Freedom to Read Week: Fighting Censorship for 35 Years
Whether the instigating factor in a book-banning campaign is religion, sexual expression, “anti-establishment attitudes,” or some other vague concern, books may as well be picked at random for all of the consistency with which campaigns to ban them are approached.
Freedom to Read Week (February 24 to March 2, 2019) continues its 35-year fight against book-banning campaigns by reminding the book-buying public that the censors are still at work, even in Canada. This year the Freedom to Read Week website offers visitors their “30 Challenged Publications” poster.
The poster features 30 publications recently targeted by Canadian censors, including a novel written by a Nobel Prize winner, a novel by a Pulitzer Prize winner, and novels by at least three Governor General’s Award winners. Censored or not, then, inclusion on this list guarantees, at the very least, good literary company, so let’s take a closer look at a few publications that stand out.
“Accio common sense!”
Over the years, there have been several attempts from concerned religious groups to ban the Harry Potter book series from public libraries. Arguing that depictions of magic and wizardry demean Christian values, unimaginative people the world over have lobbied for Harry’s immediate expulsion from a variety of schools and public libraries.
Canadians tend to think that religious fervour over children’s literature is only a concern south of our border, but in 2000 a parent from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, complained about the presence of the Harry Potter series on the shelves in a local elementary school’s library. Although many arguments of this nature have come to nothing, the principal of this particular elementary school was surprisingly receptive to the parent’s concerns, and all Harry Potter-related literature was removed from the school’s shelves.
To add a twist ending to this tale of misguided censorship, neither the parent nor the principal of the school had read even one book in the series, which tend to focus on the importance of friendship, family, and overall moral uprightness.
Atwood the Profane
Of course, religious censorship isn’t only J.K. Rowling’s problem. Canada’s own literary juggernaut Margaret Atwood had a brush with the Toronto District School Board in 2008 when a parent complained about The Handmaid’s Tale’s inclusion on the 11th and 12th grade reading lists. The parent complained about the novel’s “profane language” and use of “sexual degradation.”
Apparently missing the key metaphor of The Handmaid’s Tale entirely, that girls and women are born into an oppressive and repressive system that seeks to objectify and own female bodies, by using religious reasons as an excuse to censor something that upset him or her, this parent only served to prove the point in Atwood’s famous novel.
In this instance at least, rationality won the day: after review, a panel decided to keep The Handmaid’s Tale on both the 11th and 12th grade reading lists.
Making books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn available to the public, especially to children, allows readers to take a look back, not only at the imaginative adventures that Twain created for his readers but also at the world that Twain was a part of. Looking back doesn’t endorse or celebrate the past; instead, looking back allows for critical reflection.
Given his controversial and, frankly, ignorant portrayal of African-American characters, it probably comes as no surprise that Twain’s writing is often the target of book-banning campaigns, but similar Canadian campaigns have also sought to ban Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada.
That depictions of racial minorities, especially African Americans, is appalling in many works of classic anglophone literature is unfortunately a certainty. Where I disagree with concerned citizens who seek to ban books that feature these depictions, though, is that, for my part, iconic generalizations are iconic nonetheless. We learn more by confronting troublesome generalizations than we do by ignoring them.
By keeping in mind where liberally minded writers such as Twain, Lee, Smucker, and Ball went wrong in their depictions of cultures unlike their own, the writers of tomorrow can ensure that they go right in theirs.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Mount Hope, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.