Preserving the freedom to read
By Joan Richoz
Each year, Canada's Book and Periodical Council sponsors Freedom to Read Week (Feb. 22-28) to highlight concerns about book challenges and bannings by Canada Customs, by school and library boards, and by people who think they can decide what Canadians should not read.
It is also is intended to focus public attention on the vital issue of intellectual freedom. As long as humans have enjoyed the freedom to express themselves, some have wished to restrict that freedom. As some of us thrive on voicing our thoughts and feelings and experiences, others fear the consequences of those thoughts. It is not surprising that Freedom to Read Week has become an annual event in Canada, because the right to free expression remains as sensitive and vital an issue as ever.
In 2003 there were many challenges to our intellectual freedom. Our provincial governments continued to decrease their funding to school libraries despite overwhelming evidence that shows that the health of school libraries has a direct effect on student performance. In Whistler, the secondary school was without a teacher-librarian for the first few months in the fall due to a budget shortfall. Concerned parents pressured the administration and school board and the school library is now open a limited number of hours per week.
On the other hand we are fortunate that our National Librarian, Roch Carrier, (author of the well-known childrens book, The Hockey Sweater ) and the Canadian Coalition for School Libraries are taking a proactive role by campaigning to restore school library funding in every part of Canada.
Check out the report by Dr. Ken Haycock that warned of the effects of major funding cuts on school libraries in Canada at www.peopleforeducation.com/librarycoaltion/Report03.pdf
Our freedom of expression was sharply curtailed by CanWest Global Communications who demanded that all its newspapers including the National Post carry identical editorials written by the corporation's head office in Winnipeg. The move prompted journalists to condemn the reduced diversity of opinion in local newspapers.
In 2001 unprecedented interference in library policy arose when the city councillors of Hull, Quebec, ordered the municipal library to withdraw 180 adult comic books from its public shelves. In doing so, city politicians violated the usual arm's-length relationship between themselves and public libraries. In 2002, the order was withdrawn after widespread public condemnation.
Despite these attempts to limit our access to books, we must applaud people like James Chamberlain and his colleagues for their successful campaign to get B.C.'s Surrey School Board to accept the use of picture books depicting same-sex families in the district's primary classrooms. In December 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the school board was wrong to keep the books out of classrooms on religious grounds because the ban went against the provincial government's policy of encouraging tolerance and diversity in public schools. At the B.C. Library Conference in 2003, James Chamberlain received the Award for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada, presented by the Canadian Library Association, for his outstanding contribution to intellectual freedom and demonstrating leadership and courage in resisting censorship and opposing violations of intellectual freedom in Canada.
And finally, did you know that we are not immune to intellectual freedom challenges here in Whistler? In 1987 a patron challenged the book Headhunter by Michael Slade at the Whistler Public Library, on the grounds that it did not promote "good Christian values," and that it was "offensive and gruesome". In 1998, the book James Dobsons War on America by Gil Alexander-Moergerle was challenged on the grounds that it was "a pack of lies". In 2000 the childrens book The bear and the fly by Paula Winter was challenged on the grounds of "depictions of violence". The board and the library director take such complaints very seriously. The above books were considered, read, and the final decision was to keep them on the shelves.
The Whistler Public Library will mark Freedom to Read Week with information and a display of books that have been challenged in libraries and bookstores across the country and in the United States.
Did you know that the following books were the most frequently challenged in 2002?
1. Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling, for its focus on wizardry and magic.
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, for being sexually explicit, using offensive language and being unsuited to age group.
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (the "Most Challenged" book of 1998), for using offensive language and being unsuited to age group.
4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, for sexual content, racism, offensive language, violence and being unsuited to age group.
5. Taming the Star Runner, by S.E. Hinton, for offensive language.
6. Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey, for insensitivity and being unsuited to age group, as well as encouraging children to disobey authority.
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, for racism, insensitivity and offensive language.
8. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, for offensive language, sexual content and Occult/Satanism.
9. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, for insensitivity, racism and offensive language.
10. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George, for sexual content, offensive language, violence and being unsuited to age group.
Check out this Web site for more information: www.freedomtoread.ca