Wednesday, January 14, 2009

T.O. school board to review Atwood novel

Toronto school board reviewing Atwood novel after parent complains
Hamilton Spectator: 2009 January 13

Toronto’s public school board is reviewing Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, after a complaint from a parent whose child was studying the novel in a Grade 12 class.

While the board would not discuss the nature of the concern over the 1985 dystopian novel — described by some educators as a staple of its genre that is used nationwide — a source said it was believed to be over sexuality and criticism of religious fundamentalism.

According to board policy, it is obliged to investigate any complaint about a book that can’t be resolved at the school level.

The process involves a committee of roughly eight experts and a community member, and it is time-consuming.

The review committee meets Thursday at Lawrence Park Collegiate, where the complaint originated.

Atwood could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

“Any controversial novels that we use sometimes generate comment from the public and I think that’s quite normal,” said Melanie Parrack, the board’s executive superintendent of student success, who also co-chairs the committee.

The last time the Toronto District School Board faced a similar controversy was in 2006, when the Canadian Jewish Congress lobbied boards to restrict access to Three Wishes, by Deborah Ellis, complaining about its portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Parrack would not speculate on possible outcome for Atwood’s novel, but said if something is “extraordinarily offensive” it could be taken off the shelves.

The book is used in an English literature unit on social commentary, alongside Brave New World, and 1984.

The acclaimed novel — which won the Governor General’s Award in 1985 — is about a futuristic theocracy in which women are used as breeders.

Once the committee meets, it will make a recommendation to the board’s director of education, who makes the ultimate decision.

If the parent is still not satisfied, only then does the issue come before trustees for a vote, trustee Howard Goodman said.

The Handmaid’s Tale is listed as one of the 100 “most frequently challenged books” from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association’s website.

The Canadian Library Association says there is “no known instance of a challenge to this novel in Canada” but says the book was called anti-Christian and pornographic by parents after being placed on a reading list for secondary students in Texas in the 1990s.