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  • Written by Val Ross
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  • Written by Val Ross
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Forbidden Books, Lost Writing, Mistranslations, and Codes

Written by Val RossAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Val Ross


List Price: $10.99


On Sale: July 10, 2009
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-1-77049-086-4
Published by : Tundra Books Tundra
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Wherever people can read, there are stories about the magic, mystery, and power of what they read. Val Ross presents a history of reading that is, in fact, the story of the monumental, on-going struggle to read. From Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon the Great, the world’s oldest signed author to Empress Shotoku of Japan who in 764 ordered the printing of one million Buddhist prayers; from the story of Hulagu, Ghengis Khan’s nasty brother who destroyed the library of Baghdad to Bowdler and the censorship of Shakespeare, there have been barriers to reading ranging from the physical to the economical, social, and political.

Written for children ages ten and up, You Can’t Read This explores the development of alphabets, the decoding of ancient languages, and censorship in Ancient Rome and modern America. It's about secret writing, trashed libraries, writers on the run, writers in hiding, books that are thought to have magical powers and mistranslations that started wars. It's about people: from the American slave Frederick Douglass to girls in Afghanistan in the year 2001 who defied laws that prevented them from learning to read.

What do all these stories have in common?

They’re all about how texts contain power – and how people everywhere throughout history have devoted their wills and their brains to reading and unleashing the power of the word.

With lavish illustrations and an index, this is history at its finest.
Val Ross

About Val Ross

Val Ross - You Can't Read This

Photo © Mary Janigan

McClelland & Stewart and Tundra author Val Ross was a renowned journalist and won a National Newspaper Award. She was highly respected throughout the publishing industry for her coverage of books and the people who create them. She was an arts reporter at The Globe and Mail and her first book, The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories was nominated for many awards and won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s non-fiction. Val Ross passed away in 2008.


Praise for The Road to There:

“Filled with details and insights and written with a storyteller’s touch, this book will simultaneously inform and fascinate readers.”
School Library Journal [starred review]

“Ross covers plenty of historical ground in this wide-ranging discussion of maps and mapmakers…. An eclectic presentation… fascinating to young people…”

“In 13 chapters (or stories), Ross charts a route, notable for its verve, vitality and scholarship …. [N]ew worlds will be sensed if not seen by her readers as they travel with her from There to Here.”
The Globe and Mail

“…engaging… The most extraordinary feature is that the author…uses a short-story style, combining facts with a distinct narrative voice.”
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


You Can’t Read This: Forbidden Books, Lost Writings, Mistranslations & Codes is a history of reading with a provocative twist to intrigue curious readers — it’s a series of stories, based on historical events, about forbidden texts, books, codes, and languages. It celebrates the people who had to fight for the precious ability to read these texts and understand their meaning.

More than three thousand years ago, in the days of ancient Ur, only a few hundred priests and nobles could understand cuneiform script. We meet a girl who was not of those groups officially allowed to read — and yet she stumbles into a recognition that begins to unlock the door to reading. We meet young Emperor Nero, a would-be poet who tried to censor his fellow poets. We meet the early Christian monk Mesrob as he labors to develop an alphabet that can be read by children who speak the Armenian tongue. We meet a blind teenager named Louis Braille as he works on a system to help other blind children to read. We meet those who would censor comic books, those who struggled to decode wartime military messages, and, in our own time, a girl in Afghanistan studying books despite the Taliban’s laws forbidding her to do so.

You Can’t Read This includes source notes for further reading and approximately 30 illustrations and photographs.


Born in 1950, Val Ross grew up in Toronto, Canada. After attending art college in England and studying at the University of Toronto, she was hired by CBC television. She also wrote freelance for magazines ranging from Chatelaine to The Salvation Army War Cry to Canadian Business. She has been an editor and senior writer at Maclean’s, and at The Globe and Mail, where she was three times nominated for a National Newspaper Award (she won in 1993). She is married with two daughters and a son. Her last book, The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories, won a Silver Mr. Christie’s Book Award for Children’s Nonfiction, and the 2004 Norma Fleck Children’s Book Prize.


Curriculum Connections

Language arts
It is thought that Homer (Chapter 2) composed the Iliad and the Odyssey for people to recite and hear, rather than to read to themselves. Ask students to discuss the differences between spoken words (rap, traditional story telling, ballad songs) and compositions that are meant to be read (such as chapter books and novels). Get them to look for examples of rhythm, repetition, and rhyme that help oral communicators remember oral compositions.

Suggest that students take a modern comic book, story, or magazine article and then censor it in two different ways: as if they were early Victorians worried about public morality (chpater 12); and as if they were Taliban (Chapter 17).

Novels are capable of carrying long descriptive passages. Comic books (Chapter 16), like movie and TV screenplays, don’t need them. But these forms have other limitations. What form would your students prefer to tell an action story? A story about intimate personal feelings? Ask them to take a short story or chapter from a favorite chapter book and turn it into a storyboard for a comic novel.

Ask students to write down unfamiliar words and try to define them by taking clues from the context of the story. Such words may include apprentice (p 3); syllable (p 15); codex (p19);
cursive (p 28); doxologies (p 29); contemptuous (p 40); catapult (p 42); entrepreneurs (p 54); unsavory (p 66); uppity
(p 85); forcible (p 91); sovereignty (p 97); morose (p 118); cryptographer (p 122).

