What a Fiction

Over the next couple of years Art & Commodity intends to expand on some challenges authors and publishers faced in submitting books to Ontario for use in schools during baby boomer and GenerationX eras. Prior to getting that activity underway, I want to clarify that neither NO SCHOOL FOR SUCKERS nor CANADIAN MOCKINGBIRD featured fictional works. In my investigation of textbook evaluation, nonfiction was targeted. I wasn’t looking at how ‘dangerously’ artistic prose may have been held back from circulation, although attempts were made. Let me share three examples encountered.

Scarborough Centre MPP and cabinet minister Frank Drea wrote his Conservative colleague, Education Minister Thomas Wells, in November 1975 about Beatrice Sparks’ anonymously authored 1971 Go Ask Alice. Drea, journalist and Western University Social Science faculty, questioned whether such a book should be available.[1] According to the Scarberian, Sparks’ fictional diary account of a drug-using fifteen-year-old was “poorly written” with its English-debasing “street language.”

An example wasn’t provided, but one is easily obtained.

April 19

Cripes! It’s started again! I met Jan downtown and she asked me to a “party” tonight. None of the kids think I’m really going to stay off, because most of those who’ve been busted before are just being more careful and discreet.[2]

Perhaps with effort, it would be possible to make more comparison between the language’s character and the progress of the protagonist’s substance abuse. The diary was based on another written about the real world. In that case, wrote the editors, the “subject…died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.”

Minister Wells, in his reply, clarified that provincial government neither promoted nor approved the book.

The selection of English literature texts is left to the discretion of individual school boards who approve or disprove texts requested for use in the schools.[3]

Wells though had read the rationale submitted to Halton District’s school board for its use and knew the book won awards for educational effectiveness. The Minister felt “a sensible and perceptive teacher” could make use of the book’s language in the classroom to “have positive effects on young people’s minds” rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. The 50th anniversary edition, released by Simon & Schuster in December 2020, refers to the story as “the classic cautionary tale.”

In another case, two fictional young adult books published by James Lorimer were rejected by officers after having been unanimously recommended.

Seven of Lorimer’s “Time of Our Lives” titles were reviewed in 1986 and approved by Ministry-paid reviewers, demonstrating a break from the past when Ontario stayed away from evaluating fiction. Each reviewer focused more closely on one title. According to the recommendation record, the assigned education officer approved the books for the Junior Division on November 17, 1986 with the exception of The Summer the Whales Sang by Gloria Montero and Elizabeth Brochmann’s Nobody Asked Me.

I don’t have the evaluation record for Montero’s tale of Basque culture in Labrador, but the reviewer who focused on Elizabeth Brochmann’s Nobody Asked Me listed language that he termed “suggestive” with his approval.[4]

  • p.18 “Lick from the sticks”
  • p.20 “it was time for her period again.”
  • p.26 “against her too-flat chest”
  • p.55 “Until tonight she had never seen anyone naked except herself”
  • p.63 “The bottle’s better than any woman.”
  • p.77 Seduction scene: “Pulling it off, she undid the tie, too, letting her hair cascade…Her uniform clung to her thighs. Her hair burned.”
  • p.102 “Shit”
  • p.147 “they passed the orange cat copulating in the bushes…It hadn’t bothered he in the least, but it bothered her now”
  • p.153 “She had slept nude…When people got close enough, they touched each other’s bodies”

“There are some sensitive areas that parents and/or teachers might be concerned with, particularly when taken out of context,” wrote the reviewer. But, he said “concepts of identity, seeking love, becoming independent are universal and would appeal to students of this age.”

The reviewer’s primary concern were references to commercial products and entities, such as HP Sauce, Orange Julius, 7-Up, Coke and a Chevron Gas Station. There was also an “Aunt Eve” who was characterized as a crabby old crow and an arthritic granny. Despite the complaints, the reviewer wrote that the book should appeal to grade six students, that it “was a satisfying read and successfully presents strong female characterization in Canadian literature for children.”

The rejections meant that James Lorimer was covertly censored in Ontario as publisher and author. Signing for the branch director in December 1973, J.K. Crossley did not recommend A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics despite its majority recommendation. A rejection letter went to Lorimer’s publisher James Lewis & Samuel dated January 7, 1974 with a “strongly biased viewpoint” being offered as the rationale.[5]


[1] Drea, F. (1975). [“I realize that these Renaissance people are somewhat ‘way out’, but I seriously question that a book like “Go Ask Alice” should really be in the schools.”]. In T. Wells (Ed.). Scarborough.

[2] Sparks, B. (2020, orig. 1971). Go Ask Alice. Simon & Schuster, p.97

[3] Wells, T. (1975). [“Your letter of November 13, 1975, raises several questions about the book Go Ask Alice.”]. In F. Drea (Ed.). Toronto, Ontario.

[4] Restricted. (1986). Evaluation of Nobody Asked Me by Elizabeth Brochmann. Toronto: Ministry of Education.

[5] Fraser, J. to James Lewis & Samuel (1974). Rejection Letter for A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics. (Ed.). Toronto: Ministry of Education.