While in Phoenix, I visited the Burton Barr Central Library to view an exhibit called State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. Against a backdrop of historical film footage, posters and photographs, the exhibit explores what propaganda means and how Hitler and the Nazis used it to shape opinion, seed ideas, and generate hatred.
At a time when Germany was in the throes of economic and political turmoil, Hitler promised prosperity and security. He skillfully milked the fears of the German people by targeting Jews, Communists and other groups as the source of their problems, often employing words and images that on the surface appeared benign or even positive.
As a writer, presenter and teacher, two segments of the exhibit were particularly striking to me. One sequence of photographs showed Hitler practicing ‘stage presence’. Every hand gesture, glare, and intonation of his voice was carefully scripted for maximum impact. Knowing the destruction that Hitler caused, it was chilling to see photos of him honing his manipulation skills in such a calculating manner.
Another striking moment came when I viewed film footage from May 1933. That month, in most university towns, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades and threw pillaged books – many by Jewish writers – into bonfires. In Berlin, some 40,000 people participated, led by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, who addressed the crowd with a carefully crafted speech: “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency and morality in family and state….And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.”
In these two segments, I saw the two arms of Nazi propaganda at work. One, the manipulation of facts and images. The other, the stifling of free speech. One advanced Hitler’s twisted ideas; the other ensured that those ideas went unchallenged.
Most democratic countries have laws that protect freedom of expression. Most, too, have laws that prohibit the purposeful skewing of facts, particularly when these denigrate groups and encourage hatred. Admittedly, it can be a slippery slope keeping a balance between the two.
In Canada, during February’s Freedom to Read Week, we acknowledge the power of words, the freedoms of expression that we cherish, and the system of checks and balances that safeguard them. The Freedom to Read website lists activities being held around the country in libraries, schools, and public spaces. Also on the website is a list of ‘challenged’ books – books that have been questioned for their content and ideas. Each challenge sought to limit public access. Some challenges were upheld, others rejected. In any case, the list reminds us of the delicate dance between censorship and free expression.
Many children’s books are on the list and I recognized a number of titles. I was often surprised by the objections raised by adult readers and sometimes entire interest groups. Material I might have unquestioningly supported was offensive to others.
None of my books appear on the list, but perhaps this is due to the wise counsel of my editors. At times, editors have cautioned me about some potentially controversial aspect of my writing, usually with words similar to “this might be more appropriate for an older group.” Case in point was the story about the Peruvian plane crash of years ago where survivors cannibalized the dead to stave off starvation. Somehow I thought that would be an interesting read. “No, not under any circumstances,” my editor told me. Thank goodness for her level head.
Here is a small sample of children’s books that have been challenged in the past decade or two. To fully appreciate the depth and swath of the list as well as the decisions reached by the review committee, I would invite you to visit the website yourself.
A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird
Novel about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy living in an Israeli-occupied area. Challenged by a Canadian bookseller as “a racist, inflammatory, and a totally one-sided piece of propaganda.” 2003
The Waiting Dog by Carolyn Beck and Andrea Beck
Children’s book about a dog anxiously waiting for the mail to be delivered to his home. Challenged by an Ontario parent who objected to depictions of violence and said the work was age inappropriate. 2006
No Place for Me by Barthe DeClements
Young adult novel about a young girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. Challenged by a parent who said the book promoted the Wicca religion. 1995
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Popular children’s book series. Objection from a Newfoundland parent for its depiction of wizardry and magic. 2000
Asha’s Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
A children’s story book that depicts same-sex parents. Challenged by school trustees for its questionable family values. 1997
Maxine’s Tree by Diane Leger
Children’s book which tells the story of a girl who tries to protect a tree in B.C.’s rainforest. Challenged by an official of the woodworker’s trade union in B.C. for its anti-logging viewpoint. 1992