Feb 232014
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Photo credit: Marcus Hansson via flickr cc

About Freedom to Read Week and challenges to book availability

February 23 to March 1, 2014 is designated as Freedom to Read Week, an annual event encouraging Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, as guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom to Read Week is organized by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council.

The United States has a similar awareness campaign called Banned Books Week, which will occur September 21 – 27, 2014

The Freedom to Read website contains information on challenged works. As I read through the list, I discovered several books I’d read and enjoyed.

Parents in several school divisions have raised objections to the entire Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, claiming the books promote witchcraft and pagan religion, and are morally ambiguous and violent. Supporters say the fantasy novels do a good job of dealing with situations where the differences between good and evil are not always obvious, with a hero on the “good side”. Some schools banned the book, only to later rescind that ban. There are schools where teachers are still asked not to use the book. Personally, I enjoyed the series. It is a well-written series. The latter books are darker and not appropriate for younger children. The language in general is more suited to older children. Scholastic Canada lists the reading level as Grade 4 – 8.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, has been challenged, banned, or restricted in several school divisions because of profanity and sexual content. It has been used in Grade 11 English classes.

In 2008 and 2009, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was challenged by parents in the Toronto School District, claiming the profane language, anti-Christian overtones, violence, and sexual degradation violated district policy requiring students to show tolerance and respect to each other. A school district review panel recommended the novel remain in the Grade 11 and 12 curriculum.

Controversy has surrounded Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn since its release. The Concord Public Library banned it in 1885 because of “coarse language”. Discussions about the book have often focused on the topic of racism, some claiming Twain’s humanization of Jim is an attack on racism, others saying Twain perpetuated racial stereotypes. In 2011, a sanitized version was released, replacing the n-word with slave and “injun” with Indian.

I’ve enjoyed reading books by three renowned Canadian writers, all of whom have had works challenged: Margaret Laurence, Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, and Mordecai Richler. These challenges raise interesting questions about censorship and reading. If a book from a previous time portrays climate, language, and biases which are not acceptable in a modern context, is it appropriate to change or dismiss the book? Or do we read it in context and consider what it tells us about that time period and where we are today?

Many book challenges occur in the school system, with parents concerned about what their children are exposed to and learning. As a parent, I can understand this concern. I believe it is right to steer children toward age and reading-level appropriate material. I also think it is important to help our children learn to read critically, be willing to consider, but not necessarily adopt, other viewpoints, and ultimately put what they read into context. One of the things I found disturbing in what I read about the challenged book list was that some challenges were put forward by people who hadn’t read the book in question.

In their position statement, the Committee recognizes freedom to read as part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, a freedom that does not extend to choosing for others. It acknowledges the authority of the courts to restrict reading material.

The Freedom to Read website offers suggestions for local organizations, schools, and libraries to create events to raise awareness. In my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and the Winnipeg Public Library are hosting a freedom to read marathon, afternoon talks about the ways free expression can be challenged, complete with readings from favourite banned or challenged books.

What do you think about the challenges to these books and others?

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  22 Responses to “Freedom to Read”

  1. Great post on freedom, Donna. I have read all of the specific titles that you mention and of course the authors you refer to. It is very sad when others seem so insecure in their own beliefs that they seek to suppress the ability of others to make informed choices. Keep up the good work !

  2. Reading is how I get by in life and believe it’s great that your government has a freedom to read week to stress the importance of intellectual freedom! Recently read two books J.K. Rowling has written for adults, The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s calling. They are both excellent. The latter takes place in establishment London and I feel so much at home because it’s the life I led for 15 years. Even know exactly on what street they are. The casual vacancy is about sections of British life that I’m not familiar with. But the way she writes makes you relate to a world you don’t know and want to know what happens. Only an excellent writer can do that.

    • I don’t think the week is government sponsored. It is an initiative of the Book and Periodical Council, am umbrella organization for writing and publishing in Canada. I haven’t read the two J.K. Rowling books you mention yet, but they sound worth a read.

  3. Narrow mindedness comes in many forms, one being the written word. My belief it is a sign of fear of something that is not understood. Instead of taking the time to see what it’s all about, some try to block it. The sad thing is this limits their perspective and narrows the view even further. I have read all the books you mentioned. I enjoyed all of them in different measure. To me they help to open our mind and/or imagination in unique, interesting and fun ways. What a great loss it would be if they did not exist. Just my thoughts. 🙂

  4. I find the censorship of books to be outdated and disgraceful. It brings to mind visions of Nazis burning books.

    As a child I read a lot of books that were for older readers, which covered racism, wars and so on, and the only effect it had on me was an increased thirst for reading as much as I could, and a sympathy for anyone who had been discriminated against.

    Reading the Diary of Anne Frank at eight instilled in me a lifelong interest in WW2 and history, and Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry and To Kill a Mockingbird educated me about how awful the world was, and shocked me to learn that African Americans were treated that way. I am so grateful to my parents for encouraging me to read and allowing me to feed my imagination and knowledge through books. I don’t see how this is a bad thing.

    As for the Harry Potter series being deemed unsuitable, come on! Especially as encouraging paganism was given as an actual concern! Those books are so well written and so detailed that I think they should be taught in school. They address relative themes and excite children. They have the ability to turn a reluctant reader into a lifelong bookworm, as the world Rowling created is so colourful and exciting.

    Thanks for sharing this Donna 🙂

  5. I think it is disgraceful that on the challenged book list some challenges were put forward by people who hadn’t read the book in question. Do you suppose that they felt that not only must they protect children from possibly irritating reading but also themselves? Just guessing is really poor judgement.

  6. I agree that people are narrow minded to ban any book. It should be up to the parents to discuss the book and what is perceived to be wrong with the culture of when it was written. My young children all read Harry Potter and enjoyed the movies too. I feel they related with how Harry over came the evil and can draw from this.

    • Discussing a book with a child helps them to become more discerning readers themselves, I think. And I agree the Harry Potter books were excellent. In a world of video games and movies, seeing children line up for a new release of a book was an exciting thing.

  7. Books should not be banned. However, it’s a bit of a double edged sword, and a controversial one I’m sure. I’m not a parent, so I do raise this point without having that experience. Who decides whether a child gets to read a book or not, the school, the parent, or the library?

  8. As a high school English teacher, I find challenging books appalling. Unless there is a teacher out there attempting to teach erotica or slash fiction, all educators carefully select their books and always, always for a reason that will better the student. No educator should ever ask a student to adopt ideas that make them uncomfortable, but student’s should be exposed to the realities of the world through the safe mode of literature! YAY BOOKS!! 😛

  9. Sounds like a great organization that raises awareness about the freedom to read~

  10. I have always loved to read, ever since I was child. Thanks for sharing your post!

  11. I don’t have a problem with schools picking books based on age appropriateness, but by 10th grade, I think pretty much all subjects should be on the table and be able to be included in a reading list. Seriously, look at the subjects Shakespeare wrote about. Literature is not only literary, it also provides insight into the time in which it was written and a good teacher will make that part of the lesson.

  12. Today parents have such control over their children that they can’t think for themselves. Between buying all the electronic devices, driving to baseball, football, soccer, dance, etc, Maybe it is time for parents to start disusing with their children books. When I was in school I had to read “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. When we read books we were told it was a cultural experience. I don’t think my age group turned out half bad.

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