CHECK THIS OUT: The perennial threat of books

Anne DeGrace writes about the history of books being challenged by censors

By Anne DeGrace

Freedom to Read Week may sound celebratory, but it comes with some pretty dark undertones. The week, which runs Feb. 24 to March 2, is a project of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council aimed at raising awareness for a worldwide concern.

We don’t often think of books as victims, but they have been since at least 259 BC, when Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti buried alive 460 Confucian scholars, then burned all the books in the kingdom. With all historical records destroyed, he figured history could begin with him.

A little egotistical? Challenges for the right of a book to be read happen because somebody decides that they know what’s best for everyone else. These range from the seriously evil — such as when Nazi officials burned thousands of books they considered a threat to their philosophy — to the simply ridiculous, such as when a Toronto father’s rights advocate objected to Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop in libraries, because it “encouraged children to use violence against their fathers.” Ouch.

Bannings have occurred world-wide: in the 1950s the Irish government targeted Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, among others, for immorality. In the 1970s a U.S. court tried to suppress a book critical of the CIA, and managed to censor much of it. Britain banned outright an MI5 agent’s autobiography for its whistle-blowing content in the 1980s; and in 1998 the Kenyan government banned 30 books for “sedition and immorality,” including Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

In Canada, most challenges happen in schools and libraries beginning with a parent or parent group that feels the need to protect young minds. You might want to dismiss this overzealousness, but at its root is likely care and concern. Parents with these worries might consider pre-reading their children’s choices, and whenever possible use the presence of controversial material — such as the N-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example — as a conversation-starter.

Yesterday, CBC Books released a list of 12 Canadian books that have been challenged.

Margaret Atwood’s eerily prescient 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly disturbing, but it offers fascinating societal insights. In 2008, the novel was challenged for its presence in a Grade 12 curriculum due to violence and anti-Christian overtones, among other objections. I would posit that a classroom is exactly the best place for meaningful discussion and analysis.

Others in the list include the unforgettable graphic novels This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Essex County by Jeff Lemire; who knew comics could hold such a threat? You can find them in our YA and adult collections, respectively.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid was challenged for graphic content, and indeed, many might find this Young Adult novel difficult. For others, it may speak an important truth. As readers, we look for things that reflect our own experiences and emotions.

Just as societal mores have changed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Reid’s book, which won the 2014 Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature, is a fair bit edgier than Alice Munro’s 1971 story collection The Lives of Girls and Women, which has been repeatedly challenged. Munro, of course, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

You can read more of this list at cbc.ca/books and about Freedom to Read at freedomtoread.ca. For our March recording of the library’s Kootenay Co-op Radio show Check This Out, I spoke with author Jane Byers about why And Tango Makes Three — a picture book about same-sex penguins raising a chick in a New York Zoo — was so important to her family. The show runs every other Monday at 8:30 a.m. or you can catch the podcast at nelsonlibrary.ca.

And you can come to the library, check out any book, and think: thanks heavens I have the freedom to read. Because, sadly, not everyone does.

Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more info on library programs go to nelsonlibrary.ca.

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