWUC issued several other statements on book bans. In September 2023, in response to a proposal in Brandon, Manitoba to create a parental committee to review books at the local school board for sexual and gender identity content, the organization declared that it “notes with growing concern the trend in Canada of challenges to specific books in schools and libraries across the country. Very often those with a focus on LGBTQIA2s+ perspectives and stories are the target of coordinated complaints.”
Then in November, the group addressed the previously mentioned “access restrictions” to LGBTQ+ books at the Waterloo Catholic School Board for works that were part of a student reading competition called “Forest of Reading.” The unequivocal response: “TWUC believes any access restrictions for Forest of Reading shortlisted titles must be immediately removed. Furthermore, policies that keep students from books for any reason must be reconsidered.” (Emphasis added.)
You might think that dumping library books in a landfill would be “keeping students from books,” but in this case, TWUC somehow lost its sense of outrage. “Initial media reports suggested an extreme book-culling policy had been implemented,” it stated blandly. “The PDSB has since clarified its intention was to assess the collection, and replenish shelves with diverse books reflective of the broader community.” The shelves at PDSB schools are now half-empty. Ho-hum.
Like TWUC, the Ontario Library Association also claims to stand resolutely in favour of unfettered reading. According to its Statement on Intellectual Freedom, “The Ontario Library Association…[is] committed to the fundamental rights of intellectual freedom, the freedom to read and freedom of the press…Materials are not excluded from library collections based on race, place of birth, origin, ethnic origin, ethnicity, citizenship, age, creed, disability, family structure, sex, and sexual orientation.” Furthermore, the first line of its official statement on the rights of children states that, “Children in public libraries have the right to intellectual freedom.” Sounds clear enough.
Yet when asked to comment on the PDSB situation, the organization meekly deferred to the Ontario School Library Association’s equity-based Guide to the Selection and Deselection of School Library Resources. This document allows for the removal of a book if it “contradicts policies on diversity and inclusion as outlined by other school board documents.” Hardly a resounding endorsement of freedom to read; more like rank hypocrisy that, for some reason, precisely follows woke ideology.
PEN Canada never bothered to answer our queries.
Burning Books, Burning People
In his 1821 play Almansor, the German poet Heinrich Heine famously wrote that, “Those who burn books will in the end burn people.” More than a century later, on the evening of May 10, 1933, the infamous mass bonfire of “un-German” and Jewish books took place at Berlin’s Opernplatz, organized by Nazi Germany’s Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels. “You are doing the right thing in committing the evil spirit of the past to the flames at this late hour of the night,” Goebbels declared to the assembled throng. “It is a strong, great and symbolic act.” We know what Nazi Germany did next.
Bureaucrats at Peel District didn’t burn books – they buried them because that’s the “sustainable” way to destroy literature. But Heine’s warning remains acutely relevant. Driven by an extreme ideology that seeks to eradicate viewpoints it considers “evil,” nameless woke activists sought to purify the library collections to their own satisfaction, in line with the actions of universities, book publishers and so-called advocacy groups that actively seek or obligingly consent to politically-motivated limitations on the intellectual freedom of younger generations.
Well-written children’s books do not cause harm. They entertain, illuminate, enlighten and educate. And in doing so, they can (hopefully) inspire a lifelong love of reading. To encourage children to reap these many benefits requires a library with shelves sagging under the weight of books – because it is impossible to know what particular book will capture the imagination of which particular child. The real harm lies in destroying books.
Marjorie Gann is a retired elementary school teacher and children’s book author and reviewer. Her non-fiction books include Speak a Word for Freedom: Women Against Slavery and Five Thousand Years of Slavery, both co-authored with Janet Willen. Gann sits on the Advisory Board of the Aristotle Foundation.