By Jim McMurtry, Ph.D. (Toronto)
Jim is currently a French Immersion public school teacher in Abbotsford, formerly principal of Neuchatel Junior College in Switzerland. Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Agatha Christie book And Then There Were None was recently banned by my school district after a complaint by one parent over a word that was taken out of the book almost a century ago. Older readers may remember the book better as Ten Little Indians. Even older readers may remember it as Ten Little N—— when first published in 1939. It is still the world’s best-selling mystery and the sixth best-selling title of all time with over 100 million copies sold.1
The book’s setting was on N—– Island then changed to Indian Island and now Soldier Island.2 The island is imagined as a dystopia or nether land, much like Coral Island in William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, which is still at my school as its one N-word was changed to savages, as in “a pack of painted savages.”3 In the early 1980s I organized a class of English students to write to Golding and ask about the unauthored edit. To our great surprise, the Nobel prize for literature recipient wrote back, saying his publisher’s ignorance of artistic license was surpassed only by his stupidity in replacing one unpopular word with another.
Many educational authorities of the woke generation have concluded quite unequivocally that Christie and Golding were either racially insensitive or flat-out racist. The “racist” slur can be used for most past writers, including William Shakespeare, whose Jewish protagonist Shylock in The Merchant of Venice demands a pound of flesh to satisfy a debt. At play’s end Shylock has his kippah ripped off his head, his fortune signed away, and his faith forcibly converted to Christianity.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays are also deemed sexist, which is why The Taming of the Shrew was put in school dustbins some time ago. Among the surviving Shakespearean plays in schools today is Romeo and Juliet, a staple of Grade 10 English, despite the banter of the soldiers in Act I Scene I: “Women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall…. I will be civil with the maids…. I will cut off their heads…their maidenheads” (hymens).
There are also those who turn their noses up at the banality of Shakespeare’s bawdiness. In Twelfth Night, for instance, the butler Malvolio says (Act II Scene V): “By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s; and thus makes she her great P’s,” which spells “CUT.” But if one reads it aloud – “her C’s, her U’s, and her T’s” (reading and as N) – it is indeed dirty.
Many teachers still use the 1960 Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird in Grade 10 despite the prevalence of the N-word. My school uses Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time with Grade 9 students, even though there are countless F-bombs and a singular “suck my c—.” My children’s elementary school in Surrey had the acclaimed The Kite Runner read in Grade 5 despite its graphic sodomy/rape scene.
We are all mindful of student sensibilities but also that censorship of literature does not advance us. John Milton wrote about this long ago in his philosophical pamphlet Areopagitica (1644): “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God as it were in the eye.”4
Although there is no school act or standard that requires censorship of literature, there are tacit codes and orthodoxies of accepted teaching in this increasingly censorial age. According to Freedom to Read, an organization that monitors challenged books in Canadian libraries and schools, To Kill a Mockingbird has been a common target. In 2002, a Nova Scotia school board tried to ban the book after teachers and parents raised objections. In 2009, the book was cut from a Brampton high school’s Grade 10 English course after a parent complained about the language in the book.5
Although the subjects of sex, race, and suicide engender the most complaints, the Toronto Public Library was criticized by a patron for promoting Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss, which depicts children jumping on top of their dad. We learned in early March that six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published.
In the United States, the most challenged book is Jay Asher’s young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which became a Netflix sensation as it addresses suicide (the leading cause of death for teens after accidents), bullying and rape.6 A school pastor in Nashville, Tennessee removed all Harry Potter books from the library of St. Edward School, arguing that “the curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”7
J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has been challenged and removed from school reading lists many times since its publication in 1951 due to concerns over profanity and obscenity. A teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1960 was fired for assigning the book to an 11th grade English class. While the teacher was brought back after an appeal, the book remained banned.8
Agatha Christie’s bestselling novel tells us where school censorship of books may lead. And then there were none.
- Sadie Stein, “Mystery,” The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/02/05/mystery/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
- George Simmers, “Green Paint: Mysteries of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.” Great War Fiction Plus. https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/green-paint-mysteries-of-william-goldings-lord-of-the-flies/. Accessed 1 Mar. 2012.
- John Milton, “Areopagitica.” Early English Books Online. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?cc=eebo;c=eebo;idno=a50883.0001.001;node=A50883.0001.001:2;seq=6;vid=121215;page=root;view=text. Accessed 10 Mar. 2012.
- Laura Hensley, “Certain books continue to cause an uproar in Canadian Education – here’s why.” Globalnews.ca. https://globalnews.ca/news/4571476/banned-books-in-canadian-schools/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2012.
- Lora Strum, “Banning books like ’13 Reasons Why” makes it harder for teens to open up to adults, author says.” pbs.org. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/banning-books-like-13-reasons-makes-harder-teens-open-adults-author-says. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.
- Antonia Noori Farzan, “A Catholic school removed Harry Potter books from its library, warning that readers ‘risk conjuring evil spirits.’” Washingtonpost.com. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/03/harry-potter-books-catholic-school-ban-conjuring-evil-spirits/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
- Talia Lakritz, “10 Books that have been banned in schools,” Insider. https://www.insider.com/banned-books-schools-2018-11#the-catcher-in-the-rye-by-jd-salinger-7. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.