In 2013, Canadian short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1976, Munro’s novel The Lives of Girls and Women was removed from the Grade 13 reading list in an Ontario high school.
Munro’s beautiful coming-of-age novel is one of 30 highlighted in this year’s Freedom to Read week roster of banned books. Freedom to Read week is an annual awareness building exercise of events and displays observed across Canada in the last week of February.
The right for certain books to exist on one shelf or another is challenged all the time. It’s not just the moral authority of a more prudish era we’re talking about, and we’re not a repressive country by most standards.
And yet the list of recently challenged titles includes many books found right in your very own library.
These include picture books such as Two Dumb Ducks, juvenile fiction such as Brian Doyle’s Boy O’Boy, young adult fiction such as Meg Cabot’s Princess on the Brink, and adult titles such as Timothy Findley’s The Wars, which has been challenged almost continuously since it was first published in 1977. It remains one of my favourite Canadian novels.
Most of these books are challenged in schools by parent advisory groups, religious groups, school boards, teachers and principals who feel they have growing minds to shelter.
Literary classics such as Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye have all been challenged.
Sometimes vested interests decide what’s good or bad for inquiring minds. Maxine’s Tree (a picture book about a girl who tries to save an old growth tree from logging) was challenged in 1992 for its right to be in elementary school libraries by an official from a BC woodworker’s trade union who felt it promoted anti-logging sentiments.
Ancient history? In 2007 Nikki Tate’s Trouble on Tarragon Island was challenged for the same reason.
Barbara Smucker’s children’s book Underground to Canada, the story of the underground railroad, was lobbied for removal from schools from an African-Canadian group in Nova Scotia in 2002, along with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird because of the use of the word “nigger,” which of course is historically correct, however abhorrent.
Books are regularly challenged for pro-homosexuality (Asha’s Mums), anti-homosexuality (The Bible), sex (The Handmaid’s Tale), violence (A Clockwork Orange), offensive language (Of Mice and Men), witchcraft (Harry Potter), political viewpoint (Deborah Ellis’s award-winning Three Wishes: Palestinian and Jewish Children Speak) and age-appropriateness (just about everything).
For a full list go to www.freedomtoread.ca.
At the library, we believe that readers have the right to choose what they read. What children read is between child and parent. Reading is an opportunity for healthy discussion, especially when it comes to context (the use of “nigger” in To Kill a Mockingbird, or racial stereotyping in The Indian in the Cupboard), so children learn the ways in which society has changed, or should.
The guiding principal for collection development, as stated in our library policy, is this:
“The library believes in enabling all people to learn, read and share ideas in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and universal access to information.”
“The library recognizes the right of any individual or group to reject library material for personal use, but does not accord to any individual or group the right to restrict the freedom of others to make use of that same material.”
We can’t discuss ideas if we don’t have access to them. It’s by reading, asking questions, and sharing thoughts and opinions that we develop critical thinking, understanding, and compassion — and ultimately, grow as readers and as people.
— Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to www.nelsonlibrary.ca.