The 33rd national Banned Books Week kicked off this Sunday in the US. Though Canada has our own Freedom to Read Week in February, we love standing up to censorship so much that we wanted to celebrate it twice!
Why are books banned?
Challenges to reading material often start off with the best of intentions. Generally, concerned parents want to protect their children from material they consider inappropriate. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the top two reasons books are challenged are because the material is deemed "sexually explicit" or uses offensive language. While these are honourable pursuits, they can cross the line to censorship when people take the right to choose for themselves and extend it into a right to choose for everyone. This happens when books are challenged in libraries and classrooms. To attempt to remove a book from public access, use in a classroom, or circulation in a library violates everyone's freedom to choose for themselves what content is appropriate and often silences writers and authors, which violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Canada's Book and Periodical Council has taken a firm stance on censorship:
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of all Canadians, and freedom to read is part of that precious heritage. Our Committee, representing member organizations and associations of the Book and Periodical Council, reaffirms its support of this vital principle and opposes all efforts to suppress writing and silence writers. Words and images in their myriad configurations are the substance of free expression.
The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others. We accept that courts alone have the authority to restrict reading material, a prerogative that cannot be delegated or appropriated. Prior restraint demeans individual responsibility; it is anathema to freedom and democracy.
Why read banned books?
We are lucky to live in a country where books are rarely banned, though that doesn't stop books from being challenged for a myriad of reasons. By supporting Banned Books Week, and Freedom to Read Week in February, we are supporting our Canadian right to intellectual freedom, speaking out about the kinds of materials we want available to us, and supporting the voices of our Canadian authors and poets.
In 2011, Lawrence Hill wrote a very on-point response in the Toronto Star to a group of protesters threatening to burn his award-winning novel The Book of Negros:
Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Nazis burned books.
As Lawrence mentioned, banned books are a gateway to important dialogues, debates, and idea-sharing. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is a famously challenged title, but its content opened channels of communication for generations of teens on the difficult topics of LGBT issues, mental illness, sexual assault, and coming of age issues. It's a book that has been reported to have saved lives, yet it is still one of the most frequently challenged titles.
Similarly, When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid, a book that won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature and was runner-up in Canada Reads 2015, incited major controversy when there were calls to strip Raziel of his GG award, largely through a petition with over 1,500 signatures and a scathing op-ed in the National Post. While this controversial book is at times explicit, it's also a doorway to conversations about bullying, gender identity, and sexuality. Barbara Kay's article in the National Post perfectly illustrates the kind of ignorance books like When Everything Feels like the Movies are up against. In a response to Barbara's article in The Walrus, Raziel said:
I’m glad Barbara Kay criticized my book, When Everything Feels Like the Movies. Her recent op-ed for the National Post, “Wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel,” reinforced why I wrote it in the first place, to educate people and open their eyes to a world and a character they may have not understood before. Kay now knows that there is a difference between a transgender person and a flamboyant gay boy. Or so I would hope. Last week, I noticed someone tweeted at her that she had mislabeled my fabulous narrator Jude as transgender. (He’s not. The book is about his coming of age as a gay teen.) Instead of retracting the error, which has since been picked up by other media outlets, she responded by tweeting, “Jude is certainly trans-something (most boys don’t wear lipstick) . . .”
How anyone can celebrate Banned Books Week:
1. Read banned (or challenged) books.
I know, seems simple right? Pick up a banned book and start purusing. Even better, recommend your favourite challenged titles to your friends and family and start a banned book club or host a read-a-thon. If you need help getting started, Bustle has a great list of the 25 most banned books in the past 15 years, or you can check out this list of challenged works prepared by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council.
If you are a retailer or library, make challenged books easy to find, and use this week to raise awareness and educate your patrons. Creating a stunning display, roping off a section of your store or stacks, and displaying hand-written recommendations are just some of the creative ideas offered by the ALA to create buzz around banned books.
2. Take to social media.
Put your strong selfie game to work using #bannedbooksweek to show the world what you are reading and why. Social media is also a great way to speak up about books that might be challenged in your area, to raise awareness about that awesome read-a-thon you're planning, or to just have great discussions with other fellow rebel readers about your favourite banned or challenged works.
Social media is a powerful tool for the industry as well. Publishers, libraries, and retailers can engage in all sorts of activities this week, like sharing round-ups of your favourite challenged titles or creating reading challenges. Most importantly, use Banned Books Week as a platform from which to inform and educate: start a conversation about what makes banned books controversial, educate the uninformed, and spread awareness about censorship in Canada.
3. Learn more about censorship in Canada.
Sometimes your local library or favourite indie bookseller has to work a lot harder than we might think to stock our favourite reading material. Books and publications are frequently denied entry at the border and challenges to books can get your favourite works removed from circulation at libraries or taken out of classrooms. Legislation is even at work to limit free speech on the internet. You can learn more with this great list of resources from freedomtoread.ca. You don't have to stop at our borders, either; around the globe, writers, poets, and publishers are persecuted and imprisoned for acting on their right to freedom of expression. There's more information about writer's rights around the globe at PEN International.