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Carol Matas on the Fear Factor

Why are people so fearful when dealing with children’s literature? My three books, The Primrose Path, about a rabbi who is a charismatic leader who abuses his power, Sworn Enemies, about conscription of Jews in Tzarist Russia, and Daniel’s Story, about a young Jewish boy’s experience of the Holocaust, all have one thing in common. At various times and places teachers and parents were reluctant to let their children read them.

The largest, most compelling factor in adults’ fear is their children’s supposed innocence. Twelve thousand Ontario children voted Daniel’s Story their favorite book and awarded it the Silver Birch Award. At the award ceremony the adults expressed how pleased they were, but more so, how shocked they were. There seemed to be a genuine chasm between what adults thought children would like and what they did like. One parent approached me and told me that she read Daniel’s Story and found it so moving and true and yet she desperately wanted to keep it from her 11-year-old child. He was too innocent. He shouldn’t know about these things. Maybe when he’s older.

I mentioned this to my then 14-year-old son, Sam. His response? There’s no way to “work up to” the Holocaust. I can’t put it better. Not only is there no easy way to tell this story, adults should not be afraid of children hearing it. Why not?

Well, first, because children already know evil. They are not innocent. They don’t live in a perfect world. They deal with bullies, violence, lies and often violence at home or in school all the time. If everyone pretends their lives don’t include these things, children are left to deal with it all alone.

Secondly, ignorance is not bliss. If children don’t learn what racism and hatred can produce, aren’t they doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

What do the letters I get from children say? Thank you for telling me about what happened in the war. It made me sad. We all have to be sure it never happens again. I didn’t know. Thank you for telling me.

Sworn Enemies was banned by a Jewish school trustee in Ontario because she felt it portrayed minorities in a bad light. Fortunately her decision was overturned and the same week the Association of Jewish Librarians gave the book the Sydney Taylor Award for the best book of the year. In fact, Zev is a pretty awful guy. So does that mean that it is unacceptable to portray Jews in a negative way?

The answer is “yes,” according to some who respond with horror to The Primrose Path. My own nephew argued with me that people reading it would naturally assume that all rabbis are pedophiles. I can understand the panic. Jews have been persecuted; we are paranoid for good reason; six million killed is not a fantasy. The question is, should that silence us? It seems to me that an author’s first job is to be honest. If we Jews are to be a light unto nations we must not shy away from our own darkness. If I had made the rabbi a priest, as so many people suggested, what would that have said? It would have said to every Jewish child who has been abused, “No, it didn’t happen to you, Jews don’t abuse their children (beat their wives, or drink, or gamble), so don’t talk about it, don’t tell.”

The proponents of not upsetting children ought to consider this: Wouldn’t they be far more upset if children became unwitting victims of abuse because no one had ever discussed the issues with them, because they were kept in ignorance and therefore were easy prey?

Fear about my books is not confined to their effect on children. At a Winnipeg synagogue, the Sisterhood took it upon themselves to cancel my invitation to speak to the interfaith luncheon. Apparently they had decided that The Primrose Path too closely paralleled a case in Winnipeg, and that if I spoke the synagogue would be sued by the person (rabbi) everyone assumes the book is about. Everyone living in Winnipeg, that is. In Montreal a woman assured me that she knew the book was really about the choirmaster in Kingston who was accused and convicted of molesting children. In Toronto it was obvious that the book was about a teacher in the Jewish school system who had been accused, then fired, but never charged. In Edmonton … well, you get the idea. Which makes me feel I’ve done my job well, because everyone can see someone or some case they know in the book.

Although The Primrose Path received excellent reviews and children loved it when given the chance to read it, no U.S. publisher would touch it, afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism. And in Canada you would be hard pressed to find it in any Jewish day school. The good news—it is available in almost all public school libraries.

As a Jew, I would hate to see our discourse narrowed by fear. I am trying to expand the discourse. For those who want to leave children out of it, they will have to do so without me.

Carol Matas, who wrote Daniel’s Story for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the author of over 25 books for young people. Her latest, In My Enemy’s House (Simon & Schuster), is the story of a Polish Jewish girl who survives the war by working for a Nazi family in Germany. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Prairie Fire.