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?