Freedom to Read Week – What Does Free Expression Really Mean?

Is propaganda alive? Are we free to read, speak and think what we want? Should there be checks and balances, safeguards against alternative facts and twisted ideas?

Here is an example of quashed freedoms from the back pages of history. In May 1933, in most university towns across Germany, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades and threw pillaged books – many by Jewish writers – into bonfires. In Berlin, some 40,000 people participated.  They were led by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, who addressed the crowd with a carefully crafted speech: “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency and morality in family and state….And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil.”

In that act and others by the Hitler’s Nazi, two arms of propaganda worked together.  One, the manipulation of facts and images. The other, the stifling of free speech. The first advanced Hitler’s twisted ideas; the second ensured that those ideas went unchallenged.

Most democratic countries have laws that protect freedom of expression. Most, too, have laws that prohibit the purposeful skewing of facts, particularly when these denigrate groups and encourage hatred. Admittedly, it can be a slippery slope keeping a balance between the two.

In Canada, February 26 – March 4 is Freedom to Read Week. It’s a time to reflect on the power of words and the freedom of expression that we cherish. The Freedom to Read website lists activities being held around the country in libraries, schools, and public spaces. Also on the website is a list of ‘challenged’ books – books that have been questioned for their content and ideas. Each challenge sought to limit public access. Some challenges were upheld, others rejected. In any case, the list reminds us of the delicate dance between censorship and free expression.

Many children’s books are on the list and I recognized a number of titles. I was often surprised by the objections raised by adult readers and sometimes entire interest groups. Material I might have unquestioningly supported was offensive to others.

Here is a small sample of children’s books that have been challenged in the past decade or two. To fully appreciate the depth and swath of the list as well as the decisions reached by the review committee, I would invite you to visit the website yourself.

Who is Francis Rain? by Margaret Buffie
Novel about a 15 year old girl’s summer on an isolated island with many secrets. Challenged by a school for the use of the words “hell” and “bastard”. 1990

A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird
Novel about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy living in an Israeli-occupied area. Challenged by a Canadian bookseller as “a racist, inflammatory, and a totally one-sided piece of propaganda.” 2003

The Waiting Dog by Carolyn Beck and Andrea Beck
Children’s book about a dog anxiously waiting for the mail to be delivered to his home. Challenged by an Ontario parent who objected to depictions of violence and said the work was not age inappropriate. 2006

No Place for Me by Barthe DeClements
Young adult novel about a young girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. Challenged by a parent who said the book promoted the Wicca religion. 1995

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Popular children’s book series. Objection from a Newfoundland parent for its depiction of wizardry and magic. 2000

Asha’s Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
A children’s story book that depicts same-sex parents. Challenged by school trustees for its questionable family values. 1997

Maxine’s Tree by Diane Leger
Children’s book which tells the story of a girl who tries to protect a tree in B.C.’s rainforest. Challenged by an official of the woodworker’s trade union in B.C. for its anti-logging viewpoint. 1992

Of Saints, Sinners and Reluctant Boy Readers 

For many boys, reading is a chore. Ask any teacher, librarian or parent of boys and you’ll like get the same viewpoint – boys, more than girls, tend to be reluctant readers. Why? Better yet, what can we do to turn the tables around?

Let me offer myself as a case study. I don’t recall my parents or my siblings reading to me. We didn’t have many books in the house when I was growing up either. The books we did have were mostly practical ones – a set of encyclopedias, a dictionary or two, the occasional information manual, and an assortment of religious titles. Yet despite the lack of books and home-grown reading experiences, I became an avid reader.

Some of the credit goes one of the few books in our home, a thick, imposing volume called Lives of Saints. It contained dozens of short biographies about saints from every period of history – early Christianity to the present. From the age of 10 on, I spent hours reading and re-reading the book.

There were a number of reasons why the book became my favourite. The entries were just a few pages each, short enough to read in 10 -15 minutes. Although there were chapter headings, the stories could be read in any order. For a kid like me, this was a definite plus. No need to bookmark places or waste time catching up on the plot. Just dive in anywhere.

St. Sebastian by Giovanni Bazzi c. 1576

But the main reason I liked the book had more to do with the content than with the format. These were stories about heroes, people marked outstanding for their faithful deeds. While I enjoyed reading about saints with gentle natures like St. Francis of Assisi, it was the stories about martyrs from the early days of Christianity that I favoured. I cringed when I read about St. Sebastian who died gloriously in 286 A.D, his body riddled by a dozen arrows during a target practice ordered by Emperor Diocletian. I read faster when I encountered the story about St. Stephen – stoned in 36 A.D. – and re-read several times the entry about St. Perpetua – ultimately executed by a gladiator in 203 A.D. after being trampled and gored.

Looking back on my bloody fascination, I can see why I so loved those stories. I wasn’t a sadist in the making. I was just a typical boy, exhibiting the hallmarks typical of many boy-readers.

Action forward, life lived large …

For boys, action – not drama – moves the story forward. Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where over-sized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds. Even though my martyred saints died horrible deaths, they stood by their principles. They might have been footnote figures in history, but they lived life on the edge.

Feelings via action…

Perhaps it was a consequence of the dry tone of the writing, but in almost every story, feelings and emotion took a back seat to action. Saints stoically faced death. They didn’t flinch or wimp out. Research shows that boys are turned off by explicit expressions of emotion. They have an easier time accepting feelings if they are a result of action unfolding on the page.

Repeat, repeat…

That I gobbled up the book and revisited it many times demonstrates another typical boy-reader feature. Once hooked on a type of story, genre, or series, boys are likely to read more of the same rather than pick up something different. They’ll go full out on a theme, particular author, or style of writing, and perhaps even binge read before switching to something else.

MadalinIonut / Pixabay

In this day of video games and cell phone distractions, getting boys to read anything can be a challenge. If there is anything to glean from my early reading experience, perhaps it is this. To cultivate boy readers, let them satisfy their thirst for action and adventure. Allow them to wallow in lives lived large and extreme. Let them tackle quick reads before moving on to heavier, denser material. Let them binge on comic books or manga or books about dinosaurs and superheroes, or even martyred saints and the sinners who did them in, if that’s what it takes.

Allow boys choices and give them time. When it comes to reading, one size does not fit all.


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