The Fort St. John Public Library will be celebrating Freedom to Read Week February 24 to March 2.
During the annual event, libraries across Canada celebrate their commitment to intellectual freedom, access to information and protection of privacy by mounting book displays, doing banned book readings and providing education. FSJPL displays will feature banned and challenged books during Freedom to Read Week, which is organized by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council.
“Books are still banned in this day and age?” It’s a question I hear a lot when I talk about Freedom to Read Week. Outright banning is rare in Canada, but still happens around the world. More common in Canada and the U.S. are challenges that seek to limit access to books, magazines or DVDs in libraries, schools, and bookstores.
Challenges originate from parents, library patrons, customs agents, corporations, library staff, educators, and elected officials. Some seek to limit children’s or teens’ reading by having a book moved to adult shelving areas, while others ask for removal of an item from a library or from school curriculums. Some go as far as to ask for an item’s complete removal from all public libraries.
Some of the most common reasons people challenge books include religious or political viewpoints, LGBTQ+ content, obscenity or offensive language, occult or witchcraft, nudity or sexual content, race relations, and age-appropriateness.
Challenges may be justified when a publication is inaccurate or outdated, contains significant spelling or grammatical errors, is plagiarized, or is a health hazard — for example, medical information written by unqualified authors.
Defending the freedom to read doesn’t mean agreeing with the content of challenged books. It just means supporting others’ right to choose what they read and to make up their own minds.
Some books topping recent banned and challenged book lists include:
• Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Since its publication more than 20 years ago, the Harry Potter series has faced many attempts at censorship. Most of the challenges have come from a religious standpoint and assert that the books glorify magic and the occult, and that they encourage children to take up witchcraft. A New Mexico church group even burned the book in 2001.
• Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Last month, librarians in Ontario Catholic schools were ordered to remove this popular teen graphic novel after parents complained that it contains LGBTQ content. The comic about middle school life and love contains a side-story where two boys kiss. After outcry from the public and elementary students, the school board reversed their ban. Since its 2012 publication, the book has been one of the most banned and challenged books in the US.
• The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
FSJPL’s most-borrowed book of 2017 and 2018 has also been one of the most banned and challenged books of the last two decades. The dystopian novel about a near-future theocratic dictatorship is required reading in many high schools for its themes of freedom of expression and choice and the subjugation of women. It has faced many challenges for reasons including “profane language,” “anti-Christian overtones,” “tear[ing] down traditional values,” and depicting sex and violence. In the vast majority of cases, school boards and libraries have resisted attempts at censorship of the award-winning novel.
• A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss
Last year, FSJPL faced criticism from a patron for including this bestselling parody in the children’s picture book section. Instead of the item being challenged, however, a conversation with the patron was opened up. The book by John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight team takes aim at Mike Pence’s views on LGBTQ rights, and follows Marlon, the Bunny of the United States (BOTUS) as he falls in love with another male bunny. The book, along with several others with LGBTQ content, has been challenged in US elementary schools and denounced by right-wing media.
• To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This Pulitzer prize-winning classic still makes Top 10 most-challenged lists in the U.S. and Canada for its depiction of violence and use of the N-word.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Freedom to Read Week. The 21st Century has brought new issues in access to information, such as net neutrality, the digital divide, SLAAP lawsuits, challenges of laws protecting journalists’ right not to reveal sources, and the endangered state of Indigenous languages.
For more on Freedom to Read Week, visit www.freedomtoread.ca.
Amy von Stackelberg is a Circulation Services coordinator at Fort St. John Public Library. One of her favorite challenged books is The Book of Negroes, which was challenged for “offensive language.”