Freedom of expression is recognized by the United Nations as a basic right afforded to all human beings. It encompasses not only our right to express opinions without interference, but also to seek and receive information unimpeded. While many countries protect this right legally, we were reminded all too tragically in recent weeks that it is a right which still needs staunch defenders to stand up for it.
One of the more commonly seen threats to freedom of expression is the attempt to ban books. While this may seem relatively innocuous, it puts society in great danger of limiting itself to narrow viewpoints, a loss of knowledge and understanding about the world and its people. Even in Canada, books and other materials are regularly challenged by individuals who want to impose their particular tastes on everyone else – fortunately, these cases are typically handled by boards of people who weigh multiple opinions regarding the nature of the offence against the value of the material, and come to a (hopefully) well-reasoned decision as to whether or not the piece belongs in a school, library, or bookstore.
Freedom to Read Week is an annual opportunity for Canadians to stand up for the right to freedom of expression. In order to both celebrate and express our freedom to read, Winnipeg Public Library is hosting two marathons, in which participants read aloud for ten minutes from a banned or challenged book. Call 204-986-6779 to sign up at Millennium Library (251 Donald) on February 21, or 204-986-4742 for Westwood (66 Allard) on February 27.
Books Are a Bad Influence
Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying by Derek Humphry
Objection: (2005) A Lethbridge Public Library patron complained that the book promoted suicide.
Result: The request to have the book removed from the shelves was considered by the library board; they decided to keep the book in the collection.
Street Art: The Spray Files by Louis Bou
Objection: (2006) A Surrey Public Library patron was concerned that the book would inspire a reader to commit vandalism.
Result: The chief librarian discussed the issue with the patron, and the decision was made to transfer the book to another branch, because the concern was localized to a specific neighbourhood.
This exact book is not part of WPL’s collection, but a quick subject search for “Street Art” will give you 26 titles at 17 of the 19 branches.
Challenging the Classics
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ; In the Heat of the Night by John Ball ; Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker ; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Objection: All of these books have been challenged multiple times over the years in various locations for insensitive portrayal of African-Americans and use of racial slurs.
Result: In some cases, the challenge was upheld and the books were removed from the school curriculum or library shelves; in other cases, the books were kept on the basis of literary merit and their ability to teach about the issue of racism.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Objection: (2008) A parent of a Grade 12 English student in Toronto objected to the novel’s inclusion in the curriculum due to “profane language, anti-Christian overtones, violence, and sexual degradation”, and the fact that it “probably violated the district school policies that require students to show respect and tolerance to one another”.
Result: A Toronto District School Board review panel recommended in 2009 that the book remain in the Grade 11 and 12 curricula.
Think of the Children!
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Objection: (2006) This Newberry winner was used by the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) until a parent challenged the book, objecting to its use of the words “pervert,” “lordy”, and “see-through blouse”.
Result: The complaint was passed on to the OCSB’s teacher resource centre; the librarians at the centre suggested the school offer the parent’s child a different book to read. No banning occurred.
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Objection: (2006) This picture book about two male penguins in a zoo raising a baby penguin together was included in a library in the Calgary Catholic School District. A parent complained that the topic of homosexual parenting went against his religious beliefs.
Result: After asking the central office of the Religious Education Department to review the book, the library removed it from its shelves.
Outrageously Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Objection: (2000) A Toronto Public Library patron complained that this book about a 13-year-old girl going through puberty and learning about sex was age inappropriate, and should either be restricted to “mature” readers or removed from the library entirely.
Update: The library decided to keep the book in its original spot in the children’s section.
The “Alice” series has for years been one of the American Library Association’s most challenged books, taking the top spot in 2003.