Free to Read? Let's Not Take it for Granted

Books And Reading

 

The Book and Periodical Council's Freedom to Read Week, beyond simply being an annual event that showcases and remembers banned books, is an excellent time to consider the merits, or lack thereof, of broadly applied censorship. Last week, as we sat in the office doing exactly that, we fell to wondering how many banned or challenged books we had read or might even have on our bookshelves at home. A quick online search yielded several lists of banned and challenged books, often with reasons cited for their censorship, whether only proposed or actually implemented.

 

One of the most comprehensive lists can be found on the Canada’s Freedom to Read website, which also contains a wealth of information on free expression and censorship issues in Canada and throughout the world (including the intriguing page “Bannings and Burnings in History”).

 

Also well worth a visit is The Huffington Post’s page about banned books, with links to numerous articles on banned and contested books and censorship in general.

 

Here are the books we’ve read that have their own censorship history.

 

Lesley-Anne: The Giver

While writing my last blog on Freedom to Read Week, I found myself looking through their (very large) list of challenged books. I wasn’t sure I would actually see any I’d read, but after scrolling for a bit, I did end up seeing a number of books I’d read—in my childhood! On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the Harry Potter series (of course), and one I found kind of surprising: The Giver by Lois Lowry. Like many Canadian students, I studied The Giver in school around the age of 11. I really liked the book (and flew through reading it in under a week), and I’m not the only one—the book won the 1994 Newbery Medal and as of 2014 has sold over ten million copies. You may also recall that a film was adapted from the book and released in 2014.

 

 

So if the book is so popular and has stood the test of time, why is it challenged so much? The Giver is ranked #11 on the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the 1990s, and in the 2000s it ranked #23. The Freedom to Read Challenged Books List doesn’t cite a specific reason as to why the book was challenged in Canada—the most common reasons for a book to be challenged are that it contains “offensive language” or is too “sexually explicit,” but The Giver has neither of these qualities.

 

 

Instead, as documented by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the most frequent reasons behind challenges for The Giver are “violence” and that the book is simply “unsuited to the age group.” This particular reason is … a little vague, and I believe that parents may just think that the book is too dark or heavy for kids. I certainly remember that the book, unquestionably, had darker aspects, but it also has an important message to teach the kids who study it: just because everyone around you says something is OK, that doesn’t always mean it’s right.

 

 

Barbara: Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic

Shel Silverstein is one of my favourite authors of all time, so I was more than a little shocked to discover two of his books on the Prince Rupert Library’s list of banned books. When my children were small, we delighted in the sheer whimsy of Silverstein’s poems and drawings and read them over and over … and over … again. Who could resist the hilarity of the author’s suggestion that children break dishes so they won’t have to dry them? Someone at Cunningham Elementary School in Beloit, Wisconsin, apparently, because in 1985 that was the reason given for A Light in the Attic being challenged. A year later, also in Wisconsin, it was further challenged—by the Big Bend Elementary School library in Mukwonago—this time because some of the poems “glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.”

 

 

Wisconsin seems to have been a hotbed of anti-Silverstein protest in the mid-1980s, because it didn’t end there; Where the Sidewalk Ends was challenged at the West Allis-West Milwaukee school libraries for “suggest[ing] drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for legitimate authority, rebellion against parents.” Who knew that fun and fantasy could be so dangerous?!   

 

 

Michael: Arabian Nights

The banning of Arabian Nights from 1927–31 (in the United States) and then again in 1985 (in Egypt and Israel) represents an effort by the powers that be to stop children, specifically, from reading "inappropriate" material. And, though many of the tales in Arabian Nights are salacious, violent, and gore filled, these myths are also cultural touchstones that not only showcase one culture's mythological tapestry but also highlight the similarities that each culture imbues their collective tales with.

 

One famous character from Arabian Nights, Sindbad the Seaman, has so much in common with Odysseus of Greek myth that the two may as well be the same character. From encounters with gigantic birds (Rukh birds in Arabian Nights but Roc birds in Greek myth) to the unending list of close scrapes they find themselves in, both characters are essentially the same wandering hero.

 

I'm only about halfway through this 1000+ page book, but a few stories have stood out already. My favourite so far is Arabian Nights's framing device wherein Shahrazad, doomed to die whenever he tires of her, entertains her bloodthirsty husband by telling him largely serial tales. So, no matter what the authorities might tell you, Shahrazad, the clever heroine who manipulates a tyrannical king, is a unique role model for anyone living under the yoke of patriarchy.

 

… And 1950s Horror Comics

I recently wrote a review of an anthology of 1950s horror comics for pop-culture news and reviews website Monkeys Fighting Robots. It discusses the roots of censorship within the American comic book industry. As I say in the article, although censors started off with what they thought were the best of intentions, they inevitably ended up shielding children from not only disturbing content but progressive ideas as well.

 

 

Beth: The Wind Done Gone

Can copyright be censorship? This is the question that came to my mind during our discussion of censorship as I recalled the  struggle of one book to override injunctions against its publication. The book? The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, a parody of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. In 2001, the book almost joined the category of banned literature. Suntrust Bank, on behalf of the Margaret Mitchell Trust, asked for an injunction against the book’s publication, which was granted and later appealed. That an unpublished book should be hauled in and out of court is in itself surprising: in the past, courts have waited until a book was actually in the readers’ hands before banning it.

 

 

The Wind Done Gone is what some call a parody and others a critique of the epic about the Civil War South. The book uses characters, settings, and situations from Gone With the Wind, but with a difference that defendants were calling fair use, and opponents were naming as plagiarism. Literary scholars like Toni Morrison argued that the book’s story is a critique and corrective to the degrading and racist depictions of African Americans in Gone With the Wind. Legal scholars argued about intellectual property versus freedom of expression, and plagiarism versus parody.

 

Lucky for us, the book was published in 2001 by Houghton Mifflin. The cover of the copy I have reads: “A provocative literary parody that explodes the mythology perpetrated by a Southern classic.” And “The Unauthorized Parody.”

 

Thanks to the Women’s Review of Books (2001) for these notes. For more about this provocative history, visit the books Wikipedia page