It took mathematicians to decode the Enigma machine’s messages (p 121-2). Invite students to recreate the coding process. English has 26 characters on the first disk. If you add a second scrambler disk to shift the letters, that’s 26 x 26 possibilities for a letter to represent another letter. With three disks you get 26 x 26 x 26 possibilities. Now let students see what happens when you add yet another disk. Then add one more. Have the students make a chart showing how the number of possibilities grows with the addition of each new disk.


Ask students to use library books or Web sites to research the spread of the technologies that have made mass publications possible — the invention of paper; block printing techniques; moveable type. Have students construct a map and a time line of major events from the first printing projects in China and Japan around the seventh century to Sejong and Gutenberg, whose Bible appeared in 1456, to the growth of publishing industries in Europe, and finally electronic publishing and the World Wide Web today.


Discussion Questions

1.List the “powers” reading and writing have given us. What do they let people do in terms of:
-publicizing important information or convincing
people that something is important;
-conveying information from one place to another;
-preserving information through time;
-letting people refine language for more beauty or
more precision?

2.How was information shared before reading? How might it be done in a future world?

3.As Maori and English New Zealanders discovered after they signed the Treaty of Waitangi (Chapter 15), some words that are common in one language cannot be translated easily into another — for example, the English word fun or the Italian word braggadocio or the Yiddish word nebbish. What problems could this create?

4.In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote about a police state where the language had been changed so that there were no ways to express ideas such as political freedom or personal honor. Is it possible for people to fight for something if they cannot put it into words?

5.Throughout history, authorities have justified censorship to protect national security, religious belief, or the rights of children or minorities (Chapters 3, 8, 11, 12, 16 and 17). Imagine that you are Emperor of Rome. What would you not want your subjects to read? If you were the leader of a religious movement in a time of religious wars, what reading would you forbid? In our own world, what books and Internet sites would you keep away from young children? From adults?



1.Design a picture-based writing system. Now experiment to see what sentences can easily be written in this system and what sentences are more difficult.
HINT: Things are easy to show, ideas are hard. It is probably easier for you to express “The girl runs after two dogs” than “It is forbidden to think sad thoughts.”

2.Design a syllable-based writing system and use it to write a vanity license plate or an e-mail password.
EXAMPLE: GR8 K9 (Great Canine)

3.Invent an alphabet-based writing system, with all new letters, and use it to write a simple sentence in which your name appears twice. Then ask someone to start decoding your alphabet.
HINT: They will likely start by looking for a cluster of characters that appear twice.

4.It’s easy to misread a message if punctuation shifts, or if just one letter is moved.
EXAMPLE: Freedom is now here. Freedom is nowhere.

Find other examples of messages that can be read in two different ways, or that change meaning if you change punctuation.
EXAMPLE: Attack at dawn no help coming.
Find the two different ways to read this message.


Alan Turing: The Enigma,
by Andrew Hodges
ISBN 0671528092

The Armenian People from
Ancient Times to Modern, Vol. I,

by Richard Hovanissian

ISBN 1403966362
and 1403964211

The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis
ISBN 0888994168

The Chrysanthemum Throne:
A History of Emperors of Japan,
by Peter Martin
ISBN 0824820290

The Code Book:
The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum
by Simon Singh

ISBN 0385495323

Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America, by Noel Perrin
ISBN 0879238615

Everyday Life in Ancient
by Jean Bottero
ISBN 0801868645

The Find of a Lifetime,
by Sylvia Horowitz
ISBN 1842122215

Folklore and Book Culture,
by Kevin Hayes
ISBN 0870499785

Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom, by Douglas T. Miller
ISBN 0816016178
and 0816029962

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,
by Steve Coll

ISBN 1594200076
and 0143034669

The Gutenberg Revolution
by John Man
ISBN 0747245053

A History of Libraries
in the Western World,
by Michael D. Harris

ISBN 081082972X

A History of Reading,
by Alberto Manguel
ISBN 0140166548

If God Spare My Life:
William Tyndale, The English Bible, and Sir Thomas More — A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal,
by Brian Moynahan
ISBN 0316860921

The Illustrated History
of the Treaty of Waitangi,
by Claudia Orange

ISBN 1877242160

Louis Braille, by Beverley Birch
ISBN 0836800974

Mad Mary Lamb,
by Susan Tyler Hichcock
ISBN 0393057410

Mary Queen of Scots,
by Antonia Fraser
ISBN 0316860921

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks,
Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book,
by Gerard Jones
ISBN 0465036562 and 0465036570

Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs: A Translation and Study, by Richard Bowring
ISBN 0521539757

Nero, by Richard Holland
ISBN 075092876X

Parvana’s Journey,
by Deborah Ellis
ISBN 0888995148

Also Available from Val Ross:

The Road to There

“Filled with details and insights and written with a storyteller’s touch, this book will simultaneously inform and fascinate readers.”
—School Library Journal (starred review)

“In 13 chapters (or stories), Ross charts a route, notable for its verve, vitality and scholarship. . . . [N]ew worlds will be sensed if not seen by her readers as they travel with her from There to Here.”
—The Globe and Mail

Winner of the Norma Fleck Award for Children’s Nonfiction

An IRA Notable Book

Mr. Christie’s Award, Silver Medal Winner

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