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Books scare people. That might seem like an outlandish statement, but it’s true. Not the physical item per se, but the content that’s in them. Throughout history, books have been a popular target of censors. Whether it be because of, sexual situations, racial or religious issues, violence or political viewpoint, People have tried and continue to try to remove books from school and library shelves. Luckily, few books actually get banned in Canada, but many still get challenged.

 

When I was in high school, I was extremely lucky to never have encountered any kind of censorship (that I knew of). I had the privilege of taking many genre courses with really interesting reading lists that included frequently challenged titles such as A Clockwork Orange and The Color Purple. We were also never challenged on what personal reading material we brought to school or choose for independent study with the exception of evaluating its suitability for the project.

 

The other day I read a fantastic YA novel titled Suggested Reading which is a story about standing up to censorship and fighting against banned books. The protagonist learns that the school has banned a list of 50 YA novels such as Speak, Catcher in the Rye, and Perks of Being a Wallflower, and decides to start an “underground library” in her school of these banned books. The book reminds us of the power of words to transform, educate, and challenge us in ways that we often can’t predict.

 

We are very fortunate in Canada that intellectual freedom is guaranteed to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedom. Intellectual freedom is our right to seek out information from all points of view without restriction, and free access to ideas.

 

Libraries are a key part of how we exercise this right. A library provides ideas and information to the public in a variety of formats with the goal of allowing people to educate themselves about these different ideas regardless of how the librarian or individual feels about it. I learned very early on in my role as a selector to keep my feelings out of it. I can like or dislike a book or author for my own reasons, but I have no right to withhold a book on that basis.

 

In Canada, Freedom to Read Week is celebrated annually in the last week of February as an affirmation of our right to intellectual freedom, and several events are held in libraries across the country throughout the week. In honour of this event, I thought I’d highlight a few common titles by Canadian authors that have been banned or are frequently challenged in Canada, many of which I read in school, and some of which might surprise you.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

 

I first read this iconic novel in University and was both feared it and loved it. I feared it because I was just starting to understand the debate on women’s rights and what we label “right wing” politics. I loved it for its brilliance and for making me think. Not surprisingly, it’s on the ALA’s top 100 banned books of the decade for the 90s and 2000s. At its core, dystopian fiction is a warning about where the author fears we’re headed but it’s also about freedom.  The freedom to think, say, believe and live what and how we want. These books aren’t meant to be comfortable, and perhaps that’s why they are so frequently challenged. Handmaid’s Tale (and recently the graphic novel) has been challenged for violence, offensive language, and sexual content, and it definitely falls into the “because it scares people” category.

 

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

 

This classic Canadian novel put Mordecai Richler on the map, but in 1990, a group of parents in Essex County wanted the book removed from high school reading lists due to sexual innuendo, vulgarity, and sexual expression. Notable Canadian authors defended the book, but the board advised teachers and principals to avoid using potentially controversial novels in class.

 

The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Monroe

 

When Alice Monroe published this coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s passage into adulthood and sexual experience in 1971, she made waves. The book met a highly publicized challenge in Peterborough, Ontario when the school board banned the book due to “explicit language and sex scenes”.  Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye were also included on that list for similar reasons. According to CBC, this censorship attempt was the catalyst for the creation of Freedom to Read Week.

 

The Diviners, Jest of God, and Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

 

At the same time that Alice Munroe was facing challenges for Lives and Girls and Women, Margaret Laurence was also facing challenges and subsequent bans in numerous schools due to what Christian Fundamentalists deemed “blasphemous" and "obscene”.  The Diviners is widely considered to be the author’s masterpiece and to be one of the greatest Canadian novels ever written, but it has continued to face challenges over the years. Laurence, who was already dealing with depression and alcoholism was deeply disturbed by the public attacks on her books, but she didn’t speak out until she was faced with a new round of censorship in the 80s.

 

The Wars by Timothy Findley 

 

Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel The Wars was one of those life-changing books for me when I was in high school. I did my O.A.C. author study on Findley, and I think that his portrait of a 19-year-old Canadian officer fighting in WWI was one of the first books that really made me understand the horrors of war. It’s undeniably a difficult book to read, and Findley presented the war in all of its brutality. In 2011, a group of parents in Bluewater District School Board in Owen Sound, Ontario fought to have the book removed from school shelves, complaining about the violence and sexual descriptions. The novel also faced pre-publication censorship with attempts by the publisher to remove a homosexual rape scene. Findley was also vocally opposed to censorship, and defended other authors like Laurence whose works were challenged.

 

As long as there are books, there will always be somebody who steps up to object to them and attempt to impose to limit our access to potentially valuable and powerful material, and the best way to combat that is to resist by reading and discussing those books.  As Alice Munro said, “I think that as soon as one step is taken you have to start resisting because that makes the next step easier.” For more information on Freedom to Read Week and details on events across the country or how to get involved, visit their website.

 

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Happy Reading!

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