Australian writer, teacher and school principal John Marsden, the author of the award-winning book Tomorrow, When the War Began, a book Chilliwack school Trustee Heather Maahs suggested should not be in schools because of sexual content. (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Australian author reacts to Chilliwack school trustee’s ‘book banning’ statements

John Marsden responds to ‘horror and outrage’ from adults about mildly sexual thoughts in his novel

The award-winning Australian author whose popular teen novel was deemed too controversial for students by a Chilliwack school trustee has responded to the debate.

John Marsden’s name came up at a recent Chilliwack school board meeting when Trustee Heather Maahs read an excerpt from Tomorrow, When the War Began, a dark fiction novel for young people that has sold millions of copies worldwide and won numerous awards.

Maahs used it as an example of learning materials with a “sexual nature” that should require informed parental consent.

“I think we can all figure out that I’m talking about sexual content in the curriculum,” Maahs said at the April 9 meeting.

• READ MORE: Book-banning discussion bubbles up at Chilliwack board table

The Progress reached out to Marsden through his publisher Pan Macmillan Australia and the 68-year-old responded on April 17 via email.

“Apparently a few mildly sensual/sexual thoughts and encounters in one of my books for teenagers has caused horror and outrage among some adult readers in Chilliwack,” he wrote.

“I don’t write about sex much, but when I do I try to show it as a profound experience. As a teacher in Australian schools I was horrified – perhaps even outraged! – that not many years ago sex education was entrusted to the science department, where it tended to be taught as a strictly biological interaction.”

As for parental consent and control over every aspect of what children come in contact with, Marsden said he doesn’t believe parents own their children any more than husbands own wives or vice versa.

“The idea that our children can be sculpted, shaped, modified endlessly, until they exactly resemble the people we want them to be, is a recipe for catastrophic mental illness,” Marsden wrote.

“Of course we must teach kids, and that includes inculcating values, helping them develop strength of character, and setting limits.”

Using an outdoors analogy, as he put it, that doesn’t mean children should be planted in neat rows, trimmed daily, fed distilled water. Instead, children should be free to roam, along the way garnering important knowledge about the outdoors from parents and other elders.

“As they grow older, young people could even go as far as the waterfall, or along the gorge, or into the caves, where they might find wonderful creatures, or artwork from ancient times.”

Moving past the analogy, he said his golden rule in raising children is that parents and teachers have no right to intentionally keep kids ignorant.

“If we don’t teach them about resilience, relationships, money, politics, the natural world, sex we are setting them up for failed adult lives,” he wrote. “We only have to look at previous generations and our own generation to see the sad truth of that.”

As for Maahs and her concern about Marsden’s book and other material she deems too sexual for kids in public schools, she put forth a motion to demand for informed parental consent. Board chair Dan Coulter spoke against her motion calling it reminiscent of book banning and book burning.

“This is Alabama time, and we should stay away from it,” he said, in part.

Her motion failed in a vote of four to three with trustees Barry Neufeld and Darrell Furgason voting with Maahs.

The four trustees who quashed her motion pointed out that parents already can speak to teachers about content used in the classroom.

Marsden responded to an email from The Progress about the topic, but he added that he actually had already been following this reporter’s comments on Twitter, alerted by his sister to “the Chilliwack Crisis.”

In summary, Marsden wrote: “Young people have a right to knowledge. That includes helping them gain an understanding of the wonderful engagement of mind, body, feelings and soul in the best sexual experiences. They might then have a better chance of avoiding the arid, joyless encounters to which so many hundreds of millions of people have been sentenced in Western and some other societies, over so many centuries now.”

John Marsden’s entire statement on what he wryly refers to as “the Chilliwack Crisis” regarding school board Trustee Heather Maahs’ concern about his book Tomorrow, When the War Began:

I don’t believe that parents own their children any more than husbands own their wives or wives their husbands. The idea that our children can be sculpted, shaped, modified endlessly, until they exactly resemble the people we want them to be, is a recipe for catastrophic mental illness.

Of course we must teach kids, and that includes inculcating values, helping them develop strength of character, and setting limits. But to use an outdoors analogy, it does not mean planting them in neat rows, trimming them every day, and drip feeding them with distilled water. The ideal upbringing would be to let them roam across the fields, into the woods, down to the stream. Along the way, parents and other elders would teach them how to deal with venomous snakes, how to climb trees or ride the rapids, how to avoid sunburn.

As they grow older, young people could even go as far as the waterfall, or along the gorge, or into the caves, where they might find wonderful creatures, or artwork from ancient times.

Okay, enough of the outdoors analogy! But to me, one of the golden rules in raising children is that we have no right to keep them in ignorance. If we don’t teach them about resilience, relationships, money, politics, the natural world, sex we are setting them up for failed adult lives. We only have to look at previous generations and our own generation to see the sad truth of that.

Apparently a few mildly sensual/sexual thoughts and encounters in one of my books for teenagers has caused horror and outrage among some adult readers in Chilliwack. I don’t write about sex much, but when I do I try to show it as a profound experience. As a teacher in Australian schools I was horrified –perhaps even outraged! – that not many years ago sex education was entrusted to the Science Department, where it tended to be taught as a Strictly Biological Interaction. Lots of diagrams on the blackboards, and instruction about ova and spermatozoa and uteri and prepuces. This is inadequate, even dishonest education, seemingly motivated by a fearful attitude towards sex.

Young people have a right to knowledge. That includes helping them gain an understanding of the wonderful engagement of mind, body, feelings and soul in the best sexual experiences. They might then have a better chance of avoiding the arid, joyless encounters to which so many hundreds of millions of people have been sentenced in Western and some other societies, over so many centuries now.

Thanks again Paul!

Warm regards,

John (Marsden)

• RELATED: Teachers’ union says SOGI 123 debate by Chilliwack trustee candidates is irrelevant


@PeeJayAitch
paul.henderson@theprogress.com

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