Freedom to Read

Today’s post is dedicated to Freedom to Read week—an annual week-long event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, organized by the Book and Periodical Council.

Freedom to Read week was founded in 1984, to challenge the covert nature of censorship, and allow Canadians to actively defend their right to publish, read, and write freely. Now a regular feature of annual programming in schools, libraries, and literary groups across the country, the campaign has many ways to participate and assist the cause, from spreading the word (feel free to share blogs like this one!), to attending virtual events, donating funds, creating displays featuring challenged books, and purchasing the annual art poster (this year designed by Jane Mount and is the cover image of this post).

Books challenged in recent years include:

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (Groundwood Books, 2014), which after receiving a parent’s complaint, was removed by school officials from a library in Minnesota. The book, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award for illustration in children’s literature in 2014, tells the story of two girls beginning adolescence. The school superintendent, librarian, and principal thought that the topics in the book were “inappropriate for inclusion in the library” and that the language was “inappropriate.”

Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community by Robin Stevenson (Orca Book Publishers, 2016), was challenged the same year as its release. Stevenson visited schools and libraries in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec to talk about her book centering sexual minorities. On one occasion, no students appeared at an event in a public library because a school principal had, on short notice, withdrawn permission for the teacher to take her classes. The principal was worried about parental objections. In 2019, while promoting a newer book—Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change—in the United States, Stevenson learned that an elementary school in suburban Illinois had cancelled her visit because a parent had complained about the mention of a gay person, Harvey Milk, in the book.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1996), was challenged in 2007, when Ontario’s Halton Catholic District School Board voted to ban Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of fantasy novels—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—from its schools. The board objected to “atheist” themes in the British author’s books.

A recent article in The New York Times, which chronicles the attempts in the US to ban books, states that “parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an ‘unprecedented’ 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books, last fall.”

The author Laurie Halse Anderson, whose young adult books have frequently been challenged, said that pulling titles that deal with difficult subjects can make it harder for students to discuss issues like racism and sexual assault: “By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation…. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.”

Supporting the activities of organizations that are on these frontlines defending our freedom to read are crucial to our future, especially as political divisions and tensions rise. Defending our intellectual freedom is our privilege and responsibility.

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