COLUMN: Beware the middle class bunnies

Freedom to Read Week at the Library

Some years ago the London County Council in England banned Beatrix Potter’s children’s classics The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from London schools. Why? Because the stories portrayed only “middle-class rabbits.”

I love this little tale, pulled from Freedom to Read Canada’s website under “Bannings and Burnings in History”, for its sheer ridiculousness. Freedom to Read aims to be an antidote to a history intellectual prohibition.

There will be plenty of food for unfettered thought at this year’s Freedom to Read event at the Library on Thursday, March 1 at 7pm. Police Chief Paul Burkhart, children’s author Cyndi Sand-Eveland, father-son reading duo Greg and Jake Maslak, filmmaker Amy Bohigian, poet Jane Byers, educator and actor Geoff Burns, and Chief Librarian Tracey Therrien take the stage to read from books that have been challenged for the right to be in schools and libraries.

It’s not all about bourgeois bunnies; book banning goes way back. Roman emperor Caligula found The Odyssey by Homer much too dangerous for his people to read, expressing, as it does, Greek ideas of freedom. History proves that those in power tend to wield a heavy hand against literature they don’t like: Queen Elizabeth I took exception to Shakespeare’s Richard II in 1597; later, King Lear was banned for 40 years. The Nazis under Adolf Hitler burned books by Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Recently, U.S. president Donald Trump did his level best to stop the publication of Michael Wolfe’s exposé Fire and Fury.

In Canada, most challenges come from parents and parent groups targeting books for kids and teens. It’s not always as ridiculous as the societal leanings of a few carrot-stealing lagomorphs; some subjects can make a sensitive child—or parent—squirm. But challenge can also be opportunity.

Author Dav Pilkey, whose Captain Underpants series for kids is among the most challenged in America, suggests a tweak to the narrative. In a delightful YouTube video about freedom to read, he advocates for parental involvement in their kids’ reading. Instead of “I don’t want children to read this book” he suggests using “my children”. The same goes for “That book does not belong in a library”; the insertion of “my” in place of “a” acknowledges everyone’s right to choose freely. We don’t all alike the same things, nor should we, he says. But we should all get to choose.

Margaret Atwood’s often-challenged book The Handmaid’s Tale is a great point of departure for classroom discussion at the high school level about sexual degradation and other themes—the very thing a recent objection was about. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories, which includes the short story—later a movie—“Brokeback Mountain”, was challenged scenes of homosexuality (the library retained the book) and Timothy Finley’s modern classic The Wars is likewise challenged (also kept in the high school curriculum). If we don’t discuss these things, how will we understand them?

It’s true that some books don’t hold up to today’s societal attitudes. The 1932 graphic novel Tintin in America is certainly guilty of racial stereotyping of First Nations people. Older works by Dr. Seuss fall into that category, as does the picture book Little Black Sambo, later reworked into a new iteration called Little Babaji. These sorts of books will quietly go out of print as we embrace more inclusive attitudes. So what do you do if you find one of these on the Library shelves?

Pilkey suggests that instead of “I should complain about that book,” try: “I should discuss that book with my family,” reminding us—as Freedom to Read Week in Canada champions— that the freedom to choose what we read or think about is a hard-won right, and that anything else is a slippery slope indeed.

Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week.

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