Blacklisting a book, even when done with good intentions, is a bad idea.
Yet this is the path chosen by the Ministry of Health and Social Services when it published, on December 16, a notice enjoining teachers, librarians and booksellers to ban the novel The Boy with Upside-Down Feet: The Chronicles of Saint-Severeby the author François Blais.
In an exceptional gesture, Assistant Deputy Minister Marie-Ève Bedard of the Public Health Planning, Prevention and Protection Branch sent a warning to the province’s public health departments about from the novel by M. Blais. “Some passages trivialize a completed suicide, can we read in the notice. Little hope of staying alive emerges and no mention is made of the importance of seeking help if contemplating suicide. Incidentally, this book was published posthumously after the author committed suicide in May 2022.”
The Deputy Minister, who said she wanted to prevent a harmful impact on vulnerable young readers, added: “it is essential not to attract the attention and curiosity of the public to this book”.
After reading the novel The boy with upside-down feet, we find it hard to understand the decision of the Quebec officials.
Nowhere in this novel – moreover very well written and imbued with great sensitivity – is there any apology or glorification of suicide. The only suicide in the plot is committed by an extra in the story, and the main characters are sorry. True, this suicide is committed by a child, and it is the result of a challenge launched by one of the characters of the novel. But this character is a ghost who appears in a supernatural context. Moreover, it is obvious from reading that this ghost, portrayed in a negative light, represents a danger for the other characters. The discerning reader understands this without further explanation. Remember that this book is aimed at teenagers exposed to complex and very violent content on the small screen, not at primary school children.
In this context, the intervention of the Ministry of Health seems to us to be unjustified. Ironically, this intervention had the effect she wished to avoid: drawing attention to Mr. Blais’ novel.
The Ministry’s opinion leaves us perplexed for another reason: it completely disregards the professional competence of the French teachers who choose the books that will be on the program as part of their course. We can think that the teacher who chooses Mr. Blais’ novel has informed himself and prepared to properly supervise his students.
To our knowledge, this is the third time that the Ministry of Health has intervened in relation to a work of fiction. His two other interventions concerned the film 1:54 by Yan England, in 2016, and the series 13 Reasons Why presented in 2017.
The film 1:54 featured an explicit suicide scene. In some regions of Quebec, Public Health had asked schools not to show it to students.
In Series 13 Reasons Whywhere suicide might seem glamorized, the intervention of Public Health was more judicious: advising parents to monitor what their children were listening to and offering them support if necessary.
Remember that we were facing an almost planetary phenomenon: the series was presented on Netflix and resonated with young people through social networks. There was indeed the risk of a ripple effect which justified the Ministry’s warning.
The situation is very different with the novel by François Blais, which appeared last October without fanfare, and which, despite a critical success and rave reviews, never became a bookstore phenomenon.
As for the death of Mr. Blais, it has never been the subject of excessive media coverage.
Is the subject of suicide to be taken lightly? Absolutely not. Is a notice at the beginning of the book with mental health references warranted? Of course, and the publisher, Fides, has already added it.
But the Ministry never informed Fides that it was going to send a warning to the public health directorates. Officials should have worked in collaboration with the editor rather than confronting him with a fait accompli.
These same civil servants should collaborate with their colleagues from the Ministry of Education and the competent bodies to develop tools for teachers who wish to address the issue of suicide if they feel that they lack the resources to do so.
It’s by opening up the discussion within a safe framework – and school is one of them! – that we can support young people, not by denying them access to a book that they can get anyway.
The intervention of the Ministry of Health is distressing. Schools lack professional resources to support teachers in their mission. Therein lies the drama.
But it’s certainly easier to ban a book than to tackle the real problem.